Could development at the shuttered Naval Training Center be only the foot in the door to housing construction at Lindbergh Field, should the airport move? That's at least what folks with the nonprofit Save Our NTC strongly believe.
The group has waged battle with government officials for six years over the redevelopment plans at the 435-acre former Navy site, closed by the government in 1997. While the Navy retained some acreage for military housing, about 80 percent of the waterfront land was turned over to developer Corky McMillin. In turn, the politically connected developer is hog-deep in a redevelopment plan that calls for the construction of 349 homes, two hotels, office towers and schools.
In a lawsuit filed Nov. 1, Save Our NTC alleges that roughly 70 acres of the former base were illegally transferred to city control and hence, into McMillin's hands, by the State Lands Commission, the agency that oversees California's public trust tidelands. “By law, tidelands properties cannot be given away,” said John McNab, spokesman for Save Our NTC.
As McNab sees it, the tidelands “were given away in order to build private residential housing and offices and strip malls. All of these are not appropriate uses for tidelands property. So the goal of this particular lawsuit is to reestablish the tidelands protection that the public has enjoyed literally for more than 100 years on this property.”
Douglas Carstens, an attorney with the Los Angeles public-interest law firm of Chatten-Brown & Associates, said his firm took the case because of the precedent that is set with such commercialization of public shoreline property. He said about 4 million acres of public-trust lands along bays, rivers and lakes could be targeted similarly if such transfers are allowed. “It's a major concern and striking when you think about 4 million acres that are subject to these same restrictions and subject to the same dangers as you see in this case,” he said. “It seems like the public's interest in this land is the first thing to go, when that should really be the very last option for these agencies.”
The city, named as defendants along with the State Lands Commission in the suit, contends that it acted properly and that the land uses as proposed are legal. City officials say the transfer occurred in order to retain a high-quality Navy fire-training facility that will be part of a public safety training institute.
If that is the reason, McNab wonders, why did the city seek a less-restrictive method of land transfer, known as an economic conveyance, rather than the more-stringent public-benefit conveyance, which would have required sponsorship by a federal agency and tougher restrictions on the proposed use?
When the city chose to pursue the economic conveyance-used to get surplus federal property cheaply and limited only by its ability to generate jobs and economic stimulus in the community-it showed its hand, Carstens suggested.
“That's part of the danger of removing the public-trust restrictions,” he explained. “You never know what could happen with it in the future. Five to 10 years from now, it certainly could go residential or condominium development, because once the restrictions are removed, it's not easy to put them back.”
Deputy City Attorney Rick Duvernay defended the city's action, saying it was unable to find an appropriate federal agency to sponsor the public-benefit conveyance and chose the alternative to give the city future wiggle room in the use of the training-facility property, which sits just across a bay channel from the main NTC site. “The bottom line is,” Duvernay insisted, “they're claiming it to be a bad thing, when in fact we were better off going the way we did. I mean, the fewer federal agencies to deal with the better, right?”
Should Lindbergh Field one day be available for development, the decision helps the city from being locked in to use of the property for educational purposes only. When told that is precisely the argument of opponents regarding future plans for the airport, Duvernay replied, “They're paranoid. This does give some potential flexibility-for whatever, a park or for whatever the policy leaders... decide is the best ultimate use for 500 acres, which is huge.”
Redeveloping Lindbergh? Which is predominantly tidelands? Sources say outgoing Councilman Byron “$139K” Wear, Mayor Dick Murphy's pick to sit on the highly paid executive board of the new Regional Airport Authority, has already quizzed State Lands Commission officials about possible tidelands exemptions at the airport site to allow home building.
Battling such public-land giveaways date back more than 120 years in the state of California, Carsten said. The state Constitution, which was revamped in 1879 to combat cronyism in such land deals, specifically states: “All tidelands within two miles of any incorporated city and county, or town in this State, and fronting on the water of any harbor, estuary, bay, or inlet used for the purpose of navigation, shall be withheld from grant or sale to private persons, partnerships, or corporations....”
“Back then, it was the Legislature that was actually in on this,” Carsten explained. “The delegates to the constitutional convention added a provision that provided some extra protection.”
He said the problem was especially heinous around San Francisco Bay, where an estimated three-quarters of public tidelands are now in private hands. “These lands were being given away to friends of the members of the Legislature for a pittance,” Carstens said. “It's that sort of abuse that the prohibition was designed to guard against.”
Added Carstens: “With base closures, a lot of real estate is coming back into play. Now the question is, what should go there and who should receive them and control them. And we think the wrong answer is private interests.”