UCSB Funds Construction of County Fencing Along Isla Vista Cliffs


Kelsey Knorp
Isla Vista Beat Reporter

The University of California, Santa Barbara announced on Feb. 24 that it will provide $70,000 to fund Santa Barbara County’s installation of permanent fencing along the Isla Vista cliffs in all areas owned by the county and the Isla Vista Recreation and Parks District.

A press release issued by the university states that these funds will cover the costs of construction, but that the county will fund continued maintenance of the fence. The university cites the contribution as building on “a long history of supporting the community of Isla Vista,” referring to other such investments as the $2 million allocated to the safety and infrastructure improvements included in its Long Range Development Plan for IV through 2025.

Discussions between the university and the county began last spring, at which point temporary fencing was put in place and the county began the process of securing proper permits for permanent fencing through the California Coastal Commission. Throughout the process, Third District County Supervisor Doreen Farr said she and other county officials engaged in community outreach to assess public opinion on what the fence should look like and where it should go.

The commission approved the permits by the end of October and finalized them by the end of the year, once the time had passed to file appeals. At that point, the only missing component was funding, which Farr had sought out by way of a letter to UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang in October.

“Students, parents, faculty, and staff members and many Isla Vista residents have advocated for this project as a way to enhance community safety,” said John Longbrake, UCSB Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs and Communications, according to the release. “We want to acknowledge their efforts and the work of the County in securing the permits and overseeing the community design process and construction of the fence.”

A notable parent among those broadly addressed by Longbrake is former mayor and current Irvine city council member Beth Krom. Her son Noah died in a fatal fall from the Isla Vista cliffs in 2009, just a week before his graduation from UCSB. According to witnesses, he fell after jumping a fence at 6663 Del Playa Road, allegedly as he was pursued by someone the witnesses thought to be a taxi driver.

In the hours preceding his fall, Noah had been at O’Malley’s Bar in downtown Santa Barbara, attending an open bar event to which he had earned admission by completing the bar’s “50 Club” challenge, which required participants to purchase at least 50 drinks from the bar within one academic quarter. His blood alcohol content at time of death was reported to be .257.

Since Noah’s death, his mother has actively worked to raise awareness about the danger posed by the cliffs, a danger she feels has not been given the recognition it deserves. In large part, she feels this is because people are more apt to blame victims for their own fates when drugs and alcohol are involved.

“And I’m not vindicating that stupidity; I’m just saying, how many deaths does it take?” she said. “It was a tragedy that six people were killed, along with Elliot Rodger, almost a year ago, but there have been at least 10 to 12 cliff fall deaths, and there have been probably at least that many, if not more, drug- and alcohol-related deaths. And to me, a life is a life.”

Isla Vista Foot Patrol Lieutenant Rob Plastino said that averages from the last 15-20 years indicate that approximately one person every two years is killed in a fall from the cliffs.

“That’s not acceptable,” he said. “You can go, ‘Oh gosh, we went a [whole] year without someone losing their life,’ and we’re coming up on that now, but it doesn’t matter because last year, somebody did lose their life.”

One product of Krom’s activism is her group Students Taking Responsibility in Isla Vista Every Day, known more commonly as STRIVE. She also claims to have had countless discussions over the past six years with local agencies in positions to support new fencing and other safety efforts, including UCSB administrators, UCSB drug and alcohol program staff, county officials, the county sheriff, and multiple lieutenants of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol.

During early stages of planning, Third District County Supervisor Doreen Farr told Krom in an email that if she could find a viable fencing option, the county would be willing to consider it. Consequently, Krom presented the county with ClearVu by Cochrane, a steel fence engineered to appear transparent and aesthetically pleasing, and which allegedly cannot be climbed, vandalized, or cut.

Though Krom found the ClearVu fencing to be comparable in cost to traditional fencing materials such as chain link, the county decided against her proposal, rejecting it “out of hand,” as she sees it. She is unsure that the current fencing model will be as effective in increasing safety, but is grateful to see the start of the progress she feels is long overdue.

“I’m coming up on the sixth anniversary of my son’s death, and I’ve had to see four kids lose their lives since Noah died,” Krom said. “I was involved in trying to create a safer Isla Vista before the first, second, third, and fourth deaths, or the two paralyzed kids, and so it’s very hard for me because I am a public official—because I was a mayor in a city with a UC—I understand this.”

According to a staff report from the Oct. 29 meeting of the County Planning Commission, the approved structure is a three-rail wooden pole fence that is 54 inches in height. Its landward side will be covered with chain link to deter those tempted to climb or sit on it. The fencing will cover 1,400 feet of public property in total, spanning six oceanfront parks and “open space” areas.

“From a safety perspective, it makes sense to have fencing there,” Plastino said. “We understand the concerns of people wanting the good view, but you need to balance the view with the safety of the community. And I think that what’s been decided upon as far as fencing goes is a good in-between.”

No matter what fencing is implemented, Krom said it must be accompanied by a greater consciousness of the pervasive party culture in Isla Vista and the excessive drinking that often occurs as a consequence. Given the unlikeliness of this culture disappearing, she argues that it is best to protect its members regardless, even if doing so means resorting to policies that accommodate the existence of intoxicated behavior rather than criminalize it.

“When you have 23,000 [residents] in a half square mile, at the edge of a cliff, and there’s heavy partying, and you have four liquor stores, and the economy is protected… then how about protecting the kids as well?” she said.

One reason commonly identified by law enforcement as motivation to approach the cliffs is the need to use the restroom, as partygoers on Del Playa are often driven outdoors by lengthy bathroom lines at house parties. Though it may be obvious in a state of sobriety to keep one’s distance from the edge, Krom suggested that the installation of public restrooms in IV parks could help deter those who may not be in a state of mind to decide for themselves.

Plastino agreed that restrooms could serve a preventative purpose that would be worth the cost and difficulty of implementing them.

“All that takes money and tying into current sewer systems and things like that,” he said. “So it’s a lot of work and money, but I look at it from [a] saving lives [perspective]: at what cost is a life? It doesn’t matter, right? You’d spend a million dollars or more! But budgets don’t speak to that.”

Now that contracts between the university and county have been worked out, Farr said construction on the fence can begin as soon as the university donation is officially approved by the County Board of Supervisors at its March 3 meeting.

“I think every parent who loses a child just never wants another family to have to go through that,” Krom said. “The people who preceded me did not get that wish, I did not get that wish, but I’m hopeful that my continued involvement did play a role in ultimately [getting] to this place.”