In a decision that some officials believe was the death knell for a major airport on Otay Mesa, the San Diego City Council Tuesday lifted a year-old building moratorium on the area around Brown Field and gave residential, commercial and industrial developers the go-ahead to resume construction.
The vote, which almost certainly kills two proposals for a bi-national airport along the Mexican border, leaves Miramar Naval Air Station and the "multiple airport" option that relies primarily on Lindbergh and Brown fields as the remaining alternatives to increasingly burdened Lindbergh Field.
But both those ideas face almost insurmountable obstacles in the eyes of some council members, making it increasingly likely that Lindbergh may have to serve as the region's primary airport for many years.
"I know the Navy. I know what they feel on this," said Mayor Maureen O'Connor of the likelihood of moving the airport to Miramar. "And, in my lifetime . . . they're not going to give it up."
"It is an attempt to put the cross-hairs, if you will, on Miramar and, through maneuvering, dismantle any attempt to put an airport on Otay Mesa," said Councilman Ron Roberts, who represents the Lindbergh area and has led the drive to replace it. "I didn't think my colleagues would fall for leaving every bit of Otay Mesa unprotected."
Councilman Bob Filner, who represents Brown and has formed an uneasy alliance with Roberts to push the multiple-airport proposal, maintained that a sizable airport there is still possible. Developers, he said, will not be able to win approvals for their projects before the San Diego Assn. of Governments completes a 60-day study of whether expansion of the general aviation airport is feasible.
If the review shows that the concept is technologically realistic, the council will have to purchase land northeast of Brown now owned by the Baldwin Co. to allow construction of two southwest-to-northeast runways of 12,000 and 8,000 feet, as envisioned by a consultant's study, Filner said.
"You'd have to buy it in any case," he said. A Baldwin Co. representative told the council that his firm would not take any irrevocable steps until that study is completed.
The vote comes a month before Sandag is scheduled to release a final recommendation based on the results of its 14-month, $350,000 study of alternatives to Lindbergh, a review that includes two scenarios for a huge bi-national airport covering as much as 6,600 acres of Otay Mesa.
Sandag also is considering Miramar, a site east of Miramar and expansion of Lindbergh, which now serves 11 million passengers annually. That passenger volume is expected to grow to 35 million a year by the middle of the next century.
Tuesday's decision "overrides, without its completion, the Sandag report," Roberts said.
But, during council debate that lasted most of Tuesday, Filner strongly maintained that the bi-national proposal, a Roberts initiative that the councilman has stopped pursuing in recent months, already is dead because the Mexican government is cool to the idea.
"We haven't heard anything about the bi-national airport," Filner said. "I assume it's dead. Everybody else assumes it's dead. The whole moratorium was conditioned on that being a possibility, and it's not a possibility, and we should stop playing games with the economic vitality of this whole region."
With the moratorium expiring Nov. 21, residential developers are free to resume working their way through the city's planning process to build more than 11,000 homes west of Brown Field. One builder is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission in three weeks, and four others could reach that stage within a few months, according to a Planning Department report.
Commercial projects in the moratorium area, north of California 117 and east and west of Brown Field, also may work their way through the planning process to construction.
The council actually voted on a Planning Department recommendation to extend the building moratorium for as much as another year and expand it to all of Otay Mesa, an area targeted for a massive residential, commercial and industrial buildup in coming years.
The extension, which would have required six votes instead of the normal five votes because the moratorium assumes that the city faces an emergency, drew only the support of Roberts, O'Connor and Councilwoman Gloria McColl. Council members Wes Pratt, Ed Struiksma, Bruce Henderson, Judy McCarty and Filner opposed the idea, and Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer was absent.
The council did not act on Struiksma's suggestion to place a referendum on Miramar on the June, 1990, ballot or a call by McCarty for the council to vote on that airport site Tuesday. It did, however, schedule discussion on whether to fund Sandag's $18,000 study of the Brown Field expansion.
The proposal to expand the moratorium to all of Otay Mesa, including the area south of California 117 now being heavily developed with commercial and industrial projects, drew massive opposition at Tuesday's public hearing.
The moratorium would have covered, for example, the 450-acre Otay International Center, which now includes 1 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, and is planning to add 1.5 million more.
Construction of an airport there might have required moving the recently expanded Otay Mesa border crossing, which took 10 years of negotiations with the Mexican government to establish, a U.S. Customs representative said Tuesday.
"The proposed action would stop Otay Mesa in its tracks, economic catastrophe would ensue, hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost," said Paul Benowitz, vice president of Westkin Properties, general partner in the Otay International Center, which has already spent $42 million on roads, sewers and other infrastructure. "Companies will rethink their stance to relocate. Lenders will look askance . . . and inevitably, litigation will result."