The Battle Over Mission Bay
Monday, July 28, 2008 | Mission Bay Park deserves to keep more of the tens of millions in lease revenues it generates each year. On that, pretty much everyone agrees.
But as San Diego City Council gets set to vote Monday on a proposed ballot measure that would funnel more of Mission Bay’s revenue into capital projects for the park, there is a lack of consensus as to which of the park’s many needs should get a high priority.
There is, however, no shortage of anger over how the proposal, drafted by Councilman Kevin Faulconer and Councilwoman Donna Frye, was assembled and presented to the public.
Long-time park activists, including one member of the Mission Bay Park Committee, are dubious of a list of funding priorities for park improvements that Faulconer and Frye have included in the ballot proposal. And they say the public was not given ample opportunity to comment on the proposal.
“In my opinion this has been another behind-the-scenes, closed-doors, let’s-make-a-deal thing,” said Carolyn Chase, a member of the Sierra Club who has long been a Mission Bay Park activist.
For decades, Chase and many others have lamented the degraded wetlands, neglected infrastructure and undone capital projects in a park that in recent years has generated between $25 and $30 million annually through leases to SeaWorld, hotels, marinas and other businesses.
Under the current city ordinance that governs revenues from Mission Bay, the vast majority of revenues, between $20 million and $25 million, that come from hotels, sporting clubs and other lessees at the park go into the city’s general day-to-day operating budget. A separate pot, which is capped at $5 million, is split between Mission Bay and the city’s other regional parks, which include Balboa Park and Mission Trails Regional Park, as well as land set aside under the Multiple Species Conservation Program.
The Faulconer/Frye proposal changes this formula by eliminating the $5 million cap, and giving Mission Bay 75 percent of the uncapped lease revenues beyond the general fund allocation, which would start at $23 million and go down to $20 million after five years. The other parks would get 25 percent of the revenues beyond the general fund allocation.
The City Council’s independent budget analyst estimates that if both the City Council and the voters approve this measure, Mission Bay’s annual portion of the lease revenues will grow to $7.5 million by 2010. The increased revenues will come via the removal of the cap, and its larger share of the lease money.
Frye said the changes will, at long last, give Mission Bay a more equitable share of its own revenues.
“We have spent many, many, years trying to get this accomplished,” Frye said. “At some point in time, we have to make the commitment and there is no time better than present.”
In addition to the new funding formula, the proposed charter amendment comes with a specific list of capital projects that will take priority over other needs in the park. And therein lies the rub for several park activists.
The priority list includes: dredging of Mission Bay; wetland expansion and other water quality measures, beach restoration, expansion of endangered species habitats, the restoration of the Mission Beach boardwalk and the paving of parking lots.
The activists say they support most of the priorities, especially those that address the environmental issues. But they are not in favor of such a strict order of priorities and putting the paving of parking lots and the boardwalk restoration above other projects that have long been in the works — a notable example being improvements to Fiesta Island.
And most of all, long-time park supporters are upset because they feel that Faulconer, Frye and others came up with the priority list at the last minute, and behind closed doors. Chase said Frye and Faulconer only within the last couple weeks came to the Mission Bay Park Committee to present the proposal.
“Its just bad process,” Chase said. “Faulconer has been trying to do this for a long time, so why just drop it in at the last minute?”
Others have voiced similar complaints.
“People have talked about this informally for 30 years,” said Vicki Granowitz, a member of the Balboa Park Committee who has, over the years, been heavily involved in Mission Bay Park. “Couldn’t they have talked with us about it over the last six months?”
Faulconer’s office didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Granowitz and Judy Swink, a member of the Mission Bay Park Committee, both said they were surprised that Frye, City Council’s most outspoken open government advocate, allowed things to happen this way.
“I can’t believe that she (Frye) was the driving force,” Granowitz said. “It’s incongruent with her history.”
Frye said there has been no attempt to hide the proposal from the public, and said several changes have been made to the proposal since she and Faulconer met with Mission Bay Park Committee. Nonetheless, she said realizes that not everyone will be pleased with the final result.
“There has been this sort of ongoing saga of trying to make this work — trying to address the concerns of as many people as possible,” Frye said. “There is no perfect ballot measure.”
Regardless, Swink said it is unacceptable that parking lots and the Mission Beach boardwalk, which is not within the park boundaries, are getting priority over improvements to Fiesta Island. A new road and other infrastructure improvements to Fiesta Island are part of the Mission Bay Park Master Plan that was adopted in 1994.
“Fiesta Island was not only put at the end of the line, it is behind paving parking lots, which just dumbfounds me,” Swink said.
Bob Ottilie, the former chairman of the Mission Bay Park Committee who played a significant role in drafting the ballot proposal, said there has been opportunity for the public to weigh in since 2003 when the idea of a charter amendment was first discussed among members of the committee.
He added that the list of priorities went through a significant vetting process. For example, he said, while the boardwalk is not technically part of the park, it is nonetheless crucial to the public’s access to and enjoyment of the park.
“We view the ocean and the beaches adjacent to the Mission Bay Park as part of the park,” Ottilie said. “It’s not pork barrel, its part of a city park.”
Finally, Ottilie said the newest draft of the proposal includes language that allows work to begin on projects that are not on the priority list as long as it doesn’t hold up progress on those that are.
“Mission Bay Park is a really a regional park,” he said. “At the end of the day someone has to make a call as to how to package this thing so it works for the community.”