Sea Lions May Not Make the Best Neighbors: Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement (CONA) v. City of San Diego et. Al.

By Jennifer Felten

California is known for its beautiful coastline with miles and miles of beaches.  But not all beaches are as inviting as others.  The case of Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement (“CONA”) versus the City of San Diego (“City”) calls into question the habitability of one such beach known as La Jolla Cove.  According to the City’s website (, “La Jolla Cove is a very small beach, tucked between sandstone cliffs.  Because of its extraordinary beauty, La Jolla Cove is one of the most photographed beaches in Southern California.  With small surf in the summer months, the north facing La Jolla Cove is ideal for swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers.”  The beach is also home to sea lions who create odorous waste that apparently permeates the coast.

This noxious odor resulted in CONA’s formation and their filing of a suit against the City for an alleged public nuisance caused by the smell.  At the trial court level, the City motioned for summary judgment.  The trial court granted the City’s motion for three reasons.  First, the trail court found the City did not have a duty to prevent any harms created by wild animals.  Second, CONA did not present any triable issues that the City’s conduct was the cause of the alleged nuisance.  Third, Civil Code section 3482 barred the nuisance liability.  CONA appealed the trial court’s rulings and further argued the City cannot avail itself of immunity under Government Code section 831.2.

In May 2013, former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner issued an emergency finding, declaring bird odors from “cormorants, gulls, pigeons, and pelicans” a public health hazard that required remediation.  The City contracted a company to apply a microbial cleaner to the guano (bird excrement).  The treatment was quite successful in eliminating the odors from the bird guano, but not as successful with eliminating odors caused by sea lion waste.  The sea lion population in La Jolla Cove has grown in recent years, and the buildup of sea lion waste is causing major problems for residents, local businesses, and visitors alike.

In December 2013, CONA sued the City and the State of California for “the foul, noxious and sickening odors emanating from the excrement of cormorants and sea lions deposited on the rocks adjacent to La Jolla Cove”.  CONA argued that the City had in recent years constructed a fence that denied human access to the rocks adjacent to La Jolla Cove.  Once humans were denied access, this allowed the sea lions to move in.  The City did build a gate in the fence in late 2013, but this did not solve the problem.  CONA did acknowledge the City had adequately treated the cormorant guano odors but not the sea lion waste odors.

In January 2015, the City moved for summary judgment or, in the alternative, summary adjudication, arguing there was no triable issue.  The City brought evidence that the fence had been completed since 1971.  The sea lions did not start to inhabit La Jolla Cove in large numbers until 2008.  There is no way to link the building of the fence with the sea lion population increase. 

The court concluded the City did not, as a matter of law, have a duty to control an alleged nuisance caused by wild animals.  The court found no legitimate factual dispute that the City’s actions caused the alleged nuisance.  The court did sympathize with CONA, but agreed with the trial court’s ruling.  The appellate court also agreed with the trial court’s recommendation that CONA seek a political action, not a court action to abate sea lion waste and the resulting obnoxious odors in La Jolla Cove.

La Jolla Cove sea lions San Diego:

Jennifer Felten

Jennifer Felten, Esq., Relaw Ms. Felten specializes in representing both individuals and legal entities, providing representation and guidance on a variety of real estate related matters.  Relaw APC 699 Hampshire Road, Suite 105 Westlake Village, CA  91361 US Phone: (805) 265-1031 or email her at: [email protected]

March 2017, Jennifer has the following speaking engagement:

Teaching Business Principles, Practices and Law class for the Escrow Training Institute in Costa Mesa – Saturday, March 25, 2017

For inquiries or questions about any of these events, please email [email protected].

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Robert Franks

This was a great beach for young children to play and learn to swim. Because it’s a cove, there are no big waves or strong current. Now of course, it “belongs” to the seals. Maybe the seals can be relocated? There are a number of other beaches that would be a better choice for the animals.

William Hicks

Odor is only a minor issue when you consider health concerns with animal waste. North of Pismo, the Sea Elephant are protected by National Park Service personnel that refuse human use of beaches during the breeding and birthing seasons. One such official explained, rightly, that walking on Sea Elephant occupied beaches are a health hazard to humans due to the excrement covered sand.

Maybe, in the case of Sea Lion’s in San Diego, the fence should exclude Sea Lions instead of humans from the beach.