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Thursday, July 3, 2008 | It is unlikely that a federal judge’s ruling last week forcing the U.S. Defense Department to involve the public in the environmental assessment of the Navy Broadway Complex will scuttle the billion-dollar project proposed by developer Doug Manchester.

But it raises the possibility that whatever ends up on the roughly 15-acre waterfront site at center stage downtown will be different than the controversial proposal the Navy and Manchester dreamed up largely behind closed doors in 2006.

“It opens the door for a little ray of light,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista. “Those who want a much more open process and a much more public project were heartened by the decision.”

The decision by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller requires that the Navy show its plans to the public and allow for input on how the project will impact its surrounding environment. But, lawyers on both sides say, the impact of the ruling will largely depend on how the Navy interprets it.

If the Navy sees the ruling as a mandate to complete a new environmental assessment on the project, it could lead to a more in-depth study, known as an environmental impact statement. If that becomes the case, then public input could significantly change the scope of the project, said Cory Briggs, a lawyer for San Diego Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, a group of activists opposing the project.

However, it’s also possible — some say likely — that the Navy will feel compelled to hold more public hearings, but not to update environmental analyses it has already done. A lawyer for Manchester said Miller’s ruling does not require new environmental reviews.

Filner, Briggs and others who oppose the plan say Miller’s order will assuredly slow the project down, but they remain worried that the Navy will continue to keep the public from having an equal say in the development of one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on the Southern California coast.

Navy officials would not comment on Miller’s ruling, saying it is still “under review.”

The project, as envisioned by the Navy and Manchester, would be a mix of high-rise hotels, office buildings and retail shops on the site, which stretches from West Harbor Drive north to Broadway. Since its beginnings, the proposal has faced a coordinated opposition by a coalition of city residents and activists.

Members of the coalition say the project would not only wall off a property that should be accessible to the public, but carries with it significant environmental and safety impacts that have not been fully aired in public.

Those impacts range from traffic congestion to leaky underground storage tanks to the development’s proximity to a seismic fault line, Briggs said.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires a study of environmental impacts of major federal projects. The first step is the environmental assessment, which is used to determine whether there may be significant environmental impacts. If that potential is found to exist, then a more involved environmental impact statement is required.

Federal law requires “meaningful” public input on both reviews.

The Navy, which has been trying in fits and starts to develop the property since it began downsizing its installations in the early 1980s, has claimed that it already completed both analyses. An environmental assessment and impact statement were done in 1990, and another assessment was done in 2006

In March 2006, the Navy selected Manchester Development to develop the site. That June, an environmental assessment was completed without public input. In December, the Navy signed a 99-year lease with Manchester.

The coalition sued the Defense Department in January 2007 on multiple grounds, including the contention that the public was not given ample opportunity to comment on the project’s environmental impacts. At the crux of the case is the Navy’s decision to go forward with the project based on the environmental impact statement from 1990.

The two-decade old review does not take into account new information regarding increased traffic, air pollution, and risk due to potential terrorist attacks and earthquakes, the suit argued.

Miller, in his ruling, did not address the adequacy of the prior environmental statement, but agreed that the public was shut out of the environmental review process, and has a right to weigh in with concerns. He made a point to highlight the importance of the site.

Miller wrote: “What the Navy seeks to develop here is not just a parcel of property consisting of 16 waterfront acres. The NBC site has the potential to become a signature piece representing a unique and magnificent gateway to the City of San Diego. Not only is it imperative that the project proceed while informed by a high level of public participation … it is equally important that when the key is finally turned the interested public may say they had a fair and full opportunity to ‘weigh in’ on environmental concerns.”

The judge is essentially saying that “something as important as this project requires real public participation, not lip service to participation,” said Briggs.

Briggs, however, joins Filner in his worry that the Navy will comply with the basics of Miller’s order, but do so in a way that still keeps the public from having a meaningful impact on the project.

The Navy owns the land, and regardless of public opinion can build the project it wants to build, Briggs said.

“That is my worry,” he said. “They will hold a public hearing and then say we didn’t hear anything new.”

Summer Wynn, a lawyer representing Manchester, said Miller’s ruling requires more public input than the Navy allowed previously, but nothing more.

“We remain confident that the environmental impacts have been fully analyzed and that additional environmental review is not required under [National Environmental Policy Act] or any other law,” Wynn said.

Filner said Miller’s ruling buys him some time to propose legislation in Congress that would require the Navy to undergo a renewed environmental process. He indicated that passing such legislation would be difficult, but worth trying given the Navy’s record.

“The court case wasn’t so clear cut that the Navy couldn’t squirm out of it,” Filner said. “I don’t trust them.”

The coalition has filed two other lawsuits, including one under state environmental statutes and a Freedom of Information suit that seeks an un-redacted copy of the lease agreement between the Navy and Manchester.

As part of the lease, Manchester must build a $160 million headquarters complex for Navy Region Southwest. In exchange, Manchester will be given the rights to develop the remaining land around the headquarters. His proposed development also includes a cluster of office buildings that would house defense contractors, a four-star, 1,100-room high-rise hotel and a 350-room resort hotel.

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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