Planners' Advice Ignored : S.D.-Chula Vista Land Giveaway Is Questioned

Times Staff Writer

Why would the San Diego City Council "give away" nearly 700 acres of Otay River Valley land to neighboring Chula Vista, receiving, according to the official records, nothing in return?

Members of San Diego's City Council are not known for playing giveaway with potential industrial sites--which the Otay River Valley property owners say their vacant property is. And, except for minor cosmetic re-alignments, land swaps between incorporated cities are rare. Yet San Diego officials already have given approval to deannexation of 63 acres of bayside property and 242 acres of Otay River bottomland for annexation to Chula Vista and are looking at requests by Chula Vista for about 400 more acres.

To Chula Vista Mayor Greg Cox the boundary changes are nothing more than reasoned consolidations which will put the Otay River's 100-year flood plain under one jurisdiction--Chula Vista's.

Planners for the City of San Diego and for the county agency that controls annexations recommended otherwise. But San Diego City Council members, prompted by Cox's arguments and the aggressive support of the area's councilman, Uvaldo Martinez, approved the first two of five annexations without dissent. At the urging of Mayor Maureen O'Connor, last month the council delayed approval of a third annexation until Chula Vista spelled out its plans for the valley land.

Martinez, who received substantial contributions to his legal defense fund from some of the landowners who favored the boundary change, didn't return repeated calls this week to explain his reasons for supporting deannexing the land from South San Diego.

Two years ago, the Otay River meandered through three jurisdictions--the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista and unincorporated county property. Then, after six years of campaigning and three elections, Chula Vista officials finally convinced a majority of residents in the unincorporated Montgomery area to annex themselves to Chula Vista.

That Montgomery annexation, which brought 3.2 square miles and about 23,000 people into Chula Vista, became a fact last Jan. 1 and set the stage for what Chula Vista is seeking now--to move its southern boundaries even farther south to take in the Otay River Valley through a series of "reorganizations"--detachments of land from the city of San Diego and annexation to the city of Chula Vista.

Before the annexations began, the southern Chula Vista border with South San Diego resembled the gap-toothed grin of a Halloween jack-o-lantern. According to maps detailing the proposed annexations, the proposed boundary swaps would have evened out some of the jagged boundary edges but added others.

Chula Vista's intent to tidy up its southern boundaries by taking bites out of San Diego's city limits brought immediate opposition in the Otay-Nestor area from longtime activist Ruth Schneider.

Schneider, chairwoman of the Otay Mesa-Nestor Planning Committee, sees Chula Vista's action as "a land grab, pure and simple," and speculates that major property owners--a Pasadena industrial park developer, Chillingworth Corp. (210 acres), and a San Diego sand and gravel extraction firm, H.G. Fenton Material Co. (about 400 acres)--were using Chula Vista to escape from San Diego land-use plans that placed most of the river valley land into low-density residential, open space and agricultural designations.

Lynn Benn, local Sierra Club spokeswoman on land-use matters, said the environmental group sided with San Diego residents opposed to the boundary change. Along the developed portions of the river valley west of Interstate 805, the valley serves as the open space element for the Otay-Nestor community plan. To remove it from San Diego's jurisdiction is to forfeit control over the vital environmental element of the San Diego community plan, she said.

Paul Clark, a three-year member of the Otay Mesa-Nestor group, bemoaned the pending and approved boundary changes that remove potential industrial sites and possible greenbelt from San Diego's jurisdiction.

"Why would they do that?" Clark asked. "Why would San Diego give away control over that valuable land?"

Clark said he has asked that question of San Diego leaders time and time again and has never received a satisfactory answer. He has heard pervasive rumors, he said, that the boundary change was agreed upon several years ago as an exchange for South Bay cities' agreement not to oppose the Unified Port District's financing of the bayside San Diego Convention Center. But Clark discounts the rumor.

If South Bay port commissioners agreed to drop their opposition to San Diego dipping into the regional port authority coffers for financial aid, Clark points out, then where are the rewards for the other South Bay cities--Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City--from a jurisdictional land swap between San Diego and Chula Vista?

Chula Vista Mayor Cox and Phil Creaser, Chula Vista's veteran representative on the Unified Port District board, have heard the rumors, too, but they deny that the city did any closed-door dealing to silence South Bay concerns over the convention center financing.

"Some of us were concerned because $95 million (the convention center financing agreement) seemed like a lot of money back then, and it still does," Creaser said about initial opposition from South Bay port commissioners. "I am still concerned," he said about the spiraling financing commitment, but he denied knowing anything about any "secret agreement" between the two cities.

Cox took offense at the suggestion that his city made a deal with San Diego. The boundary adjustments which would put the two potential industrial developers--Chillingworth and Fenton--within Chula Vista's boundaries are sensible changes for both sides, he contends.

Now that its sand and gravel operations have petered out, Fenton is going to want portions of its land rezoned for development of some type, or, if the current open space designations remain, Fenton officials have said, they expect some public jurisdiction to purchase the property for park and open space uses, Mayor Cox explained.

Chula Vista, with its newly-acquired, densely-developed Montgomery annexation, is interested in the adjacent vacant river valley acreage for park and open space balance, Cox said, "but we can't realistically expect private property owners not to want some use of their land." He hopes that the resulting compromise between private and public interests will result in a linear recreational park along the Otay River similar to the Sweetwater Regional Park on the city's northern boundaries and also some tax-producing industrial development at the same time.

Ted Hale, Fenton vice president, said of the company's Otay River valley property: "We have no plans but we do have property rights, and the time has come when we are going to want to do something with that property. In my opinion, anything we would do would be an improvement. It's a hellhole now."

Border bandits, illegal trash dumps, undocumented aliens, even dangerous toxic wastes are the scenic features of the river valley now, Hale said. "I think the people who live along the bluffs on the south (San Diego) side of the valley deserve a nicer view than that."

In the past two months, two violent deaths have occurred along the river bottom, Hale said, "and things are only going to get worse as the weeds grow higher." Fenton was ordered to clean up illegal trash heaps left on its property and spent $18,000 complying, only to have new refuse piles appear within days, Hale said.

Fenton executives have scheduled meetings with Chula Vista and San Diego city officials in an attempt to unsnarl the jurisdictional dispute so that the nearly 400 acres of Fenton land between Interstates 5 and 805 can be transferred completely within one city or the other, not split between the two, Hale said.

"It's an impossible task to satisfy both sides and hard enough to deal with just one city," he sighed. He'd prefer the winner in the border war to be Chula Vista, because, he explained, "our sewer, lights and streets come from there." The southern side of the valley is a steep bluff, making access to most of the property impossible, Hale said.

Paul Robinson, San Diego land-use attorney who represented Chillingworth in its successful bid to switch from San Diego city limits into Chula Vista, said that it is no secret that the firm is an industrial park developer and prefers to develop its land northwest of San Diego's Brown Field for industrial purposes. The land is held under the name of Otay Rio Business Park, an indication of what its owners plan for its future.

The property, located more than a mile east of Interstate 805, should have been well-removed from the resident-landowner dispute over the boundary changes which have arisen in the developed community to the west.

But Schneider and the Otay Mesa-Nestor planning group members turned out to oppose the Chillingworth proposal to switch cities, pointing out the Chillingworth boundary shift was one of five similar proposals along the river valley, all of which were opposed by San Diego city planners and by staff analysts of the Local Agency Formation Commission as illogical boundary shifts. At both levels, elected officials ignored their staff recommendations.

LAFCO Commissioner Marjorie Hersom of Alpine was the lone dissenting commission vote July 7 against the 242-acre land swap from San Diego to Chula Vista. Her reasons for a negative vote were simple: "There was no logical reason for taking the land out of San Diego and putting it in Chula Vista except that (Councilman) Uvaldo Martinez was in favor of it."

Hersom cited the LAFCO staff recommendations against the boundary shift--the inefficiencies of the move and the inability of Chula Vista to provide public services to the properties--and reiterated the question: "Why should San Diego give away this land just because Martinez wants it?"

Though Martinez declined to explain this week why he wanted the land transferred into Chula Vista, campaign records show that Chillingworth Vice President Robert McCrary Jr. contributed $250, Otay Rio Business Park $1,000, and Robinson $250 to the fund to help pay for Martinez' defense against grand jury indictments charging he misused his city credit card.

Cox, however, said the reasons for the boundary change are simple and obvious.

The property owners of two parcels of river valley land east of I-805 were interested in industrial development. The zoning on the properties called for residential, agricultural and open space uses under both Chula Vista and San Diego regional plans, Cox explained. What Chula Vista can offer Chillingworth and other landowners that San Diego could not was an immediate and receptive ear to consider their plans, Cox said.

"We, as a smaller city, could perhaps give them more immediate attention," Cox said. In San Diego, with its thousands and thousands of undeveloped Otay Mesa acres ripe for industrial projects, the Otay Rio Business Park proposal might get lost in the stampede.

And how did they feel about Chula Vista? "It was their feeling that we would be more receptive to their needs," Cox said.

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