Friday, Feb. 15, 2008 | City of San Diego officials have considered a plan to eliminate the Unified Port of San Diego, a move that would potentially bring the city more autonomy over waterfront land-use decisions and more money from bay-front operations.

The discussion about the port’s future is not new. Former state Sen. Steve Peace, a port critic, aimed to dissolve the agency when drafting the 2001 legislation that created the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, removing Lindbergh Field’s operations from the port’s auspices. Facing tight budgets before, the port’s member cities have looked to port coffers as a potential revenue source.

“It often occurs when there’s fiscal problems in the state, county or member municipalities,” said Irene McCormack, a port spokeswoman. “It also often occurs when people believe the port isn’t responding or reacting appropriately to needs based on waterfront opportunities. It’s a philosophical discussion that never ceases to end.”

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, acknowledged the city had discussed dissolving the Port District, but said such conversation occurred “in passing.”

“From the mayor’s perspective, he is not planning on moving forward with any plans to disband the port,” Sainz said. “This has been a perennial conversation that has been around for a long time. Like the rain, it’s something that comes up every so often. It’s not a plan the mayor is actively promoting or supporting.”

While the talk has never manifested into any formal legislation, a host of factors appear to have influenced its latest revival. The five cities that comprise the port — San Diego, Chula Vista, National City, Imperial Beach and Coronado — are again facing tight budgetary times because of the housing downturn. At the same time, developers hoping to build at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal are pursuing a ballot initiative that would allow voters — not the Port Commission — to decide whether their bay-front project should be built. And a newly appointed port commissioner, Laurie Black, has discussed ideas for the port’s future with at least two mayors who represent port cities: Chula Vista and National City.

Such a change would require state legislation. State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, who led recent efforts to overhaul the airport authority, said she has had informal discussions about the idea.

“People have mentioned it to me in confidential tones, but I have not had any briefing or request for legislation or policy discussion at all,” Kehoe said. “At this point, I’m unaware of any significant reasons why the port should change. But it’s always good to keep public agencies accountable and transparent.”

Abolishing the port district would give its member cities a greater individual say in planning for their bay-front land and allow them to tap about $120 million of revenue generated from leases and wharf fees currently directed to the port — all while setting the stage for a fight over the future of the region’s waterfront.

Competing visions for San Diego’s bay front have been discussed for years. Some see it as a tourist haven, with fine dining and five-star hotels. Others see a working waterfront equipped with heavy industry and cargo terminals that offer well-paying blue-collar jobs.

Black, a city of San Diego appointee on the seven-member port commission, acknowledged speaking with Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox and National City Mayor Ron Morrison about ideas for the port, though she said the discussions were brief. She said she would like the port commissioners to be more accountable to the cities that appoint them, but said she does not aim to “blow up the port.”

“I don’t think the Port Commission should be abolished,” Black said, “but I do think we should disempower port commissioners and empower the staff.”

Cox said she had been too focused on the city’s Gaylord Entertainment negotiations to entertain any discussion about the port’s future. Gaylord plans to build a hotel and convention center on port property in Chula Vista. Cox suggested, though, that Chula Vista would like to see more of the commercial development that has occurred elsewhere on the bay front.

“What we’ve seen is that northern San Diego Bay has received the hotels and restaurants, and south San Diego Bay has been considered a space for mitigation,” Cox said. “We think there’s room for the hotels, commercial and residential development (here).”

The 600-employee port district, which was formed by the state Legislature in 1962, has land-use authority over 2,500 acres of tidelands along the bay. The land houses hotels, cruise ship terminals and shipyards and is administered by the port, but owned by the state. Were the port to be abolished, cities would not have exclusive rights to develop the land, as projects would still need the approval of both the State Lands Commission and California Coastal Commission.

If the port district were eliminated, no city would stand to lose more than Imperial Beach. The port, which administers Imperial Beach’s beachfront land, provides the city about $8 million annually in revenue, a significant chunk of the city’s budget. Imperial Beach Mayor Jim Janney said he had not spoken with anyone about the port’s future, but wants the waterfront to continue providing blue-collar job opportunities.

“I believe you have to maintain the maritime aspect of San Diego Bay,” Janney said. “And right now, the only entity that looks out for that is the Port of San Diego.”

Developers Richard and Nancy Chase are pursuing a project that would attempt to meld traditional maritime uses with civic or commercial uses at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal in San Diego. They propose building atop the cargo terminal there and are pursuing a November ballot initiative that would ask voters whether they wanted to amend the port’s master plan to pave the way for the project — effectively usurping the Port Commission’s authority.

In a poll, the developers asked whether respondents thought the port should be abolished. Scott Maloni, a spokesman for the Chases, acknowledged such a question was asked, but said it was only to measure awareness of the port.

“It was in no way designed to test any effort to abolish the port,” Maloni said. “We have no interest in disbanding the port. It’s not going to help us get this ballot measure implemented. It’s counter to our interests.”

Peace, who has been touting a vision for revamping the region’s waterfront, said he doesn’t think the port should be dissolved. But it should have a more accountable governance structure, he said. Peace said he continues to support the idea of a regional governing group that would combine the functions of the port, airport authority and San Diego Association of Governments.

Dissolving the port would be a significant political challenge. And any action for the current legislative session would have to occur soon, with the clock ticking on deadlines to submit bills.

The idea would need union support, Peace said, and would likely be fought by other ports in the state that would fear the move setting a precedent that could lead to their abolition.

“It’s a fallacy to think just because the cities agreed that the legislators would do it,” he said.

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

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