Tuesday, July 17, 2007 | Wetlands have returned to Mission Bay Park.

After trying to decide whether the word’s emphasis should be on the syllable wet or land, the City Council agreed Monday that 133 acres of wetlands in the park should be just that: Wetlands.

By a 7-0 vote, the council agreed to exclude wetlands from being counted toward the park’s total areas of land or water. (Though present, Councilman Jim Madaffer did not vote.)

The wetlands had disappeared from the city’s records in 2000, when a surveyor looked for only land and water in the park. Wetlands that were above the mean high tide line were counted as land — even though some of them sat in the San Diego River channel.

The definition is important because a ballot measure voters approved in 1987 allows the city to lease out only 25 percent of the park’s land to hotels and other businesses. If wetlands are counted as land, it increases the space that can be leased — at the expense of public parkland.

The park’s total size has long been a moving target. In 1968, surveyors used an aerial survey to create the first definitive outline of Mission Bay Park’s size. The results spelled out the park’s acreage of land, water and wetlands. The surveyors found 133 acres of wetlands.

In 2000, another survey team measured the park to create a definitive record of its size. But it used different standards. The survey detailed only the park’s acres of land and water. About 50 acres of wetlands were included as land; 70 acres were included as water. Another 15 acres disappeared altogether.

Councilwoman Donna Frye had sought to clarify the definition of water in Mission Bay Park to have it include “wetlands, navigable waters and all ‘waters of the United States’ as that term is used or defined under the Clean Water Act.” Frye said she was concerned that the mystery wetlands — which are protected under federal law — could artificially inflate the park’s total land acreage and allow the city to lease out more land than it should.

As long as wetlands were counted as land, the cash-strapped city could have boosted its revenues by leasing out more land in Mission Bay Park than city voters have approved. Last year, the city reaped more than $24 million from Mission Bay Park leases, which include SeaWorld and five hotels.

The Mayor’s Office opposed Frye’s clarification, saying it would artificially inflate the park’s water areas, allowing it to lease out more water than it should. (The 1987 ballot initiative allows 6.5 percent of the park’s water areas to be leased.)

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office said the clarification wasn’t necessary anyway. Even if all the park’s leaseholds were expanded to the maximum allowed in the park’s master plan, the blueprint for its future development, Sanders’ office said it wouldn’t reach the voter-approved limit.

About 22 percent of the park’s land is currently leased out to businesses such as SeaWorld. About 4 percent of its water is leased out to marinas.

The council ultimately agreed on a compromise ordinance from City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s staff. Instead of deciding whether wetlands were more wet or more land, it agreed that wetlands were wetlands and shouldn’t be counted toward any leaseholds.

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

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