SAN DIEGO — A local assemblywoman introduced a bill in Sacramento proposing to transfer submerged lands surrounding San Diego Bay to the Unified Port District of San Diego.
Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) introduced Assembly Bill 729 (AB 729) in the state’s lower legislative house in February to operate the submerged lands within the public trust and share a portion of gross revenues derived from the transferred property with the State Lands Commission (SLC); the commission currently owns the submerged lands Atkins proposed to transfer.
The bill, which could transfer about 35,000 acres of state-owned submerged lands to the port, was presented in front of the Board of Port Commissioners at their April 14 meeting.
Port staff stated the proposed law would provide economic and environmental benefits for existing and new uses of San Diego Bay. The transfer would include all SLC-owned land within San Diego Bay and state-controlled waters in the Pacific Ocean between the tip of Point Loma and the southwestern edge of Imperial Beach.
“Waterside revenues [marinas, boatyards, shipyards and yacht clubs] were approximately $18 million dollars last year. The legislation may allow these current uses to expand generating more revenue for the district and tenants,” port staff said in its report to commissioners. “The proposed acquisition would allow the district to directly facilitate more projects because of its control of much more submerged land.”
The land transfer could also allow port officials to protect eelgrass and other sensitive habitats as well as streamline the process for any waterside developments.
Port officials and marina operators who seek to make in-water improvements beyond their respective boundaries must endure multiple layers of state approvals and lease the required space from the SLC. AB 729,if approved and signed into law, would eliminate the involvement of the state at many levels of the development process.
“Simply eliminating the SLC approvals would vastly simplify and improve the leasing and permitting process for waterside development beyond the district’s current jurisdiction,” port staff said. “Eventually, the acquired properties would be added to the Port Master Plan, simplifying the coastal permitting process as well.”
The port could also create additional sensitive species habitats to “allow for the restoration of contiguous acres of habitat such as eel grass and kelp beds.”
“Currently, the district lacks regulatory authority outside of the bay. In particular, this is creating significant difficulties outside Zuniga Jetty where boats are anchoring in sensitive eelgrass habitat and boats are often being abandoned where they wash up on the beach, break apart and may release toxic chemicals and debris into marine habitats,” port officials said. “The Navy has approached the district regarding potential legislation to fix this problem and AB 729 would allow [us] to regulate this area where it currently cannot.”
Paul Malcolm, chair of the port’s Board of Commissioners, welcomed Atkins’ bill but urged his colleagues and staff to perform as much due diligence as possible to ensure the land transfer ultimately benefits the district.
“I’m also excited [and] cautiously optimistic about the prospect of [assuming control of submerged lands]. We’re already over the [lands] anyway. Our boats go over it and we patrol it,” Malcolm said.
Commissioner Bob Nelson joined Malcolm and others in sharing cautious optimism.
“It’s an exciting opportunity. I don’t know how thoroughly the lands that are under discussion have been explored,” Nelson said. “We certainly have had no representations be made to us by any staff or experts as to what lies down there.”
If the port assumes control of the submerged lands, it will come with a price. According to AB 729, the port must pay the SLC 20 percent of all gross revenues generated from trust lands each fiscal year as of June 30, 2016. Port officials would also have to reimburse the SLC by Jan. 1, 2018, for any expenses it occurs in surveying and recording its submerged lands.
Malcolm was also concerned the agreement to pay 20 percent of gross revenues to the SLC would prove to be a disincentive for the port to perform eelgrass mitigation, which is a very expensive activity.
“We’re all trying to do the right thing. We’re all on the same team here. We all want to use this area to environmental and other benefit, but the cost incentive has to be right,” Malcolm said, suggesting the 20 percent gross should be collected on net, not gross, revenues.
The SLC co-sponsored AB 729, which is expected to be taken up as “Urgency Legislation” within the next few months.
Port staff will continue to analyze the district’s costs and benefits under AB 729.