Dear SDET: letters to the editor

Readers comment on sports subsidies and on the X-Games brouhaha.

July 1,1997
Dear SDET,

A ruinous subsidy for a baseball only "sports park" now appears likely. Few more improper and inappropriate uses for public funds could be found. What else could be done with $30 million a year?

We could provide 10,000 low cost loans for students at any San Diego university. We could support a cluster of green business incubators. Or we could provide jobs for more than 5,000 people cleaning up our ravaged environment and tourists could safely go into the water to play. We could put an upgraded and bigger Earth Times in every classroom in San Diego once a month.

It's time to stop bleeding money for the religion of sports. The SDSU athletic program alone sucks 4 million dollars a year out of the general fund and keeps students from having much needed library books, journals and computer software. If any subsidy is provided to the Padres, it should include the proviso that they will cover any deficit in the SDSU athletic department program.

It is time to focus on value and return on investment and stop pandering to the sports establishment who are looking out only for their interests - not the community.

David Bainbridge

[It's hard to add my comments without feeling completely cynical. Big sports is big money, and big money swings government its way, at all levels. I, for one, couldn't care less about subsidizing the Padres, or the Chargers for that matter. (I'm sure we're all waiting anxiously to see how many Charger tickets the city is going to have to buy from our last Big Sports deal.) - cck]

To the Editor

The X-Games have raged away at Oceanside and Mission Bay, bringing vast riches to us all, or so we are told. (I hope the public gets an accounting.) Critics have tried to paint Audubon Society as the bad guy, the spoil sport, the petty monitor of tern monitors. The oddest accusation of all was that we are "lawsuit-happy," [so said the San Diego Union Tribune - Ed.] since we have never, ever, in our 50 year history, filed a lawsuit before.

It was very tense, getting the X-Games here, with rancor and confusion all around, and fury and hostility from many, including La Jollans and us bird lovers. This conflict was totally unnecessary, and can be avoided in the future. How? By the City of San Diego's simply abiding by California law. The fact is that the city did not abide by the law. They granted the permit behind closed doors, without public or environmental review, and located the games in the worst possible places La Jolla and Mariner's Point. And the timing was the absolute worst: June, when La Jolla is jammed with visitors, and when the endangered California least tern is nesting at Mariner's Point.

We Californians are very fortunate to have a law called the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This law requires that environmental studies and public review be conducted for any project which may result in significant impacts to the environment: sensitive habitat, sensitive species, air quality, traffic, community character, and more. This study is usually done through an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). An EIR does not shut down a project; it merely reveals, for all to see, the likely negative impacts, mitigation measures needed, and reasonable alternatives (sites and actions).

Please note: An EIR would have addressed La Jolla's concerns (community character and traffic), Mission Beach's concerns (traffic and noise), and our concerns (sensitive habitat and sensitive species). Alternative sites would have been thoroughly analyzed.

Unfortunately, none of this happened this year. The city sidestepped CEQA and granted the permit. They didn't even consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service until very late in the game, April or so, though the dates and locations had been decided last fall.

La Jollans took matters into their own hands, as we all know, and the games were moved to Oceanside. How much better for the change to have been made through the planning process, not through Public Outcry!

Audubon tried to work with the city to protect the terns, to no avail. For instance, alternative locations were available, were briefly considered, but were summarily dismissed, without analysis.

Audubon felt obligated to file suit. The violation of CEQA was blatant. The least terns, thriving more richly at Mariner's Point than ever before, were at serious risk.

As I said, SD Audubon had never filed suit before, so the whole enterprise was scary. But our responsibility was clear. A local attorney, Craig Sherman, assured us we had a case, and agreed to work pro bono. National Audubon agreed and signed on with us. Their attorney and ours worked together.

We did not want to shut down the X-Games, though we could have, and some say we should have, with a Temporary Restraining Order. But our concerns were protecting the terns, and making sure the city never does this again: grant a permit without first demonstrating full compliance with CEQA, including a full EIR and public hearings..

We won. Audubon prevailed in the settlement. The City must abide by CEQA in the future. This, we are convinced, will be good for all of us, our quality of life, our community character, our unique natural resources. Further, the city must inform San Diego Audubon of all future projects which may threaten sensitive habitat areas of Mission Bay; and all ESPN tern monitoring results must be given to SD Audubon for analysis. Finally, and very important, ESPN must inform National Audubon Society of all future projects which may threaten sensitive habitats, anywhere in the United States.

We also won strong protection of the tern nesting site and buffer area. ESPN guards were on duty, very sharp and very tough. This sometimes made it difficult for us Audubon observers to get to our posts in the buffer area, but we didn't mind. We wanted the terns protected, and the guards did exactly that. All guards I met were friendly, and some came over to chat and learn about the birds.

The Coastal Commission permit for the X-Games required professional tern monitors on site. Good. We assigned our own observers, not to monitor the monitors, but to observe the terns, which we did, in shifts, before, during, and after the games.

Things went well, with a one-day exception, when the Goodyear blimp, a TV helicopter, and planes carrying banners flew too close. The terns were agitated and "flying up, " and thus off their nests, for over an hour. Bad news. However, after a phone call or two, the blimp stayed north, no news helicopter was seen, and the banner planes either flew higher or the terns got accustomed to them: no more fly-ups from overhead disturbance. Gulls are the main enemy, and those little seven-inch birds attack and chase out any gull flying over or near the nesting site, resembling tiny fighter planes.. Pelicans and cormorants are ok, but not gulls. Or people.

We won't really know how things went until all the monitoring reports are in and analyzed.

But the real proof is in the pudding: next year, X-Games wants to come back. OK. But let's not forget to comply with CEQA, do a full EIR, hold public hearings, assess the impacts on the terns this year, and thoroughly and objectively explore alternative locations. We feel this can be done in advance, in a civilized and cooperative way, for the benefit of us all, including the city, which has a dramatic history of and a lousy reputation for avoiding public review (e.g., the stadium).

In short, follow the law. Then the City can make an intelligent, informed, and legal decision, for the X-Games, for any and all other projects which could have a negative impact on the environment.

This is our fondest hope, that the city abides by the law from now on, and that the least terns were not harmed this year.

Norma Sullivan
Land Use Conservation Chair, San Diego Audubon Society

[It turns out that I've been pretty naive most of my life. For the longest time there were no laws to protect the environment, and then we got some, and I relaxed a little. After all, if there are laws, you have to obey them, and if you don't, well, the government enforces them and call the scofflaws to justice. Isn't that how the system works? Isn't that what we elect our officials to do?

The X-Games situation was my rudest awakening yet. It was like watching cars running one red light after another while the police waved them through. The city officials may be looking out for someone's interest, but it sure isn't mine. At least the courts take the law seriously. Without at least the threat of a lawsuit, and the good works of groups like Audubon, Sierra Club, Environmental Health Coalition and Surfrider, its hard to imagine the degree of environmental neglect our fair city would experience. - cck