An alliance of environmental groups went to court Wednesday to try and halt a large highway-construction and flood-control project in San Diego's South Bay on grounds that it could jeopardize the survival of two endangered bird species.
The Sierra Club and the League for Coastal Protection filed suit in federal court in San Diego against the county and seven public agencies over their failure to secure and set aside 188 acres to "mitigate" environmental damage from the project.
The project, loosely dubbed the Caltrans project, includes construction of a four-lane freeway called California 54, widening of Interstate 5, construction of an interchange connecting the two, and building of a flood-control channel for the Sweetwater River.
It is also to include acquisition and preservation of 188 acres of wetland and other wildlife habitat in an effort to protect two endangered species in the area, the California least tern and the light-footed clapper rail.
The land was to have been turned over by the Santa Fe Land Improvement Co., which in return hopes to develop a large chunk of the Chula Vista bayfront. But because permits for that development have been stalled, officials say, the wetland transfer has been delayed.
"I think the real scenario is that the land is being held hostage," Laurens Silver, a lawyer for the Sierra Club in San Francisco, said Wednesday. He said the suit aims to halt the construction project until the 188 acres have been set aside.
But Brian Bilbray, the county supervisor representing South Bay, countered that the land is already in escrow and the transfer is imminent. "Right now, the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service and the (state) Fish and Game Department have access to the property, so it's actually being supervised by the environmental agencies," he said.
Among those named as defendants in the suit are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a joint sponsor of the project; the Federal Highway Administration, which is providing funding; the state Department of Transportation, another joint sponsor; San Diego County, which is responsible for acquiring the marshland for mitigation; Chula Vista, which is partially funding mitigation and channel maintenance costs; the U.S. Department of the Interior, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, and the Santa Fe Land Improvement Co., owner of the 188 acres.
According to the suit, the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in 1978 that the project would jeopardize the survival of the bird species unless the agencies "mitigated" the damage. When the agencies agreed to acquire and set aside 188 acres, that was made a condition of the project.
The land was to have been set aside before construction of the second phase of the project, which was to begin last April. The county received an informal extension of the deadline to acquire the mitigation lands, but it missed that April 15 deadline.
The suit alleges that although Santa Fe has put the land in escrow, the escrow instructions make transfer contingent upon the approval of permits necessary for Santa Fe to develop its other land. Silver contended Wednesday that the county is obliged to get the land and could do so at any time by filing a condemnation action.
But Bilbray blamed the Sierra Club for the delays on the permits to develop the bayfront because the Sierra Club has sued challenging the Coastal Commission's approval of the development plan. He said those delays prompted Santa Fe to hold onto the 188 acres until it had assurance it would be able to develop its other property.