Dennis Davidson and his wife, Marie, have lived blocks from San Diego’s Pond 20 for two decades.
“I said: ‘It sounds to me like they’ve got a set up and they’re trying to guide us to that set up,” he said a week after a public meeting Dec. 4 in Otay Mesa.
“We said to the guy from the Port during the meeting: ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if you showed us what you have and we tell you if we like it?’ He said” ‘We don’t have any plans yet’ and I said: ‘I worked for the government for 30 odd years. Don’t tell me you don’t have anything.’”
Said Davidson: “They had an idea and were trying to guide people to that idea.”
For the better part of the past year, the Port of San Diego has told the public that once its staff formed an opinion on how to develop 95 acres known as Pond 20, that plan would be shared with the public before a final recommendation was made to the Board of Port Commissioners.
The final step in a process outlined in an agreement between the Port and cities of San Diego and Imperial Beach never happened, and the change in course was not mentioned at a final public outreach meeting held Dec. 4.
IB Patch learned of plans to turn the majority of the land into a mitigation bank with some commercial development in November. A mitigation bank is land used to offset or mitigate the environmental impact of development projects elsewhere.
Those plans were to be discussed at the meeting last week, but staff decided that discussing particular plans before they are given to the Board of Port Commissioners would be getting “ahead of the process,” said Port spokeswoman Tanya Castaneda.
“There was internal discussion at the Port about whether we were getting ahead of the board and ahead of the process, so they decided to pull back and get more general feedback at the meeting,” she said.
Sharing recommendations with the public before the board hears the plan was agreed upon in a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Port and the cities of San Diego and Imperial Beach in January. Port staff and a website devoted to Pond 20 also emphasized this process.
Meetings to gather public comment started in February.
Letters of Interest were solicited for proposals on how to develop the land this summer.
Meetings were held with the cities of Imperial Beach and San Diego this fall. Port staff then drafted its recommendation for how the land on the border of Imperial Beach should be used.
“This was a public outreach meeting that we’re not mandated to do. We did them because we wanted to do them. They’re not part of CEQA or anything. It’s not state law,” Castaneda said.
The Port is still committed to the public playing a role in deciding what happens to Pond 20, she said.
Opinions offered at the Dec. 4 meeting will go toward deciding how the land is used in the future.
The best place for public comment on use of the land may be in front of the Port Commission when staff makes a formal recommendation next year, she said.
“Let’s say that they did go ahead with that, floating a recommendation [at the meeting],” Castaneda said. “Members of the public may have thought: ‘Well I made my public comment, but really, the place for them to comment is at the [board] meeting.’”
Comments made at input meetings were recorded, but comments made at the board meeting will go into the meeting minutes, a public document, Castaneda said.
Deborah Cook of Imperial Beach was one of roughly 20 members of the public who attended the meeting last Tuesday. The other half of the room was people with an interest to develop the land or Port of San Diego staff.
Cook said Imperial Beach and the South Bay have already given up enough land so other people can benefit from business development. An environmental element can be a part of what is built there, but she wants to see part of the land used for businesses like Pier 39 in San Francisco.
“My personal opinion is, just living in the South Bay, we’ve already given up a lot to nature and the birds,” Cook said. “I think it’s time for us to have something down here. We don’t have any businesses. Why do you want to come to Imperial Beach? Why? What’s the big draw here?”
Imperial Beach is a nice place to live and worth visiting, but this corner of San Diego Bay needs to attract more than bird watchers, Cook said.
“I think we’re too landlocked by all this environmental stuff already,” she said. “Imperial Beach has nothing.”
When the Port bought 836 acres of land from the Western Salt Co. in 1998 in south San Diego Bay, 722 acres was handed to the state to offset the environmental impact of building Terminal 2 at San Diego International Airport.
Pond 20 was then set aside for future development.
Any development that takes place in the area must take into account protected wetlands in the area, said Michelle White with the Port.
“I don’t think there’s anything really committing us to development,” White said. In the case of Pond 20, a mitigation bank may be considered development, she said.
Among Letters of Interest sent to the Port this summer were ideas to build an Irish sports field or dinner theater, but the majority of proposals recommended a mitigation bank.
If people like the mitigation bank option, that’s OK, White said.
“If people feel there’s already enough mitigation in the South Bay, that’s OK too. We just want the opinions,” she said at last week’s meeting.
The Port has already committed about $300,000 to make short-term aesthetic improvements to Pond 20, said White, the Port’s environmental policy manager.
Juliane Wright lives in apartments on the San Diego side of 13th Street and said she would like to see Pond 20 become some kind of environmental development so it can be tied in with nearby preserved land like the Otay Valley Regional Park, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Tijuana Estuary.
“I personally like the idea of tying those areas together,” she said. “I think we’ve already started something down here in IB in terms of making it an ecotourism area and I think this fills in the blanks a little bit.”
“The reason why I like this one is because Dr. Mike McCoy backs it up,” she said about a mitigation bank proposal presented by the Mitigation Stakeholder Team.
That particular project is supported by stakeholder team members WiLDCOAST, the Environmental Health Coalition, Hornblower Cruises and Events, BAE Systems and the San Diego Port Tenants Association, Sunroad Enterprises and Southwest Wetland Interpretive Association.