February 22, 2008

Steve Padilla


Dumb ideas have a way of sticking around. Unlike many recyclable goods, one persistent dumb idea is again surfacing for air that still lacks any real reusable value. With tough financial times facing many cities, some with ties to our port tidelands are again whispering and talking about dissolving the Port of San Diego.

Not that some in our region’s political establishment would ever shy away from a shortsighted opportunity to seize perceived short-term financial gain at the expense of the future. Nor would some shy away from missing entirely the important point that proper management of public resources along San Diego bay must be maintained as a region, or from forgetting that our tidelands are a public trust given to the management of the Port District from the State of California through state law. Some of course as always, forget that the financial benefits from our diverse port tidelands must accrue to the benefit of the tidelands as whole, not just to cities which currently generate the most revenue because they were fortunate enough to have developed their areas first, because they were the largest, wealthiest or most politically powerful. However flawed, the Port District can serve to make the ultimate improvement and management of all port lands to their fullest potential a reality for all member cities, not just San Diego.

No doubt, there is much room for improvement when it comes to the Port of San Diego, and not all criticisms of it are without merit. But the solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To do so before all Port tidelands are properly cleaned up, protected, developed and reinvigorated on a regional basis, would be wrong. It could lead to disjointed protection of the environment, five separate government bureaucracies with land use authority instead of one, a lower likelihood of real regional cooperation, and piecemeal planning efforts. Worse, it would again concentrate financial benefits in those communities with strong commercial or industrial activity on their port lands, and starve those without it. Worse, and maybe most ironic, is that a dissolved port where each city manages their tidelands from only their self-interest could kill the ability of smaller member cities to afford to improve and develop the proper use of their tidelands, thus reinforcing and making permanent the “tale of many different bay fronts”; some with thriving commercial and recreational uses, some providing industry and jobs, and others fallow, contaminated and stagnant. Real progress toward economic and environmental justice would certainly suffer. In other words, in order for rising tides to truly lift all boats, port tidelands must be managed, protected and improved as a whole.

This bad idea is not new. Often when cities are struggling with declining revenues, those with port tidelands within their city limits generating revenues for the Port of San Diego begin looking at them and licking their chops. Wouldn’t it be better to control our own waterfront, and reap all of the financial rewards ourselves? – So the thinking goes. In the case of San Diego in particular where the vast majority of port revenues are generated, the idea is particularly appealing. Especially when varying Mayors and City Councils have been displeased with actions taken by the Port District or felt frustrated at their inability to control their delegation to the Board of Commissioners. This is a dangerous and shortsighted attitude.

Having been formed in the early 1960’s for the purpose of properly protecting and managing what the people of our state deemed an important pubic resource, the San Diego Unified Port District was meant to coordinate the planning and management of these important tidelands and resources on a regional, not city basis. These tidelands are as diverse as our region. Some areas support the critical maritime economy - shipping, trade, military and other critical economic activities. Some areas are home to the some of the most unique and endangered marshlands and habitat in North America. Others still offer great opportunities for visiting, public access and tourism and make up some of what our region is best known for. But our port tidelands are incomplete and cities like National City, Chula Vista and Imperial Beach have much to potentially contribute to the overall benefit of the region, but none will achieve their much-vaunted dreams on their own – without being a part of a Unified Port District.

The leaders of those communities should be front and center in supporting and enhancing the role of the port for the good of their cities and the region as a whole. The idea that any of these cities could develop, clean up, preserve or enhance their tidelands in the way they have dreamed of on their own or even with a wealthy investor is untrue and naive. They should also not forget that regional tidelands in our county made up of the “haves” and “have-nots” is perfectly fine with some.

The answers here are not found in creating five regional tidelands instead of one. They are not found in creating a new super-regional government combining the airport authority, the port and the San Diego Association of Governments together as some are suggesting, in many cases for their own self-absorbed purposes. The long-term solutions are found in working as a region to truly live up to what the pubic trust of our tidelands is supposed to be all about.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: spadilla@aquariusgroup.org.

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