Friday, Aug. 18, 2006 | It’s hot out here. Hot, dry and barren. Save for a few kids playing with some sort of flying toy and a man dragging his feet behind a kite that’s flying hundreds of feet in the air, nothing is going on.

There’s sand as far as the eye can see in one direction. One hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction is bay water. But without the sound of tiny waves crashing along this remote shoreline, it might as well be Death Valley.

This is Fiesta Island, 2006.

It hasn’t always been this way. City officials created Fiesta Island in the late 1950s as a place to divert muck pumped from the Point Loma Wastewater Facility. But a state commission challenged the legality of using designated parkland to store sewage, and the city paid hefty fines and ceased the practice.

Now, the city wants to overhaul the man-made island in the middle of one of San Diego’s most popular destinations. The different visions include anything from grassy parkland, bike trails, a park for recreational vehicles or an amphitheater. Those who want to see the island change say that for too long it has sat undeveloped – an untapped resource used by only a few San Diegans.

But opponents of the plan, many of whom are dog owners, are content with the desolation and intimacy of the 480-acre plot of land. The isolation is what makes the island so attractive to its current users. Offroaders take their trucks along the beach, kids shoot off model rockets and dogs run free from their leashes. The island also plays host to the famous annual Over the Line World Championship.

Despite the name, Fiesta Island really isn’t an island at all. It’s man made (so is much of the bay itself), and you can drive your car there – no ferry, no bridge. Just a one-way, four-mile road that gives islandgoers a scenic view of Mission Bay Park.

The island is desolate, arid and vacant – the relic of a time when trucks hauled away tons of fertilizer, formed from rotting sewage and sand that was bulldozed into place to build a man-made “island.”

Today, kids love it. Parents dig it. Dogs drool over it.

But some San Diegans would also like to see it developed. For more than four decades the island has sat undeveloped. Wednesday, community members gathered at the Mission Valley Library to get the first glimpse of three preliminary outlines of what the city might do with Fiesta Island.

The plans, presented in the form of huge planning maps, are based on visions laid out in the 1994 Mission Bay Park Master Plan.

By and large, the audience at the Mission Valley Library was incensed by what they saw. Hundreds of the island’s biggest fans, about 90 percent of whom are dog owners, came to the library enraged about plans to create “leash-free zones” on the island.

The response was so overwhelming that even before compiling the feedback, the lead consultant for the project, Michael Singleton, admitted that before making a recommendation to the Mission Bay Parks Committee, he will have to scale back the plans substantially.

Before the meeting even occurred, Mission Bay Park Committee Chairman Bob Ottilie said that the island’s current users will be the ones who will be most reluctant to approve of island development.

“I think the people who are the most concerned are the people who use it now in an undeveloped state,” he said Monday. “But it was created with the intent that it was going to be actively used.”

But it’s those who don’t currently use the island that people like Ottilie want to attract.

Apart from dog owners, members of the Old Mission Beach Athletics Club – organizers of the annual Over the Line Championship – take the most interest in what happens on the island.

This year, about 50,000 spectators and players poured onto Fiesta Island to take part in the raucous mainstay of San Diego culture. The Over the Line fields host several large tournaments per year, and when the massive field is not in use, it is sparsely populated by locals in need of open space.

This week, three young San Diegans played with a remote control helicopter that flew about 100 before being tossed to the ground by strong winds. About 200 yards away, a young man tethered to a kite dragged his feet along the sandy beach trying to keep himself on solid ground.

And about a quarter of a mile from the Over the Line fields, Heather Baker stood on the waterfront and watched proudly as one-year-old Mabel skipped through the water. Baker, who was visiting the island for the first time, said that she “instantly fell in love.” The desolate beach proved a perfect setting for Baker to bring her pride and joy to frolic, because in a crowded area, young Mabel gets flustered.

Like other dog owners, Baker enjoys Fiesta Island because, unlike other off-leash areas, the island is massive and enclosed only by the waterfront. Owners allow their dogs to run free without fear of a pitbull like Mabel attacking a Chihuahua.

“I think that that would make it too much like Dog Beach and we wouldn’t be able to take her out and let her play in the water as much,” Baker said. “She gets so flustered around the other dogs and she gets kind of like nervous and iffy and I don’t want her to attack another dog or something.”

“Being a pit bull, people already get nervous about her,” she said.

Baker is not alone in her skepticism.

Hundreds of dog owners attended the planning meeting in Mission Valley on Wednesday. Among them was Brian Laroche, a concerned dog owner who said he planned to start an organization called Fiesta Island Dog Owners – or FIDO.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” he said, flanked by five other dog owners. “We’re going to form and then see what action comes out of it.

“It’s a pressure group,” he added.

Halfway through the planning meeting, the maps provided by the consultants were littered with sticky notes from incensed dog owners:

  • My dog hates this
  • Where is the leash-free area?
  • Bad Ideas
  • Leave the island alone
  • Leave the entire island off leash
  • Stupid

And, the question that was echoed repeatedly at the meeting:

“Will our voices really be heard?”

Paul Jacob from San Diego Park and Recreation Department said that community members’ opinions will be taken into account, and it is a shame that they feel they will not.

“That’s unfortunate,” he said. “But I can’t change their minds about what they think.”

Singleton said that none of the plans presented Wednesday night were final and that the three alternatives to the Mission Bay Master Plan that were displayed will have to be scaled down to satisfy Fiesta Island’s current users.

He is scheduled to complete his consulting work later this year, at which point he will forward his findings to the Mission Bay Parks committee. From there, the committee will have to make a recommendation to the City Council, who has the final say about what happens to the island.

Please contact Sam Hodgson directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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