Gov. George Deukmejian has signed a bill clearing the way for development of Famosa Slough, but adversaries in the long battle over the wetlands remain on a collision course over the future of the 20-acre marsh near Ocean Beach.
Terry Sheldon, owner of the land, said Monday that he hopes to restore wildlife habitats on part of the marsh within six months, and to begin construction of a 400-unit condominium-apartment complex on the remainder of the land by next summer.
But Jack Sanders, a spokesman for the environmentalists and neighbors who have challenged Sheldon's plans, said his group was prepared to fight Sheldon step by step through remaining city, state and federal review processes if he proved unwilling to compromise on plans for the slough.
"The fight is by no means over," Sanders said.
The bill signed Saturday by Deukmejian requires Sheldon to work with the state Department of Fish and Game and the Coastal Conservancy to define the boundaries of the 10- to 15-acre portion of the slough that will be preserved as wetland. He also must agree to a plan to improve the reserve acreage, and pay at least half the cost of reestablishing it as an attractive natural habitat for birds and fish.
In the meantime, Sheldon must obtain approval from San Diego city officials for his plans to construct housing on the remainder of the land. And he probably will need approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies before he can proceed with any work in the slough, according to Peter Bontadelli, special assistant to the director of the state Fish and Game Department.
Every level of approval will be a battleground, Sanders promised, if Sheldon does not agree to reduce the extent of his construction plans.
"One of the good things about the process is there's a lot of incentive for the developer to compromise," Sanders said. "We can drag this out by taking him to court over each one of these permits. We can really make life rough for him. It's very expensive."
Sheldon called the threats of delays and litigation an unsubtle form of "extortion." Credible environmental groups, he said, supported the recently approved legislation. He insists that the remaining critics are an unrepresentative cabal, lacking the wherewithal to mount court challenges and uninterested in the ecological well-being of the slough.
"I think we've done everything according to the way all the agencies want," Sheldon said. "I don't think somebody threatening me or trying to extort me is the way to get anything done."
Both Sanders and Sheldon said they were ready to sit down and discuss development plans for the slough at any time. But, in separate interviews, they made clear that they were ready to play hardball to achieve the outcome each desired.
Sheldon said further efforts to block his plans could prompt him to pursue a lawsuit seeking payment for deprivation of his right to use the property, which he valued at $18 million. Or else he would fight to maintain control of the full 20-acre site, guaranteeing that it would never be restored as a natural habitat, Sheldon said.
For his part, Sanders raised allegations that Sheldon used campaign contributions to state lawmakers to engineer passage of the latest Famosa Slough legislation.
Sanders, who lobbied against the legislation in Sacramento for the "Friends of the Slough" group, said a contribution by Sheldon to a political committee supporting Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) was intended to win Peace's support for slough development. After receipt of the $2,500 contribution, Peace--the Assembly majority whip--saw to it that key legislators supported Sheldon's stance, Sanders said.
Moreover, Sanders charged, Sheldon used his influence as treasurer of the local Building Industry Political Action Committee to line up support for his position.
"He's going to find the federal government is not about to be as easily influenced or bought off as the state Legislature was," Sanders vowed.
Sheldon said the allegations were groundless. "I operate aboveboard," he said. "I don't sneak around and pay people off. I don't have to."
Peace confirmed Monday that he received the contribution from Sheldon. But he said he had sided with Sheldon on slough-related legislation for three years--and in fact had come in for criticism from Sanders and others for his position.
"In terms of any support Mr. Sheldon chose to give me, that's fine and dandy," Peace said. "But obviously that didn't have any influence on me, and the best evidence of that is the screaming and yelling the (opponents) have been doing since Day One."
Sheldon said the accusations were his opponents' substitute for credible criticisms of his development plans. "These guys have nothing to argue with on the merits of this issue," he said. "The merits of the issue are that I'm doing what's right."
Even as the dispute simmers, Bontadelli said state agencies were prepared to begin the discussions with Sheldon required by the new law. Fish and game officials are hopeful that, by working with Sheldon, they can negotiate improvements that reestablish the slough as an inviting habitat for wildlife, Bontadelli said.
Meanwhile, Sheldon and Sanders each insisted he would prevail if the waiting game over the slough dragged on.
Sanders said: "The clock is ticking and he's hemorrhaging money at this point."
Sheldon replied: "We're not hemorrhaging. We have this thing funded to such an extent we don't have to worry for years. Whatever it took we could handle it. I don't think he has any money to do anything."