Sea Whirled

by Carolyn Chase


First, the Chargers, then the Padres. Now, it's Anheuser-Busch/SeaWorld looking for their special treatment from City Council.

    I like roller coasters the higher the better. But do new ones with significant noise impacts belong near residential areas? Do they belong on public land in public parks where none of the resulting revenue is guaranteed to come back to offset large park-related deficits? (All of the impacts are, of course, expected to be absorbed by the area.)

    These are just a few of the dozens of questions raised by Anheuser-Busch's local SeaWorld operations in their recently released SeaWorld Mission Bay Park Master Plan Update Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

    A 1972 city ordinance limits construction along the city's coastline to under 30 feet. This ordinance was originally passed as a result of an initiative petition (resulting in ballot “Proposition D”) that stated, in part, that the purpose was to “keep the beaches usable by all citizens and... to provide a small measure of protection against unwanted high population density with its problems of congestion, lack of parking spaces, increased noise, air pollution, inadequate public utilities and increased taxes.”

    Makes you wonder how much worse things could have gotten without it. Now we have a glimpse.

    In November 1998, after a huge PR campaign, voters narrowly approved a new Proposition D, giving Anheuser-Busch/SeaWorld a potential exemption to the height limit on its city leasehold in Mission Bay Park.

    Proposition D passed with only 50.7 percent of the vote. That's not exactly a ringing mandate. But SeaWorld sure treats it like one. They are proposing a number of things in this “Update” that go way beyond Prop D things that, if voters knew about, would have made Prop D passage doubtful.

    Did voters know they were getting a new resort hotel and convention center in the deal?

    SeaWorld's management has consistently dodged and obfuscated throughout their pushes to do whatever they want in Mission Bay Park. Before the election, opponents stated that SeaWorld's intentions were to be able to build towering roller coasters and hotels. SeaWorld's General Manager at that time responded, “We have no plans to build a roller coaster. We have no plans and we're not talking to anyone about building a hotel.”

    What are they requesting approval for in this Update? An unlimited number of future “track rides” (up to 90 feet WITHOUT ANY GUARANTEED LOCAL PUBLIC HEARING) and a 650-room, 90-ft. hotel. Also in the package: a convention center facility to hold 1,000 attendees. They call it a “Special Events” facility. The maximum built-out profile they are asking to be permitted looks very much akin to plotzing the entire Mission Valley Shopping Center down in Mission Bay Park. Is that what the voters thought they were voting for?

The current view (above) and photosimulation of the Maximum Potential Building Development Envelope (below) of the Sea World site, looking north across the San Diego River channel The tall structure on the left is the current Sea World Tower. To get an idea of the scale, note the full-grown trees in the foreground.

Promises, promises


    What about the promises that SeaWorld did made in conjunction with Prop D?

    The Prop D Summary in the ballot asked voters if SeaWorld should be allowed to plan and construct:

“... exhibits, attractions and educational facilities only upon land leased from the City, provided:

  • The improvements are subject to City and Coastal Commission approval and do not exceed 1/2 the height of the existing SeaWorld Sky Tower; and
  • No taxpayer funds are spent for any improvements resulting form this initiative...”

    Makes it sound like a reasonable deal for taxpayers, eh?

    Makes it sound like, somewhere along the way, the public or city elected officials might have some oversight, eh?

    The processes being proposed to approve future projects are designed to allow city staff to make all the decisions. No need to go to the Planning Commission or anywhere near City Council for most things. SeaWorld's proposal demonstrates nothing but contempt for the public even though it's public park land. They are proposing things that shouldn't be approved on private land.

    What about keeping taxpayer's whole? Read the fine print in the actual ordinance adopted and it states the “catch”:

“No taxpayer funds shall be spent for any improvements in connection with a building or structure or addition to a building or structure.”

    Not exactly the same thing as was sold in bold in the ballot and PR campaign. Nice to know we don't have to pay for their own improvements. But what about the impacts of those “improvements.” Shouldn't those rightly be paid for by Anheuser-Busch/SeaWorld and not by taxpayers? Isn't that what any voter would believe from reading the ballot summary?

    I call upon Anheuser-Busch/Sea-World to keep its sales and ballot promises so that really “No taxpayer funds are spent for any improvements resulting from this initiative.”

Show us the money


    What taxpayer funds am I talking about? In the City of San Diego, existing water and sewer users currently subsidize growth.

    The City's “Cost-of-Service” reports for both water and sewer state, “The City of San Diego currently imposes a capacity fee which only partially funds expansion of water (and sewer) facilities necessitated by new development. ... when capacity fees are inadequate to fully offset expansion-related construction costs, those costs are shared by existing system users.”

    There is no discussion in the EIR about whether SeaWorld's payments will cover the City's cost of providing the infrastructure for water and sewer. Current Council policy does not require them to do so.

    Then there are the traffic impacts. In the air quality study it states, “The project study estimates that existing site-related traffic will increase by 12,960 daily vehicle trips. Project-related traffic will generate almost 200,000 additional vehicle miles traveled to the basin-wide travel burden.” In another location it states, “the future weekday traffic generation (ambient SeaWorld growth, the planned hotel and marina expansion) was calculated to be 15,300 ATD [average daily trips] with 496 inbound and 303 outbound AM peak hour trips, and 407 inbound and 681 outbound PM peak hour trips....”

    Existing weekday SeaWorld traffic generation is 15,000 ADT. The forecast growth for weekend traffic generation is an additional 22,727 ADT over current levels. This is not a small amount of traffic to be adding to existing traffic levels, in addition to the 850-room hotel/conference center going in at Quivera Basin directly impacting all of the same streets, intersections, and freeways.

    The EIR identifies future traffic failures. They calculate the “Sea World” share of growth-related costs to future projects well mostly. For I-5, where the vast majority of traffic would try to flow at Sea World Drive, the EIR is strangely quiet, stating only, “Unmitigated; Cost prohibitive/Caltrans jurisdiction.”

    Hmmmm. Caltrans jurisdiction. That would be us folks, the taxpayers of the State of California. They are not even willing to put a number on what they consider “cost prohibitive.” Makes me wonder if there is any solution proposed anywhere at all. Looks like another case of: they get the improvements and we get the impacts. And we wonder why traffic continues to rise.

    On severl other traffic improvements, where they at least agree to calculate their “fair share” percentages, they also provide repeated disclaimers in the chart listing “Mitigation and Participation” for significant traffic project impacts, stating repeatedly that, if any of the City's related CIPs (Capital Improvement Project) are not funded, then “SeaWorld's impact will be significant and unmitigated.”

    It would seem that if the City (or other projects) don't pony up for whatever reason, then SeaWorld is “off the hook.”

    So taxpayers are required to put in more dollars for any of this to work out. But SeaWorld's improvements could go ahead, regardless of whether the projects needed to deal with the impacts happen or not. This is manifestly unfair and a break with the spirit of Prop D if not the literal, limited language they foisted upon the public.

It's the water


    There is no discussion of impacts to the City's sewer system, even though Metro Wastewater took the trouble to send a letter in response to the EIR Notice of Preparation, stating, “The proposed project will impact the sewer facilities serving the park.”

    With respect to beach closures and water quality, the EIR states, “The majority of the closures were the result of sewer spills and overflows.” And, “The data indicated widespread presence of bacteria throughout the bay.”

    I should think the toilets (even if low-flow) in a 650-room hotel not to mention increased visitors in general will impact the sewerage situation.

    Donna Frye, long time community activist and now candidate in the Special Election April 17 for San Diego City Council District 6 (www.donnafrye4, was one of the key opponents of the beer giant's height exemption. She has correctly predicted every one of Anheuser-Busch's PR moves in advance.

    Frye, also founder of S.T.O.P (Surfers Tired Of Pollution) has literally been tireless in attempting to get the facts out about water pollution. She is not surprised about SeaWorld's continued attempts to avoid public accountability.

    “Anheuser-Busch's proposal is a real problem, since Mission Bay is listed as an impaired water body due to bacteria and does not meet the basic fishable/swimmable standards of the Clean Water Act,” said Ms. Frye. “Adding insult to injury is the fact that SeaWorld does NOT treat all the runoff from its existing parking area. Taxpayers money is being used to deal with at least 70 percent of the runoff generated from SeaWorld's parking area.”

    SeaWorld's position about water quality degradation events is that “None were attributable to SeaWorld operations.”

    A more accurate statement would be: none were attributed to Sea World operations. The City and County currently do not perform the tests that would be required to track the pollution to its source. Just because they were not able to attribute events to SeaWorld, it does not follow that they were not potentially “attributable” to them.

    In order to find out, for the first time, the City will finally be putting two monitoring points in the receiving waters at point zero of both outfalls from Sea World's waste treatment center. This has not been done before. Without monitoring, there is no way to verify that Sea World is not contributing further bacterial contaminants. The monitoring will be for two years.

    The monitoring is being done precisely in response to recurrent sewage spills and Mission Bay's persistent bacterial contamination. This needs to be addressed before allowing SeaWorld blanket permission to add more fish tanks or do anything that could allow more bacteria into an already impaired water body.

    Anheuser-Busch would have us believe that the SeaWorld Adventure Park is a perfect corporate partner. But their record shows otherwise. In February, 2001, they were fined $12,000 for their violations of the Clean Water Act by exceeding allowable bacteria levels. It also should be noted that, between 1995 and 1999, SeaWorld violated its permit more than 50 times, and most of the violations were for bacteria levels.

    A total health risk assessment of Mission Bay is also needed. We have very little understanding of the scientific issues that are before us in dealing with our poor little bay. We have 25 years of monitoring data that tells us absolutely nothing about the actual risks to human health associated with swimming in potentially contaminated water. The Regional Water Quality Board and City are pursuing grants to do studies to detect human pathogenic viruses at five stations in Mission Bay, to tell us whether the real agents of disease are actually present. They can then look for the source of the viral agents (which are always from sewage, but we need to know where the sewage is coming from), do some RNA testing to determine “who's doing the do” (is it people or is it critters?), and perform an epidemiology study to get a factual assessment of the relative risk of having contact with Mission Bay waters. Without this type of sound scientific investigation, there is no way of knowing what the real water quality issues are.

    The bottom line is that it makes no sense to allow construction that could add to the current state of consistent water quality impairment. This needs to be addressed, since they are asking to be permitted to add more fish tanks and other wildlife exhibits that could add more bacteria into an already impaired water body.

Other “little details”

  • SeaWorld can and should reduce the noise contours of the proposed Splashdown “attraction.” There is no excuse for allowing this kind of intrusion in a public park and onto private residences around it. The major impetus for all of this is for SeaWorld to remain competitive. But theme parks are not required to generate excessive noise to be competitive. Many track and water attractions are completely enclosed to control the noise and the experience.
  • No commitment to energy independence, energy efficiency, or reduced energy-related pollution.
  • They should commit to their own clean energy systems and not draw power from the public grid. These rides are intensively energy consumptive.
  • No discussion of waste volumes and regional landfill capacity impacts.
  • No commitment to purchasing requirements for recycled/recyclable materials in disposable food packaging a major component of their waste stream.
  • No commitment to limit future jet ski rentals to lesser polluting 4-stroke engines.
  • No commitment to transit or trip reductions.
  • They state a commitment to “community education.” But repeated attempted to get their education department to even have a table at the EarthFair in Balboa Park have been rebuffed because “they just don't have the budget.”

    This list goes on and on. But I have run out of room.

    Lest anyone think I simply “hate SeaWorld,” let me please disabuse you of the notion. I admit that some of my friends do, indeed, hate SeaWord. And the more of the EIR I read, the more I understood why. I wanted to be supportive. They are a major economic force.

    But the more I read of the technical appendices, the worse I felt. What started as a little marine education site in a public park is now justified to become a major resort destination because Sea-World requires continuous growth to remain competitive. What about our poor, polluted and traffic-decimated park? If they want complete control over their operations, they should purchase their own site with their own funds.

    Frye noted, “Certainly, SeaWorld is an important part of the economy here. What I'm really asking is for them to be an even better part. The City obviously needs help in cleaning up Mission Bay. As one of the major businesses benefiting from Mission Bay, Anheuser-Busch/SeaWorld can and needs to be more a part of solving the problems out there.”

    I've lived in and around their operations for 20 years, including living just a few blocks north of the Mission Beach Belmont Park roller coaster. Living near the beach in Southern California has its impacts, and you tolerate them. But we should not ignore them or allow them to spiral out of control, claiming that maximizing economic gain justifies ruining our quality of life and asking the public to pay for it, to boot.

    When will the City get its act together with respect to “smart growth”? There's a new Council in town. Many of then campaigned on themes that stressed controlling growth and development, improving water quality, getting traffic under control, putting community needs first.

    This proposal satisfies none of those. It should be sent back for major revisions and commitments to reducing impacts. At a minimum, the City should hold Anheuser-Busch to its campaign promises pertaining to taxpayer burdens related to improvements “any improvements” required as a result of their projects.

    Another minimum: they should increase the ability of the public to be involved in reviewing plans for all future proposals that exceed the 30-ft height limit of the original Prop D.

    Just because the voters allowed that SeaWorld could plan and construct projects over the height limit, they did not do so without believing future review would be required. The language did not state that the public and City Council would not have review of major projects. They are now proposing that. We should reject that process. We don't do it for projects on private land, we should never do it for projects on public park land.

    Let's call on Anheuser-Busch/Sea-World to help solve the problems in Mission Bay Park not just plow ahead and ignore them.

    Comments on the EIR are due by April 25th to City of San Diego, Land Development Review Division, 1222 First Ave, Fifth Floor, San Diego CA 92101 Ref: LDR No. 99-0618/SCH 1984030708.

    Copies are available for public review at libraries around Mission Bay Park (don't forget to check the Technical Appendicies).

    Carolyn Chase is a founder of San Diego Earth Works, organizers of Earth Day in Balboa Park. She may be reached at .