Monday, Jan. 22, 2007 | As they tally up the public comments offered over the Chula Vista bay-front redevelopment in the coming weeks, Port District officials will likely notice the loud cries issued by environmentalists and organized labor — two constituencies that have up until now provided the project key political support.

In separate letters sent to the Unified Port of San Diego this month, a coalition of environmental groups and a local electricians union said the bay-front project poses risks to public health and surrounding wildlife that would scuttle their longtime support for the behemoth development if the project isn’t significantly altered or more thoroughly studied.

“Indeed if these issues are not addressed … the Coalition may not be able to support the proposed project at all,” Marco Gonzalez of the Coast Law Group, the attorney for the environmentalists wrote in a Jan. 11 letter.

The concerns expressed in those letters, which are among the dozens sent to the port in response to a draft of its environmental impact report, highlight frustration and potential friction that could be developing among various groups who have advised the port and the city of Chula Vista over the past three years.

“We’ve supported the project every step of the way because we thought we were being taken seriously, and now there are all those issues that we have found out aren’t being addressed,” said International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569 organizer Jennifer Badgley. “It’s disappointing.”

If left unaddressed, the current discord could pose a political challenge for the project’s backers, who would be left to navigate the maze of decision-makers without the consensus support the ambitious project has boasted to date.

“Anytime anyone comes into opposition, obviously that’s a concern,” said Port Commissioner Mike Najera, who represents Chula Vista on the five-city board. “For something that is very critical to our community, our emphasis is on pleasing these stakeholders.”

The proposed development would transform Chula Vista’s marshy banks on San Diego Bay into a bustling recreational and hospitality complex, including a 400,000-square foot convention center, one of the county’s largest hotels, about 2,000 condos that would tower up to 200 feet high, a modernized marina and a signature park. Wetlands in proximity to the development would also be restored.

The Port Commission invited a diverse collection of groups to sound off on the bay-front project. In addition to the business groups and real estate industry that would be prone to approve of a project that can catalyze economic activity on the city’s west side, the committee included the environmental and labor groups that regularly scrutinize large developments such as the one proposed for the shores of Chula Vista.

“The more people you have a consensus with, the easier it would be to get through the regulatory agencies you have to see as part of a large redevelopment process like this,” port spokeswoman Irene McCormack said. “We truly don’t want to have any schism in the partnerships that are already formed.”

In addition to having to pass muster with the Port Commission and the Chula Vista City Council, the project will be vetted by several other public boards, such as the California Coastal Commission, the state Lands Commission and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“Many of the things we’ve asked for I know the Coastal Commission has asked for,” Environmental Health Coalition spokeswoman Laura Hunter said. “And if they don’t happen, I don’t think this flies with the Coastal Commission. And if it doesn’t get passed by the Coastal Commission, this project isn’t going to happen.”

Observers said the current tussle underscores the challenges of accommodating the diverse group of interests that has, by most accounts, compromised through its problems since a vision of the bay front was conceived. The detracting groups and the port say they both believe the disputes will eventually be solved.

But the critics said the port has to make the changes they are seeking and can’t simply assume their support will be won-over when the project goes before the various public agencies that will determine its fate.

“Not if they try to lowball the environmental impacts, and that’s what this [environmental impact report] does,” Hunter said.

The environmentalists provided the port with a list of 150 problems they found with the plans. High among their complaints is the placement of a road extending from F Street through a marsh, a lack of a plan to deal with affordable housing for the multiplex’s workforce, and the project’s affects on water quality. Also, they said the port’s plans to protect endangered species, such as the light footed clapper rail, a hen-sized water bird, are inadequate.

“This plan will either accelerate the extinction of that species, or if it’s improved, could contribute to its accelerated recovery,” Hunter said.

Some of these concerns were unexpected, she said, because the environmentalists thought they had been given assurances that their suggestions were enacted in the plans.

“I would probably feel the same way if I left the meeting months ago thinking one thing and it not happening,” said Jack Blakely, executive director of the Chula Vista Downtown Business Association and a member of the public advisory panel. “Let’s hope we can talk to them and figure out what their issues are and negotiate some good solutions to the problems.”

For the electricians union, the report didn’t investigate whether soil on the construction site is contaminated, even though the waterside plots are currently near industrial lands and an aging power plant.

“When they are grading and constructing on that sight, they are exposed on top of that potentially toxic mess,” said Suma Peesapati, a Bay Area lawyer for IBEW Local 569.

Badgley also noted that the highest concentration of the union’s members live in Chula Vista and would be affected by the increased traffic on the city’s streets.

Port officials are required by the state’s environmental law to respond to all of the concerns lodged by members of the community before the agency draws up its final environmental impact report. A schedule has not yet been set for completing that process, but the project’s stakeholders will be meeting Jan. 30 to discuss the various criticisms the port received.

“They’re not insurmountable, but they have to be addressed,” Badgley said.

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

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