August 2, 2012
By Laura Hunter & Marco Gonzalez

When our organizations joined together in 2000 to form a coalition to oppose a development plan for the Chula Vista Bayfront, it would have been hard to imagine then that we’d be where we are today – poised to support the largest new land-use plan in the California Coastal Zone.

We traveled quite a road to get here, and the lessons learned and the accomplishments achieved provide a framework and important lessons for those who seek to plan communities in a new way.

The path we started down was rocky at first. Our early call to action – “Don’t Pave Paradise!” – opposed the initial proposal of high-density development as unacceptable. The proposal drew major opposition from the community and environmental interests. It proposed to develop land too close to sensitive salt marsh habitat and did not include enough open spaces and parks for the public. We had to find another way.

The most desirable future vision of the bayfront varies, depending on your perspective. For the underserved Westside residents, the land could be used for new public parks and green spaces to relax, recreate, and enjoy. For workers, the bayfront represents an opportunity for employment in a time when jobs are desperately needed. For water and nature lovers, it gives access to South San Diego Bay and provides nesting and overwintering areas for seabirds. For conservationists, it houses two National Wildlife Refuges, filled with rare plants and animals, among the richest eel grass beds, and a significant amount of the remaining less than 10 percent of salt marsh habitat in California.

The bayfront also has considerable barriers to development. Formerly an industrial area, the Harbor District has significant need for cleanup and remediation of contamination requiring multiple jurisdictions and landowners to agree on a plan. For the last 60 years, the South Bay Power Plant loomed over the area with its oppressive, polluting profile. In the shadow of such a monstrosity, who could envision this as a popular park or tourist destination?

To its credit, Pacifica Companies chose a very different path than many coastal developers – to work with the community instead of against us. Pacifica withdrew its original plan and we entered into a multiyear community planning process. Everyone at the table learned to listen and, most importantly, hear the others’ challenges. The business participants learned about the lack of green space for residents and the needs of endangered species; the community learned to read and evaluate a business plan and understand return-on-investment. We sought to create good jobs to support families and ensure that residents had easy access to open spaces.

We didn’t agree on everything. We still don’t. However, we agreed on enough to forge a consensus to achieve the major goals of contributing to the regional economy, creating good jobs, increasing public access and protecting the environment. That is a victory in itself!

Before getting finalized, the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan underwent numerous revisions to accommodate various community, environmental, and economic needs and realities. The two Bayfront Settlement Agreements, negotiated by our members and allies, will ensure that we can enforce the actions promised – protections of wildlife and public access; creation of funding for community benefits; prioritizing good jobs; establishing high levels of energy efficiency; and, inclusion of the public participation in future planning and management. Most importantly, it will provide more than 150 publicly accessible acres of public parks, promenades and open space throughout the Bayfront. More local residents will have easier access to quality park experiences – especially those in low-income areas. Although the process took more than a decade, we have arrived at a master plan that has a significant consensus of support on the local, regional and state levels.

Our seven organizations, Environmental Health Coalition, San Diego Audubon Society, Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Association, San Diego Coastkeeper, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Chapter and EMPOWER San Diego, along with almost 2,000 local residents strongly support the Bayfront Plan. Recently, after much productive dialogue with the Port and the city of Chula Vista, the Coastal Commission staff issued a positive recommendation on the project. We have continued to walk the path of collaboration together.

The Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan is a landmark achievement both in that it redefines how coastal development should be created and in the vision it enables. This is what we will share with the Coastal Commission when the land use plan is voted on next week. It is worthy of everyone’s support.

Hunter and Gonzalez are part of the Bayfront Coalition.