Judge OKs Refuge as Chula Vista Loses Bid to Develop Bay

Times Staff Writer

In a major victory for environmentalists, a federal judge in San Diego on Friday approved the creation of a 300-acre federal wildlife preserve along the Chula Vista bayfront, a move that derails plans for commercial development on Gunpowder Point.

U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. approved the preserve as part of a complicated legal settlement that paves the way for a critical South Bay highway project and a flood-control channel for the Sweetwater River.

The proposed settlement was announced in March, but city officials mounted a last-ditch legal challenge to dedicating the land for a preserve. Long interested in making their community a tourist center, city officials had hoped to build a 400-room hotel on the environmentally sensitive point.

No Merit to Challenge

Thompson, however, found no merit in the city's challenge and, in a written opinion released Friday, blessed the deal that turns the 300 acres of marshland over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a refuge for two species of endangered birds: the light-footed clapper rail and the California least tern.

"We are delighted," Joan Jackson, a Sierra Club leader, said of Thompson's decision. The Sierra Club and the League for Coastal Protection fought development plans for the Chula Vista bayfront.

"We have assured the protection of habitat for the . . . endangered species, and (the settlement) goes a long way in assuring that south San Diego Bay will continue to have one of the most important wetland habitats," she said.

City Atty. Tom Harron said municipal officials are disappointed at Thompson's ruling.

"We hope over the weekend to get a much better review of it, and we expect within the next week or two to make some kind of decision as to where we go from here," Harron said.

But a spokesman for the Chula Vista Investment Co., a joint venture of the Santa Fe Land Improvement Co. and Watt Industries, warned city officials Friday not to press their luck. CVIC is the company that owns most of the land designated for the preserve.

"The city fathers ought to decide whether it is in the best interest of their taxpayers to continue paying humongous legal bills to fight this decision," said Jack Dimond, CVIC's bayfront project coordinator.

"We hope that the city will not appeal this decision of the court," Dimond said. "If they do, they will be standing alone, arguing that a settlement reached by all the other parties ought to be set aside, and they will be in the solitary position of responsibility for any continued stoppage of the highway project, the flood-control project or their own bayfront development."

But Mayor Greg Cox responded Friday by saying CVIC is anxious to give away Gunpowder Point and other marsh areas because the city's bayfront plan would require the company to build costly access roads across the marshlands to the planned hotel.

"By this settlement, they have eliminated the more difficult areas to develop," Cox said. "What is left is the mid-bayfront, which everyone agrees is easier to develop."

Island Within a Marsh

Cox also said that, if the city relents and accepts Thompson's decision, it may want to scrap the old bayfront plan and begin with a "clean sheet of paper."

Gunpowder Point, which is at the edge of Sweetwater Marsh, has been a key element in the battle over what to do with the marshlands at the border of Chula Vista and National City.

The point is a virtual island within the marsh, and Chula Vista city officials were hoping to cash in on its bay views to generate development and tourist dollars in the South Bay.

In 1984, the state Coastal Commission approved the city's bayfront plan, which included the hotel, a convention center, restaurants, stores and a marina on the point and adjoining lands. The agency gave its approval over objections by its own staff and federal wildlife officials, who warned that development could ruin the nesting areas of the endangered birds.

Later that year, the environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop the plan. And, in 1986, they filed a second suit against the federal, state and local governments wanting to build a flood-control channel and freeway projects near the nesting sites.

Failed to 'Mitigate' Effects

The environmentalists complained that the agencies had failed to "mitigate" the effects of their projects by dedicating part of the land for a bird preserve, as provided under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In May, 1987, a federal appeals court agreed, and it ordered the government to stop its projects until it dedicated the land. Halted in mid-stride was the widening of Interstate 5 and construction of a four-lane freeway called California 54. The result is that several unfinished bridges jut into the air like diving boards, Dimond said.

Eventually, the sides agreed to settle the dispute. The developers agreed to dedicate 300 acres, including the 44-acre Gunpowder Point and the 50-acre area known as the D Street Fill, for a wildlife preserve if the environmentalists dropped their lawsuits. Under the agreement, no roads or other paths will be allowed across the refuge, said the Sierra Club's Jackson, and the city's new $2.2-million Nature Interpretive Center on Gunpowder Point will stay open.

When the agreement was struck, the Sierra Club agreed to lift its court injunction on the east side of I-5 as a show of good faith. Jackson said it will lift restrictions for the west side of the freeway when the proposed preserve is finally deeded to the federal government.

Project coordinator Dimond said the settlement does not affect 140 acres Santa Fe owns south of the marsh and along the Chula Vista bayfront. That land can still be developed as a business park, offices, retail outlets and residences, just as the city has proposed, he said.

"What we want to do--and here's the thing that counts--is to move ahead and develop the mid-bayfront as it is currently planned," Dimond said.

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