Following four hours of public comment, District 6 Councilwoman Donna Frye proposed a motion that would ask Mayor Jerry Sanders to declare a coastal emergency in order to reinstall the rope barrier that was removed from the area May 15 at the designated end of seal-pupping season, in accordance with a previous policy.
Frye’s motion also included a request for a permanent permit to keep the rope barrier in place year-round and ban people from the beach during seal-pupping season from Dec. 15 to May 15.
The motion passed in a 6-2 vote, with District 1 Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who represents La Jolla, and District 4 Councilman Tony Young dissenting.
Lightner said she continues to support a joint-use policy, which she said is best achieved by hiring a park ranger to supervise the area and monitor city-sanctioned volunteers. She said this option requires no taxpayer dollars since funding has been secured from an anonymous donor. In addition, she said, it does not require a permit or proof of emergency and does not open the door for future litigation.
“My community cherishes access to this beach,” Lightner said. “I have received no requests from the community or city staff to change the current joint-use policy, and there is no emergency at the Children’s Pool that would qualify for a permit to keep the barrier up year-round.”
Lightner said that requests for such a permit would “most likely be unsuccessful” and “invite new, prolonged litigation” against the city.
Lightner then proposed a motion, which passed unanimously, and which included the ranger program, a permanent dog ban on the beach, and requiring city staff to report to the council whether the current dates set for seal-pupping season should be altered.
Tensions ran high in anticipation of the meeting, with news vans stationed for several hours prior to the scheduled 6 p.m. start time and protesters gathered outside, requesting signatures and carrying picket signs. Inside, more than 100 of the estimated 500 attendees were scheduled to speak during the public comment section, which included emotional testimony from each side and did not conclude until nearly 10 p.m. Councilmembers then voted and adjourned the meeting by 10:30 p.m.
Those divided on the dispute have typically fallen into two camps: animal lovers who want the beach preserved for the seals, and local residents who want the beach preserved for public use. Attempts have been made to create resolutions that satisfy both groups, but until the May 17 meeting, no clear plan existed for the pool’s future.
The Children’s Pool was initially established in 1931 near the offshore Seal Rock Point at the direction of La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who donated funds to construct a sea wall to create a safe harbor where small children could swim, play and experience marine life.
In the late 1990s, seals began congregating in the area to form a rookery, or breeding ground, and became an international tourist attraction. High bacteria levels in the water at that time were often attributed to the seal’s excrement and led some to believe the area was unsafe for human use. The California Coastal Commission recommended the establishment of a five-year marine mammal preserve at Seal Rock in 2001, and entities like SeaWorld and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) began releasing rehabilitated seals near the location, contributing to what some call an artificial seal colony.
In 2006, the City Council approved the implementation of a temporary rope barrier to act as an unofficial guideline to keep visitors from the seals, but some activists say the barrier is not enough to protect the seals from harassment as mandated by federal law.
However, others say that conflicts have erupted not between humans and seals, but between humans with opposing viewpoints. A police officer at the May 17 meeting said calls to the area increased from 55 in 2008 to more than 200 in 2009, mostly due to incidents between those who wanted to access the beach and activists who wanted to keep people away from the seals.
On May 18, Park and Recreation Department Director Stacey LoMedico requested that the city attorney issue an opinion within 10 days on whether a coastal emergency currently exists at the Children’s Pool. Mayor Sanders will then decide how to proceed.