In January 2011, Mayor Jim Janney and a local economic group urged the Port of San Diego to explore development of Pond 20, a 95-acre patch of land east of IB in San Diego.
“This is our front porch and I’m really disappointed in how it looks,” Janney told port commissioners.
Commissioner Lou Smith went a step further and said the area “looks like crap now.”
A year later, in January 2012, the cities of Imperial Beach and San Diego and the Unified Port of San Diego entered into a second agreement to explore ideas about how to possibly develop the land.
Residents’ opinions on what to do with the land are being sought before port staff presents a formal recommendation to port commissioners in the fall.
As part of that process, a meeting will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 17 at the Dempsey Holder Safety Center in the Imperial Beach lifeguard tower at 950 Ocean Lane.
An additional meeting may be held if attendance to the midday meeting is low, said Michelle White with the Port of San Diego.
After public comments about the project are received, specific project proposals will be sought in June. Then public outreach will continue from July to September.
Those interested in receiving updates on the process or who want to submit their opinion on the matter can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the port’s Pond 20 website.
Also urging work at Pond 20, along with Mayor Janney, is the South County Economic Development Council.
Port of San Diego staff members have appeared before the Imperial Beach Chamber of Commerce, Otay Mesa-Nestor Community Planning Group and other civic organizations, but held their first meeting for the public was April 24 in the gym at Robert Eggers Sr. South Bay Recreation Center.
More than 50 people attended to voice their opinions for and against development at Pond 20.
Though the phase for project proposals hasn’t begun yet, Leon Bernham, who lives on Fifth Street in Imperial Beach, brought his idea to develop the area to the meeting last month.
He would like to see Pond 20 developed but also allow it to be an entry to San Diego Bay so South Bay residents can share some of the prosperity other bay residents have enjoyed.
The mitigation plan that created Pond 20 was “a land grab,” Bernham said.
In 1998, the land across the southern tip of San Diego Bay was purchased by the Port of San Diego to offset the environmental impact of the creation of Terminal 2 at San Diego International Airport. A year later, a vast majority of the land became part of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Pond 20 were saved for future development.
As a result, he said, South Bay citizens’ “quality of life, value of our homes, and the economic futures of our local businesses have been eroded.”
“They gave away 700 acres that go right through here obviously, and we got nothing for it as the people of IB, Otay Mesa and South Bay,” he said.
His plan recommends that Pond 20 create a channel through the wildlife refuge and a South Bay harbor entrance be made north of IB.
Additionally, he wants land six blocks south of Pond 20 to be seized so the development area can be expanded. A channel could be created where a marina, boat repair facility and homes can be built. Traffic would move over the channel with multiple bridges.
Dante Pamintuan lives in IB’s Seaside Point neighborhood and last year actively opposed an increase in helicopter activity at Naval Outlying Landing Field Imperial Beach.
The Marine veteran would like to see American Legion baseball fields for teenagers and a pier with a star shaped built at Pond 20 to honor the area’s military.
“What does the South Bay have to recognize our military,” he asked. Each of the star’s five points could symbolize the five cities of the port district.
Many residents who attended the April 24 meeting were not as optimistic as Pamintuan or Bernham.
Ruth Scnieder, 90, spent part of her birthday at the meeting. After the crowd sang happy birthday to her and a brief PowerPoint presentation was given by Michelle White and port staff, she said she feels the port has no right to use the land.
“So I don’t understand how you can you say you can go forward and do all these things when you have no jurisdiction,” she said.
Scneider was joined by members of the Otay Mesa Nestor Community Planning Group in questioning the legality of a project without first consulting the local community.
The previous project idea “was just done by people who had no consideration for the people of the area,” she said.
In 2000, a Memorandum of Understanding to explore the possibility of developing the area was passed by port commissioners.
A prospective project was identified and plans were drawn up, but the deal fell apart after the commercial project was deemed in violation of the Tidelands Trust, which does not allow any standard commercial development.
After the meeting, members of the port staff said they believe a project can move forward because the port owns the land and port commissions can make the final decision of how the land is used.
Jacki Farrington lives in San Diego across the street from IB and helped fight development at the Famosa Slough near Ocean Beach.
She also took time out of celebrating her birthday to be at the meeting. She said if people are really opposed to the idea of development at Pond 20, they aren’t powerless.
“We all have a voice,” she said. “Get your friends together, talk to people and don’t give up.”
“There’s a little bit at stake here: there’s our view, there’s wildlife, there’s the idea that fish need somewhere to spawn to keep our oceans healthy, but one of the biggest issues here is money. There’s somebody that wants to make money,” she said.
At that point in the meeting, Michelle White with the Port of San Diego reminded meeting attendees that no developer or particular project has been chosen yet, and that there are no cost predictions yet or idea where funds may come from.
Jim Peugh, conservation chair of the San Diego Audubon Society, said that since the area is deemed part of the Tidelands Trust, it “can’t be developed into just any commercial project.”
“It’s easy to see why developers haven’t exactly flocked to this area,” he sad.
There are multiple reasons why the land hasn’t been built on in the past, he said.
“As somebody mentioned, this area is very floodable,” he said. “It would be really expensive to keep from being flooded. With sea level rise, it’s going to have to be even higher for developers, and will be less and less practical as time goes on.”
Another reason: The land beneath Pond 20 becomes liquid like during an earthquake, or liquefaction, and “to avoid that, you’d have to have some really expensive construction, plus it would take a lot of fill,” Peugh said.
Peugh recommends adding vegetation and trails, and using the area as a “mitigation bank” that can be utilized to offset economic costs of projects elsewhere. Part of that arrangement could demand money be collected in trade for the land and used to spur economic vitality elsewhere.
Like Farrington, he feels there are lessons to learn from the Famosa Slough.
“If you google samosa slough most of the things you’d find is realtors that say this property is next to samosa slough. people are advertising it as a benefit to their property and the same thing could be done here. it would raise property values and it would raise a community feeling,” he said.
Mike McCoy has been involved with preservation efforts in Imperial Beach and San Diego’s South Bay for decades and helped establish the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge in 1981.
With a new hotel in IB, Pacific Flyway birds in the area and other factors, adding Palm 20 could mean an ecotourism industry for the South Bay that stretches from the Otay Valley Regional Park to IB, adding Palm 20 could “offer a real opportunity, without costing billions of dollars, to tie the whole South Bay together.”
“This whole thing is interconnected clear down to the ocean,” he said.
“The linkages here are critical to tourism. There’s an opportunity to restore, there’s opportunity for restoration, mitigation, interconnection and ecotourism. That’s enough.”