Friday, Jan. 5, 2007 | Activists filed a suit against the Department of Defense and its handpicked builder of the Navy Broadway Complex on Thursday, alleging the development partners breached federal regulations by failing to more carefully examine the project’s impacts on its nearby surroundings and allow the public to provide input.

Opponents have also apparently found a champion in U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, who is aiming to delay the project from Capitol Hill.

San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, a local nonprofit, is suing several Pentagon agencies and developer Doug Manchester’s company because of the department’s decision in November to forego another review of the project’s environmental implications.

“We don’t believe the Navy can adequately protect the environment when they analyze the impacts in backrooms with Doug Manchester,” said Cory Briggs, the coalition’s attorney. “You’ve got to do it in the public.”

If the lawsuit is successful, the development would have to undergo a lengthy examination and, if new hazards are found, officials could then potentially be convinced to trim or even kill the project.

The Navy Broadway Complex deal requires Manchester to build the Navy a secure regional headquarters in exchange for a 99-year lease on the surrounding bay front land. The lease would allow Manchester to redevelop the site’s crumbling parking lots and drab buildings into a dense bouquet of hotels, office buildings, shops, parkland and museum space.

Fighting the project has become the cause célèbre for urban planners, architects and environmentalists over the past year. The activists became visible during last year’s hearings on the proposal, criticizing the size of the development and the discreet negotiations that took place between the Navy and Manchester. The two parties struck a lease in late November.

Filner joined the protest recently when he requested that U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales investigate seven legal issues surrounding the project. However, similar to the activists, Filner expressed his political viewpoint that a waterfront park, instead of Manchester’s redevelopment project, should occupy the site in a Dec. 21 letter to Gonzales.

“This is San Diego’s last opportunity to build a waterfront park, and we should not dismiss it too quickly,” Filner wrote. The South Bay congressman also penned a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., asking him to delay progress on the deal until Gonzalez reported back. Filner was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

The issue looks to regain steam in the New Year, with the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in San Diego, coming just days before Tuesday’s meeting of the San Diego City Council. At the hearing, the council will consider appeals from the coalition and others over environmental documents that date back to 1990.

The federal lawsuit and the appeal in front of the City Council are based on parallel complaints that certain changes in the circumstances surrounding the project have not been formally contemplated, both on the local and federal level.

In the lawsuit, the coalition said that the federal National Environmental Protection Act mandated that new information regarding increased traffic, air pollution, and risk due to potential terrorist attacks and earthquakes should have been restudied in November. The Department of Defense determined on Nov. 29 that no new study was needed.

The plaintiffs claim, for example, that placing the administrative center for the entire Pacific Fleet in a downtown, urban setting has different implications today — after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 1994 Oklahoma City federal building bombing — than it did nearly 17 years ago.

Also, two local scientists claim that the Navy and Manchester have not done a thorough enough review of the development’s proximity to a seismic fault line. Manchester did commission a study by Geocon Inc., concluding last July that “from a geotechnical standpoint, it is our opinion that the site is suitable for the proposed development,” as long as the consultants’ recommended precautions were followed.

In addition, members of the public should have had a chance to weigh in on those and other issues, the activists said.

Neither Manchester nor local Navy officials would respond to the lawsuit Thursday.

“We wouldn’t comment on any pending legal action until we had more facts,” said spokesman Scott Sutherland of Navy Region Southwest, which is based in the Navy Broadway Complex’s administrative offices.

Manchester attorney Steven Strauss responded in a Dec. 26 letter to some of the activists’ complaints that Mayor Jerry Sanders’ staff and the city’s downtown redevelopment board incorrectly ruled that the 1990 study was OK this fall. The activists made a similar argument to the federal lawsuit, but instead under the auspices of an analogous state law.

Strauss stated that the complaints were “without merit.” The public had its chance to weigh in before a past City Council initially blessed the environmental impact report, or EIR, over a decade ago, he argued.

“The appeals amount to a belated and misplaced attack on the adequacy on the 1990 [study] … and fail to provide any changed circumstances or new information that warrant further environmental review,” Strauss wrote to the council.

The activists, along with City Attorney Mike Aguirre, argue that the Centre City Development Corporation’s approval of the study in October allowed the appeals process to be reopened.

The council will consider the appeal in the council chambers, which are located at 202 C St. in downtown San Diego. Briggs said he expected his opponents in the federal lawsuit to respond to the litigation in the next two months.

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

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