Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:46 PM
SAN DIEGO — Come to San Diego's La Jolla Cove for the sights. (There is not a more majestic spot to watch the sun set over the Pacific.) Or come for the sounds. (The waves crash against the rocks, and the sea lions bark on the bluffs.)
But don't come for the smell.
"It's so bad, it's so bad," said Neda Long, a tourist from Tennessee. "As soon as we pulled up, it was like, 'This is awful.' "
In La Jolla Cove, art galleries and coffee shops meet a stretch of unspoiled cliffs and Pacific Ocean. Home to former presidential candidates — Mitt Romney has been spotted pumping his own gas here in recent days — and seal colonies alike, the neighborhood provides one of this city's primary tourist draws.
But the odor, a pungent stench that emanates from the accumulation of bird feces on the rocks, has become a growing problem. Strict environmental regulations in the cove have stymied the city's efforts to resolve the problem before it drives tourists and businesses away.
"I've lived here my whole life, and the smell from the birds has never, ever been as bad as it is now," said Megan Heine, owner of Brockton Villa Restaurant, which overlooks the cove from a historic building that has been on the cliffs for more than 100 years. She said guests asked about the stench so frequently that her wait staff had become adept at explaining its cause.
"If nothing is done and the smell becomes unbearable, I'm fearful of what that will really do to the business and the appeal of being in La Jolla," she said.
Until a few years ago, the odor was never a problem because the bluffs were open for people to walk on. But since the rocks were closed off, partly because of safety concerns, sea gulls and cormorants have taken over, their droppings have piled up and the odor has grown more acrid by the day.
In theory, a solution could be simple. Sherri Lightner, the local City Council member, said biodegradable and nontoxic-cleaning agents could be safely used to clean the bluffs occasionally without ill effects to the environment.
However, because the waters in the cove are part of a coastal area specially protected by the state, multiple state regulatory agencies would have to issue permits before the agents could be used, a process regulators have indicated would probably take at least two years.
"We tried to investigate this as an emergency request, but it hasn't risen to the level of something like a hazardous spill, where they address it right away," Lightner said. "We don't get to have special regulations for bird poop."
Lightner wrote a letter this month to Gov. Jerry Brown, hoping to expedite the process before the festering odor starts to take a heavier toll on businesses.
"La Jolla finds itself caught in a morass of state regulations — and it stinks. Literally," Lightner wrote in the letter. "This issue has implications not just for La Jolla and San Diego but also for the state of California. Quite simply, it proves that California's regulations make it an impossible place to do business."
How bad the smell is a matter of personal olfactory perception. Everyone agrees it is worst in the hot summer months. Even on a cool November day, though, the odor was noticeable inside ocean-facing rooms at local hotels and half a mile inland in the commercial center.
To Lightner, it just smells like the ocean, but maybe a little "heightened." Others pinch their noses as they walk by. An environmentalist who sells T-shirts said customers never complained. But to local restaurant owners, it smells like a threat to their livelihoods.
Long, the Tennessee tourist, covering her nose with a scarf as she walked around the cove, said she would not eat at any of the restaurants on the water or stay in the hotels there.
But others were undaunted and considered the odor the price of admission for getting to see wildlife up close.
"It's not so bad," said Bella Blyumin, who was visiting from Cleveland with her husband and daughter. "You can kind of handle it. As long as you know it's natural, you can appreciate it when you see the scenery."
Some residents hope the cliffs will remain untouched, left to the birds and the seals, which will produce, well, the kinds of smells that birds and sea lions produce.
For the moment, there seems to be little city officials can do except hope for winter rainstorms, which in years past have washed the rocks and alleviated some of the smell.
"We need to consider a range of alternatives for cleaning the rocks, and one of those could be no project, just sit and wait for rain," said Kanani Brown, an analyst for the California Coastal Commission, one of the regulatory agencies. "I know that's not ideal for local businesses, but that's historically been the approach."
SAM HODGSON / NYT
Hagan Smith, 5, and Hyrum Brinton, 4, show how they feel about the odor as they walk past La Jolla Cove in San Diego. Locals fear that the stench will chase away tourists.
SAM HODGSON / NYT
Cormorants and a sea lion take some sun in La Jolla Cove; odor from the creatures' feces worries business owners.