Sierra Club says city decision over buoys sets bad precedent


The Chidren’s Pool is not the only swimming area in La Jolla making waves this summer.

An ongoing controversy over a patch of ocean directly in front of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club may soon reach the courts, now that the Sierra Club filed a legal

action against the city of San Diego.

Lawyers for the Sierra Club argue that the city has erred in the actions it has taken to try and keep the buoys in their current location, and that the legal process the city employed may create a dangerous precedent.

Whether there should be buoys in La Jolla Shores to separate swimmers from kayakers, surfers and even small boats, appears to be a moot point. At this stage, after almost five years of political and legal wrangling, everybody from the Sierra Club to the Beach Club to the San Diego Lifeguards says there is a need for some sort of swimming area at the southern end of La Jolla Shores Beach, or at least some sort of demarcation to separate swimmers from other water users.

Lt. John Greenhalgh, a former head lifeguard in La Jolla who has seen this controversy unfold, said a cordoned-off swimming area provides a vital buffer between swimmers and the increasingly prevalent kayakers in the area.

“With the popularity of the kayaks, and with it being the only ocean-front boat launch that we’re aware of in San Diego County, the buoys serve a purpose of keeping kayakers and boaters and personal watercraft people out of the swimming zone to the south,” said Greenhalgh. “Those buoys actually serve a purpose by not prying our resources away from the more dangerous spots.”

What is at issue and what forms the basis of the Sierra Club’s complaint, is how the city has gone about ensuring the swimming area stays exactly where it is. Rather than applying for a coastal development permit, a long, rigorous process including public forums to discuss the implementation of the proposed development, the city instead chose to argue that the buoys are a vested right that have existed for a long time before the Coastal Act was enacted and are therefore not answerable to the legislation.

Staff for City Councilman Scott Peters, who led the charge to fight for a vested interest, said that Peters was advised by the Coastal Commission that claiming a vested interest was the best route to take.

“Peter Douglas, the executive director of the Coastal Commission, advised the city to pursue a vested rights permit,” said Clif Williams, Peters’ chief of staff.

Peters said the city has been acting to ensure the buoys are kept in place, however that can be most efficiently achieved.

According to Sierra Club representatives, though, the vested right claim was illegitimate, time-consuming and ultimately created a legal precedent that was previously unheard of in California.

“This is an abuse of power,” said Mark Massara, attorney for the Sierra Club. “It’s very important t

That everyone appreciate the fact that neither the Coastal Commission nor Sierra Club nor San Diego Baykeeper nor Surfrider Foundation - those were the three public organizations that testified - none of us opposed utilizing buoys to create a safe swimming area.”

Joanne Pearson, chair of the San Diego Sierra Club, said that the claim of a vested right made by the city creates a precedent that goes far beyond the buoys in its importance.

“Because the city now has a vested right over that area, it means that they, the city, have jurisdiction over state public trust land,” said Pearson. “That has never happened anywhere in the state of California. It is a violation of the California constitution, and the Coastal Act, and that is why the Sierra Club has filed the lawsuit.”

Peters, who has argued steadfastly that all he wants is the buoys to remain and for swimmers to be safe, expressed surprise at hearing that the Sierra Club are actually in favor of keeping a swimming area, but disagree with his methods.

“That’s a new thing,” he said. “At the hearing at the Coastal Commission, the Sierra Club didn’t really confess to this. And it wasn’t the process - well, that was one thing - but they also said that they didn’t buy the public safety issue. Perhaps now they’ve been hearing from everybody, the community says ‘Yeah, it is,’ but that is a new position.”

Peters said he welcomes suggestions from the community as to where the buoys are placed. “If anyone wants to suggest any changes in the configuration of the buoys - and the lifeguards support them - or any changes in the signage, just tell me what you want. I’m sure we can effect those changes in a cooperative way.

Peters said that while he would consider a call from the Sierra Club to apply for a coastal development permit - the process Massara and others said should have been followed initially - he and his staff have already spent a long time pushing through the vested right claim.

“The staff and lifeguards have been through a year of trying to deal with the Coastal Commission,” Peters said. “It’s not fair for us to go through another year of that unless people tell us now what they want. If people are specific about what they want, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.”