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Future of San Diego Boating in Jeopardy

By Michael C. Burgess
Bureau Chief

The future of recreational boating in San Diego hangs in the balance as the last opportunity to comment on San Diego Unified Port District’s plans for America’s Cup Harbor passes.

Against the recommendations of two Port District-sponsored studies into small-boat yard capacity in San Diego Bay, the Port commissioners unanimously voted to change the use of South Bay Boat Yard. Now the Driscoll boatyard faces jeopardy as its Kettenburg site is slated for redevelopment even though Driscoll’s relocation to a smaller plot near Convair Lagoon may yet fall through.

According to Bill Roberts, whose rival boatyard business is situated on Shelter Island, the loss of Driscoll’s from Kettenburg will hit hard at the interests of all San Diego’s boat users and those whose livelihoods are connected to the marine economy.

“There’s going to be a ten-week waiting list for a haul-out for a brokerage deal, and that’s going to harm the brokers and everybody,” Roberts said. “So it’s a competitor of mine. So what? I care about the long-term effect on the marine economy.”

According to Ralph Hicks, the Port District’s director of land use, Port District staff had recommended to the Port commissioners they should give Driscoll’s a short-term exclusive negotiating right to determine the feasibility of a small-boat yard on a much smaller site off Harbor Drive.

But the 3.3-acre Harbor Drive site, currently occupied by National Car Rentals, is very close to Convair Lagoon. If it becomes a boatyard, disturbance of the double sand caps beneath its entry channel would risk uncovering large dumps of highly toxic Polychlorinated Biphenyls, known as PCBs.

Roberts dismissed the Harbor Drive boatyard site as a smokescreen so the Port District could say a new boatyard was in the works. “The Environmental Health Coalition and the Audubon Society have gone on record saying that when hell freezes over, they’ll get to use that for a boatyard,” he said.

At a board meeting on Aug. 21, the Port commissioners rejected its staff’s recommendation and commissioned an environmental constraints analysis to report in 90 days on the suitability of the site for either a small-boat yard or a megayacht facility.

However, the boating public has only 45 days (until Oct. 9) to respond to the America’s Cup environmental impact report, after which time decisions such as the closure of Kettenburg will be in the hands of the Port commissioners. They will pass their decision to the California Coastal Commission who will look at it to see if it matches the facts.

Hicks said, “It usually takes us three to four weeks to respond to all the comments, analyze the comments, and get it back before our board. So that will probably happen by the end the of October, with the document.”

Then the Port will prepare the application for the Port master plan change to the Coastal Commission. Hicks said, “That takes us about a month or two. So we’re in January. Once the Coastal Commission deems our application complete, which takes about 30 days, so we’ve lost all of January.”

Around Feb. 1 (90 days out), the Coastal Commission has to have a hearing on either the document or the application. And, according to Hicks, they usually take about 90 days. “So we’re in spring of 2002 before the Coastal Commission makes a decision.”

Part of the master plan that calls for narrowing Harbor Drive to provide parking, will require approval by the City Council, and Hicks said there are rumors that some support for this within the Council is conditional on the plan’s closure of Kettenburg to provide a bay view for development in Point Loma.

America’s Cub Harbor is overdue for redevelopment. Many think the public will benefit from a walkway along the shoreline. Residents of Point Loma will have a less restricted view of the Bay. However, many fear the Disney-fication of America’s Cup Harbor.

If a change of land use towards hotels and restaurants prevails, both the Port District and the Council will prosper, through the Transient Occupancy Tax and, indirectly, by drawing greater revenue to the newly expanded San Diego Convention Center. But marine-dependent businesses such as full-service boatyards will lose out if they are not adequately relocated by what Port District officials refer to as mitigations.

James Pugh, the new senior director of the Port District’s maritime division, told a yacht brokers’ luncheon “You’ve got to get organized and prepare a concerted plan,” at Shelter Island’s Fiddler’s Green restaurant on Aug. 30. He said, if the Port District has seemed deaf to the maritime community, it’s because there has not been one coherent voice.

Roberts said it’s too late now to start a new organization to defend the recreational boating industry. All we can do is get enough people to add their public comments to the draft EIR to draw the Coastal Commission’s attention to the lack of mitigation for marine-dependent uses.

The Port District is required by law to respond to each substantive comment received from the public before the Oct. 9 deadline, and each of them will accompany the Port Master Plan Amendment as it proceeds to the Port Commissioners and onward to the Coastal Commission.

Hicks defined a substantive comment as something that relates to the environmental impacts identified in the document or not identified in the document. “Let’s say you write a letter that says, ‘I think this America’s Cup Harbor plan stinks.’ And all we’re legally entitled to do is say, ‘Thanks. We appreciate your comment.’”

According to Richard Cloward, of San Diego Port Tenants Association, the obligatory replies to more specific letters may seriously delay the progress of the plan through the timeline described by Hicks.

Such letters would need to focus on environmental concerns rather than the economic. Hicks explained that, for these purposes, environmental impact would not include the economic impact to the maritime community. “It matters only in the sense of whether or not a mitigating measure is feasible.”

Such a concern might be the planned replacement of a roundabout on Shelter Island by a smaller turning circle which Roberts said his 65-foot semis would find impossible to negotiate.

Of course, the Harbor Drive site has no feasibility as mitigation for the loss of Kettenburg until the Environmental Constraints Analysis reports back toward the end of November.

Roberts said the 3.3-acre site is not big enough to build a decent boatyard on.

“The best of all worlds would be to put a bulkhead across the caps, the PCBs, and cap them forever with a bulkhead, back fill it. And that gives you seven acres to add to the 3.3 acres. Now that’s big enough to build a decent boatyard on. But that’s not going to happen for ten years.”

Hicks said an argument citing decimation of the recreational boating industry in San Diego would only figure in the land-use analysis if there were incompatible uses.

As a hypothetical scenario, he said, “We’re going to put more restaurants down there instead of boating facilities. And the boaters feel that the restaurants may impact their economics. That would not be really analyzed.”

However, the Coastal Commission is required, under the Coastal Act, to protect marine-dependent uses, such as boatyards, against non marine-dependent uses, such as restaurants, unless the relocation of a boatyard meets the need at another site. “That’s how this whole Harbor Drive discussion came up,” Hicks said.

The full EIR is a massive document in two spiral-bound volumes and can be ordered from Melissa Mailander, (619) 686-6283, at more than $50 each or viewed at one of the following three locations:

  • The office of the District Clerk, San Diego Unified Port District, 3165 Pacific Hwy.
  • Pt. Loma Branch Library, 2130 Poinsettia Dr.
  • San Diego Central Library, 820 E St.

    The executive summary is located on the Port’s Web site at www.portofsandiego.org/sandiego_environment/index.html.

    The final public workshop for the EIR will be 4-6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Embarcadero Planning Center (former Coral Reef Restaurant), 585 Harbor Ln.

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