Thursday, May 15, 2008 | In San Diego’s City Council District 1, the political winds blow through the whiskers of about 100 harbor seals.

What to do with the seal colony, which over the past decade has gradually taken over the Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla Cove, stands as one of the central questions in the race to replace a termed-out Scott Peters.

There are essentially three positions for Democrat Sherri Lightner and Republicans Marshall Merrifield and Phil Thalheimer to take on the issue: evict the seals, hand the beach over to the seals, or a shared use arrangement where seals and humans coexist in the cove.

Lightner has joined Peters in the shared-use camp. She wants to comply with a state Supreme Court order to dredge the cove, and then put a divider up and have swimmers on one side and seals on the other.

“I am not a user of the Children’s Pool,” said Lightner, a 57-year-old engineer from La Jolla Shores. “But people who do use it claim it is possible.”

Both Thalheimer and Merrifield say shared use is a bad idea, and want to kick the seals out so the pool can again be free of seal excrement and be a safe swimming spot for children — the intention of Ellen Browning Scripps when she donated the money for the concrete breakwater that created it.

“Cohabitation doesn’t equate,” said Merrifield, a 48-year-old owner of a nationwide lock and key distributing business. “Cohabitation means the seals win.”

That a sea mammal would have a say in a City Council race is typical in District 1, home to some of the most hard-fought and unique political battles in all of San Diego. Over the years residents in the district, which includes La Jolla, Rancho Penasquitos, University City and Carmel Valley, have fought bitterly over religious symbols, parking meters and building heights.

“It is a fairly homogenous district, as opposed to the third or eighth districts, where you have very defined communities and issues specific to those communities,” said Christopher Crotty, a Democratic campaign consultant. “But [District 1] constituents can be difficult — they are fierce about the issues they care about.”

Since 1997, the seals have caused protests, arrests and lawsuits in both state and federal courts. As things stand now, state courts have ordered San Diego to dredge the cove, but legal challenges are pending.

City Hall’s financial troubles dominate in District 1 as they do across San Diego. Beyond the financial mess and the seals, District 1 candidates are being asked to take sides on growth issues, including a proposal for a bridge over city parkland and a highway project that could result in district homes being lost via eminent domain.

Five decades ago, the city formally called for a bridge linking Regents Road over Rose Canyon in University City. The plan was controversial then, and it still is. In September, City Council voted to allow design work for the $36 million project to go forward.

Supporters of the project say the bridge is desperately needed to ease ever-worsening traffic congestion in University City. Opponents say the ecosystem of Rose Canyon, which includes the endangered California gnatcatcher, would be seriously degraded.

The controversy has led to lawsuits, the most recent filed in November by environmental groups, and the community group Friends of Rose Canyon, seeking a Superior Court order to block the bridge design until an environmental impact study is completed.

Peters voted with the majority to go ahead with the design plans. Lightner opposes the bridge. She says it will not “do what [supporters] want it to do” in terms of alleviating congestion.

Thalheimer, a 50-year-old flight school owner, said he opposed the bridge when he ran against Peters in 2004. But now he says he would reluctantly support it on public safety grounds.

“If there is really a legitimate fire safety issue, then we do what’s best for community,” Thalheimer said.

Merrifield, a University City resident, supports the bridge, saying a lot of infrastructure has been built over the years with the assumption that the bridge would be built. “It amounts to a quality of life issue for University City residents,” he said.

A second transportation battle looms for District 1 candidates as well.

In 2004, Caltrans finished building Route 56, which links Carmel Valley and Rancho Penasquitos, but did not include freeway ramps to connect east-and-westbound 56 to north-and-south-bound Interstate 5. Traffic on the road quickly surpassed Caltrans’ projections, and it became clear that not including the connectors was a bad idea, and plans are now being drawn up to add them.

However, versions of the plans have called for the removal of dozens of homes through eminent domain. Caltrans officials have said recently that new plans significantly reduce the number of homes threatened, but fears among residents remain.

Although it would be Caltrans — not City Council — that would employ eminent domain powers, the issue has become a potent one in local politics. Peters is opposed to its use in this instance. Lightner and Merrifield also unequivocally oppose the use of eminent domain.

In a recent interview with NBC 7/39’s Gene Cubbison, Thalheimer emphasized the importance of the connectors and did not rule out supporting eminent domain.

“We need to finish the connection … and we need to do it with as little damage to the community as possible, taking as few homes as possible,” Thalheimer said.

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

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