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San Diego approves radical compromise plan for Mission Bay

San Diego City Council members unanimously approved an ambitious plan Tuesday to transform much of northeast Mission Bay into climate-friendly marshes capable of combating sea level rise and to extract carbon from the air.

Supporters said the plan, which follows seven years of community debate, is a fair compromise between environmentalists and advocates for camping and other recreation like tennis, softball and water skiing.

But environmentalists say the plan caters too much to those interests, saying more of the 505 acres is expected to become marshland because climate change is accelerating.

Golf supporters also criticized the plan because it would slightly reduce the Mission Bay Golf Course footprint, possibly requiring reconfiguration that could make the course ineligible to host high school events.

The campers supported the compromise reluctantly, afraid it could be worse. But they also complained that camping space would drop from 62 acres to 49 acres and from 970 campsites to about 500.

While council members praised the plan to require each group to give and take a little, they expressed concern that hard-won compromises could be dismantled by state and federal wildlife agencies.

An aide to Mayor Todd Gloria said the agencies — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife — told city officials they supported environmentalists’ calls for additional marshes.

The aide, policy advisor Randy Wilde, said those agencies have the authority to require significant changes to the plan when it goes to the Coastal Commission for approval later this year or next year.

Council member Raul Campillo said he’s frustrated that the city doesn’t have final say on land use decisions for one of San Diego’s most beloved spots.

In addition to the golf course, the area includes De Anza Cove, Campland on the Bay, Kendall-Frost Marsh Preserve, Rose Creek, several athletic fields, a tennis complex, parking lots, beaches and more.

“We want to control our own destiny in Mission Bay,” Campillo said, urging city staff and his council colleagues to stand up to state and federal officials in any future negotiations.

The plan could also be blocked or delayed by litigation. Environmental groups have suggested over years of compromise that a plan providing for unsuitable marshes might prompt them to sue.

Despite the possibility that the plan could be changed or blocked, Mayor Gloria said it was an important step in getting so many competing groups to agree on a compromise that the council unanimously approved.

“This plan will not only restore vital wetland habitats, but also ensure that De Anza Cove remains a vibrant space for recreation, low-cost visitor accommodation and environmental education for generations to come,” said the mayor.

Community leaders echoed those comments.

“The city’s plan is the only one on the table that balances environmental stewardship and recreational access,” said Sarah Mattinson, Mission Beach City Council member and owner of Olive Cafe.

Marcella Bothwell, chairwoman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board, said the compromises in the plan came after thousands of hours of hearings and negotiations.

“Compromises are difficult,” she said. “It’s not perfect.”

Environmentalists said the plan is essentially a false compromise based on the misguided idea that existing recreational uses in the northeast corner of Mission Bay Park should remain there.

They say the 4,000-acre park offers plenty of recreational space when viewed as a whole, saying it makes sense for marshes to dominate the northeast corner instead of being balanced against recreation .

The plan adopted by the city would actually increase the recreation space in the northeast corner of the park from 60 to 66 acres, allowing for two additional courts for tennis and pickleball and expanding some playing fields to regulation dimensions.

While the plan would triple the area’s marshes, wetlands and dunes from 82 acres to 262 acres, a broad coalition of environmental groups prefers a plan that calls for 315 acres.

“The City Council needs to take an aggressive stance today,” said Andrew Meyer, conservation director for the local chapter of the Audubon Society. “This plan, if improved, can be the first cornerstone to meeting our climate action goals and being resilient to sea level rise.”

The revised Climate Action Plan that the council approved in 2022 calls for the creation of 700 acres of wetlands across the city. The plan adopted Tuesday would create 180 acres, or a little more than a quarter of that total.

New marsh areas – sometimes called wetlands – serve the dual purpose of removing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from the air and combatting sea level rise by acting like a sponge coastal.

The plan adopted Tuesday would require several million dollars, perhaps more than $1 billion, to fully develop. City officials said it would almost certainly be done in stages over several years.

Meyer said there is more than $3 billion in state and federal grants available for coastal resilience projects.

The plan adopted Tuesday is a high-level blueprint. The details of reconfiguring the area won’t be decided until city planners, with public input, create a general development plan.

No existing businesses will be forced to relocate until those decisions are made, city officials said.

The fight for the northeast corner of Mission Bay began more than seven years ago, when the closure of the De Anza Cove mobile home park prompted San Diego to explore how to revamp the entire area.

City officials decided in the 1990s that the 50-acre campground at the bay site would eventually become a marsh so it could be joined by the existing Kendall-Frost Marsh Preserve, north of Crown Point.

Kendall-Frost has the only remaining marsh in Mission Bay Park, which was mostly marshland before it was aggressively dredged after World War II to create what city officials call the world’s largest water park.

Because Campland would become a swamp, the campground would be moved to De Anza Point, where the mobile home park once stood, and would get less space.

New features of the plan include a nature center, a small boating area on De Anza Cove Beach and an extensive multi-use waterfront trail system.

California Daily Newspapers

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