On April 14, in Ventura, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) heard a presentation and public comments on a proposal by the San Diego Unified Port District to build what the port called phase 1 of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan (NEVP). A parade of supporters expressed their admiration for the project. Park advocates and project opponents explained their concerns with the project to the commission.
Opponents pointed out that the proposed project was inconsistent with the original NEVP, and was also in violation with the California Coastal Act (CCA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
They argued that project was inconsistent with the NEVP because it would have deleted the promised 2.5 acre Broadway Landing Park at the foot of Broadway, and the project would have violated the CCA because the port was asking the CCC to approve a major change in the Port Master Plan via an administrative Coastal Development Permit (CDP) process, instead of a Port Master Plan amendment process as required by the CCA. This effort to short circuit state law came back to bite the Port and its NEVP agency partners.
In the end, the CCC deadlocked 5-5 and the project was rejected.
In my opinion, the port lost face when its staff and a hired outside attorney unsuccessfully went to battle with the CCC’s lawyer and the California Attorney General’s representative, trying to argue that the CCC did not have authority to require the port to reimburse the CCC for any legal costs it might incur defending the project.
This argument gave several commissioners the impression that the port did not think that its own project was legal, and didn’t want to pay for a losing legal defense if the project approval was challenged later in court, which CCC staff deemed very likely.
The port’s planning staff also didn’t earn any points with the commission when they said that the port agreed with the CCC staff’s special conditions imposing clear deadlines for the construction of a new alternative Waterfront Destination Park, but warned that they were almost certain to come back to the commission later on asking for extensions to those deadlines.
Given that the port has dragged its feet for seven years without constructing the mandated public park on Navy Pier, many CCC members did not seem inclined to accept such a vague “commitment” from the port now.
For now, none of the parties got what they wanted. The port, the city and the CCDC did not get authorization to begin construction of the NEVP phase 1 project. And, the port is now in a legally treacherous situation, where it could be legally challenged if it tries to use the Broadway Landing Park site as a truck and bus intersection to serve cruise ships docking at the new Broadway Pier cruise ship terminal since that is not an authorized use of that site under the existing Port Master Plan.
The park advocates were unable to convince the CCC to consider revoking the Broadway Pier cruise ship terminal CDP, even though the CCC now understands that the port had misled them when it asserted that construction of the new terminal would have no impact on other planned land uses on San Diego’s Bayfront.
The local Coastal Commission office staff came out looking gullible for having been willing to support an illegal CDP and being willing to allow the port to violate the California Coastal Act in return for a very uncertain commitment to build an unidentified alternative park somewhere along the North Embarcadero someday. It appeared as if their desire to make any kind of a deal, no matter how shaky, was given a higher priority than their duty to enforce the CCA. Hopefully that won’t happen again.
In the next few weeks I will blog on the history leading up to this regulatory train wreck, and look at what it will take to get the NEVP back on track.