Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Port of San Diego Uses Eminent Domain for Chula Vista Bayfront: A Study in Land Use and Development

Eminent domain takes place for a variety of reasons, all of which are initiated by a government authority. The property in question could be commercial, or it could be a private home, whether owned by an individual or by business entity. The project itself could be transportation-related such as requiring land for the construction of  a road or a public transport system. The main requirement for the government’s use of eminent domain is that the project is necessary for the overall good of the area and its residents. It has to be for a necessary public purpose. The eminent domain action I’m going to be discussing here concerns a parcel of land located in Chula Vista, CA and belongs to an aerospace and defense contractor called UTC Aersopace Systems (“UTCAS”), a North Carolina Corporation with many locations throughout the world.  As an attorney and a California resident, this project is an interesting one to examine as it illustrates the complex and lengthy process involving  land use that can precede eminent domain.

 Photo By Port of San Diego [CC BY 2.0 
via Wikimedia Commons

The land in question is needed for a project known as the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan (“CVBMP”) which is being carried out jointly by the Port of San Diego, City of Chula Vista and developer Pacifica Companies.  Chula Vista is a city in San Diego County, approximately equidistant from San Diego’s downtown area and the US-Mexico Border. Its Waterfront area is undergoing  a huge transformation that includes developing and redeveloping land for commercial and residential uses, environmental preservation and other improvements.
 The approximately 550 acres comprised of land and water  is bordered by areas that include river, wetlands and a wildlife preserve. The development of this waterfront property is unique. The Port of San Diego which owns the land, had the intention of attracting developers by doing their own environmental review and preparing the land to be developed by any company with an interest to do so.

The Bayfront project has its origins in a land deal that was a rather inventive solution to a problem a developer had with an area of land on which they were attempting to build. Pacifica Companies, after several of its development proposals were rejected due to environmental concerns, engaged in a trade with the Port of San Diego: the port provided the developer with land on which they could proceed with building, and in exchange, Pacifica transferred the problematic land to them, in order to be preserved.  Now the Port is hoping that the land, with its environmental review complete, and with Pacifica and one more developer, RIDA, planning to build on it, an incentive could be created to bring in more development. In addition to the Port of San Diego, the City and the developers, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and San Diego Gas & Electric are also playing a part in the larger project: they worked together on a restoration project to create a salt marsh on the bay so that the gas company could build a new power station. This project was a necessary component of the master plan to develop the Bayfront area.

Now to the eminent domain issue. The parcel of land in question is needed by RIDA to carry out their construction plans as part of the Bayfront redevelopment. UTCAS is using the land as an auxillary parking lot. According to Port representatives, the 4 acres of land were put in the hands of UTCAS during a re-organization with the intention to buy it back when development was initiated. The Port and UTCAS were involved in negotiations to purchase the land but weren’t able to come to terms, and Port commissioners voted to acquire the land through eminent domain on April 14th.  The eminent domain process involves filing a lawsuit that forces UTCAS to come to a deal that allows the Port to acquire its land, upon providing just compensation to the landowner to be proved in the court.

Looking down the path that eventually leads to an eminent domain filing paints a larger picture of the complex circumstances underlying land use, including economic, environmental and geographic issues.  Sometimes, these issues can’t be resolved outside of court. Being knowledgeable on the background and related issues concerning a project provides the perspective which can help an attorney practicing in the area of eminent domain law.