Battle continues over recreation v. natural balance in Mission Bay Park

A view of Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve on the corner of Pacific Beach Drive and Crown Point Drive. The Mission Bay Park Master Plan calls for 120 acres of marshland. The City's preferred plan would add 84 acres of Campland on the Bay (in the back left, above) to the existing 40 acres of the Marsh Reserve.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego/Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego/Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego U)

San Diego-area environmentalists concerned about sea level rise and climate change have persuaded City officials to consider adding more than 200 acres of marshland to the northeast corner of Mission Bay.

In response to aggressive lobbying this winter by environmentalists, San Diego planning officials have decided to add a marshland-heavy option to the proposals they’ve been studying since 2018 for revamping the bay’s northeast corner.

But planning officials say they haven’t committed to the same level of detailed analysis requested by environmentalists, and they also must still secured funding needed to complete the study.

The effort by environmentalists got a big boost in January when five of the City Council’s nine members — all Democrats — said they wanted to prioritize adding the wetlands-heavy option to the City’s ongoing environmental impact study.

The effort has been led by the local chapter of the Audubon Society and a group of local organizations that calls itself “Rewild Mission Bay,” to stress its desire to restore mud flats, salt marshes and other features of the park.

Mission Bay, the world’s largest aquatic park, was a giant marshland before City leaders and the Army Corps of Engineers used dredging and aggressive land movement to create beaches and recreational amenities after World War II.

The City has an opportunity to restore some of the marshland, which fights sea level rise and provides habitats for endangered species, because of the uncertain future of several hundred acres of land in the northeast corner of the bay.

The 76-acre De Anza Cove mobile home park recently closed after years of litigation, and the 46-acre Campland on the Bay RV Park has come to the end of its long-term lease.

City officials decided in 2016 to study possible redevelopment of those two parcels and an additional 90 acres next to the mobile home park that includes Mission Bay Golf Course, tennis courts, ballfields, picnic areas and parking lots.

Based on input from the Mission Bay Park Committee, the City has been focusing on a less marshland-heavy option that would devote many more acres of the bay’s northeast corner to recreation and commercial activities.

The City’s proposal includes some public-private recreation, camping areas, a restaurant and nature lookout points, while also filling a gap in a popular bicycling path.

Now City planning staff will also study the Rewild proposal, which would add 227 acres of new wetlands to the northeast corner of the park. That’s compared to 120 acres under the City’s proposal.

“This request by ReWild/Audubon Society has resulted in a significantly longer and more costly process than previously planned,” said Tara Grimes, a City spokesperson, by e-mail.

The state law requiring such environmental analysis, the California Environmental Quality Act, doesn’t require the City to study the kind of proposal requested by Rewild Mission Bay, Grimes added.

But City officials have decided to study it anyway, she said. The new, broader approach means the environmental impact study will include more technical detail.

Andrew Meyer, the Audubon Society’s conservation director, said by phone that it’s crucial for the City to study his group’s marshland-heavy proposal.

“It’s totally reasonable to give the City Council two alternatives to choose from,” he said. “It will give the Council a clear choice.”

A key argument environmentalists make in favor of the marshland-heavy option is that projections of sea level rise would shrink the City’s proposed 120 acres of marshland to 40 acres by 2100.

The 227 acres in the Rewild proposal is projected to shrink to 120 acres by 2100.

Most of those additional City acres would be the Campland on the Bay site.

The City’s preferred proposal moves the RV park to De Anza Point because the existing Campland site is an ideal location geographically for marshland.

Proposals for more marshland have faced backlash from frequent users of Campland and from the many golfers who use Mission Bay Golf Course, one of the only lighted courses in the region.

Meyer said it makes sense to add significant marshland in the northeast corner if you look at 4,600-acre Mission Bay Park holistically. “There is space in the rest of the park for substantial recreation to be offered,” Meyer said. “This is the best place in all of Mission Bay for wetlands to go.”

Supporters say the Rewild proposal would also boost water quality and improve access to marshland and the shoreline. The proposal includes boardwalks, bird watching areas and paddle boarding channels throughout the new marshland.

Studying the new alternative will lengthen the City’s environmental analysis by about a year and increase the cost by roughly $200,000, Meyer said.

If the City Council eventually chooses that option, constructing it would cost an estimated $63 million, compared to $44 million for the City’s preferred alternative.

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