The owner of an Isla Vista apartment building where the cliffs fell into the ocean on Sunday had been awaiting an emergency permit this month to remove two apartments — but not the two nearest the collapse, Santa Barbara County officials said.
The county notified property owner James Gelb last summer that the edge of the bluff was within about 10 feet of the foundation underlying the east wing of his apartments on Del Playa Drive, triggering a mandatory engineering solution, said Massoud Abolhoda, the Santa Barbara County building and safety manager.
As of last week, the county was preparing to issue an emergency permit to Gelb for the partial demolition, or “cut back,” of part of the two east wing apartments nearest the bluff edge, Abolhoda said.
But the collapse on Sunday occurred near the west wing of the building, where the bluff edge was more than 10 feet from the foundation, Abolhoda said.
As a result, he said, “We may reconsider our limits and thresholds for when we say we would have to cut back.”
No was one injured during the collapse, but 35 students out of the 56 who were living there were evacuated.
Gelb said he now plans to demolish two west wing and two east wing apartments facing the ocean, losing a total of four out of nine apartments in the building. All are three-bedroom apartments with two baths.
“That property historically has been rather safe,” Gelb said. “Nothing’s happened there in 50 years. I had no clue that this would happen. But when you own properties on a bluff, you’re going to take a chance.”
The cliff collapse also undermined the balcony next door, where the owner is now required to come up with an engineering solution, Abolhoda said.
In the meantime, on county orders, the owner has erected a chain link fence to block access to the balcony.
Del Playa Drive is one of the most densely-populated streets in Isla Vista, the legacy of an era when setbacks were sacrificed for maximum build-out. In recent decades, at least 30 buildings on the street have been cut back because of cliff erosion.
Between 1994 and 2006, Gelb said, he cut back 14 apartment buildings on the bluffs, in several cases converting them to houses.
Gelb is one of the top five property owners in Isla Vista, and he owns 29 rental buildings on Del Playa, all but two of them located on the ocean side of the street.
County inspectors walk the Isla Vista beach and take measurements on the bluffs of Del Playa every summer, and they inspect properties after big storms, Abolhoda said.
Since 2004, when the monitoring program began, the county has ordered cutbacks for 15 buildings on Del Playa.
Spencer Brandt, a second-year student at UC Santa Barbara and a director on the board of the newly created Isla Vista Community Services District, said most students are aware that the bluffs on Del Playa “are not the safest place on Earth.”
“But the ocean view is worth it to a lot of folks,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
A county inspection this week has revealed that almost all property owners on the ocean side of Del Playa need to move their bluff-top fences back, Abolhoda said.
The fences must be at least 5 feet from the edge of the cliffs, he said. The required buffer is only 5 feet because the county wants to discourage students from sunbathing outside the fence, Abolhoda said.
The Isla Vista cliffs are composed of a top layer of sand and a bottom layer of highly fractured shale. Waves smashing against the cliffs can easily crack the rock, geologists say. According to property line surveys conducted by the county in 1965 and 1984, the bluffs are retreating at an average rate of 6 inches per year.
The actual bluff retreat rate is between 2 and 14 inches per year, and it varies from one address to the next on Del Playa, the surveys show. But it is episodic, meaning that sections of bluff that have not eroded much for years may collapse all at once, as occurred on Sunday.
Some of the apartments on Del Playa are built on caissons, which also have been exposed by wave action. Below one property, a broken-off caisson stands alone in front of the bluff face, holding up nothing but air.
Based on the surveys, the Isla Vista bluffs could be expected to retreat an average 25 feet during the next 50 years, taking out some valuable Del Playa real estate, said Art Sylvester, a UCSB professor emeritus of geology.
But that’s a very conservative estimate because it is based on snapshots taken decades ago and doesn’t include the effects of sea level rise, he said.
“What are the homeowners’ options?” Sylvester said. “It’s a really bad problem out there. They can cut back their buildings. They can also pick the whole darn building up and move it closer to Del Playa. But all they’re doing is just buying time.”
The demolition of four apartments at 6653 Del Playa Drive is expected to begin this summer. In the meantime, seven of the evacuated students have moved into Tropicana Gardens, a residence hall on El Colegio Road owned by the University of California Regents, and seven more of the evacuees are likely to sign leases, said David Wilcox, the executive director of the management company, Tropicana Student Living.