CHULA VISTA — There's just one hitch in Chula Vista's plans for its Otay Valley Road redevelopment area, a softly sloping stretch of tomato fields and scrub that make up the last expanse of undeveloped industrial land in this swelling city.
There are millions of gallons of toxic wastes buried in the ground.
Yet the city is forging ahead anyway, transforming the land into a gleaming new light-industrial park. Lots are changing hands and plans are being OKd at a startling clip--especially startling in light of the ominous history of the land.
City officials have no difficulty justifying their haste: They say there is no evidence at present that the two toxic dumps threaten public health. But they also point to escalating development pressures in the South Bay and property owners' fears of being undercut.
"There are concerns the landowners have about their competition with Otay Mesa," said community development official Fred Kassman, referring to the vast empty empire just beyond the Chula Vista border and teetering on the cusp of massive development.
"They feel, in their terms, that the window is open this year--or next year, or maybe for a third year. Then 3,000 acres (on Otay Mesa) become available at what they feel will be lower costs."
The case of Otay Valley Road offers a striking example of the powerful development pressure that prevails in San Diego County's South Bay. The case is emblematic of the strange environmental compromises and gambles that are emerging under the impulse to grow.
These days, South Bay is hopping with environmental controversy, springing out of the convergence of people and open spaces. Once-abundant birds and plants are being backed into small corners, while developers are being pressed to accommodate them in their plans.
Along San Diego Bay, Chula Vista is embroiled in a debate over how much to trim its ambitions to accommodate the California least tern. Four miles inland, the city is developing a rare canyon around snake cholla and San Diego barrel cactus.
Out on Otay Mesa, botanists fear for the future of Loma Alta mesa mint, a rare plant species that grows only here. Also in jeopardy because of development plans is the Baja California rose, an unusual desert flower discovered only last year.
There is talk, once again, of a second ocean entrance--a channel through the Silver Strand to stimulate economic and recreational growth in South Bay. Wildlife officials fear that it would destroy the last of the fertile marshland that once ringed the bay.
Meanwhile, aspirations for clean residential and industrial development are coming up hard against the area's heritage as the county's industrial breadbasket. As land grows scarce, new development shoulders up against old industry, and the detritus that industry left behind.
In each case, the controversies end in compromise, like the gamble being taken in the development of Otay Valley Road. There, new residents living on high ground near the site wonder if it is wise for the city to press ahead before seeing the results of a health study it has commissioned.
"You're asking a fairly complex question," said James Hartley of the environmental consulting firm hired by the city. "It's a question that involves economic, social, political and technical questions."
The technical questions center on the degree of health risk, Hartley said, noting that scientists have a lot to learn about assessing health risks. The economic questions involve the costs of minimizing risks--say, by choosing not to build in the area.
"The political and social questions are tied together and get down to what is acceptable," Hartley said. "I won't try to define political, but the social questions could be many things--the perception of an area, effects on property value, peace of mind."
The Otay Valley Road redevelopment area is a thin, 1 1/2-square-mile stretch of land along both sides of the road between Interstate 805 and the eastern Chula Vista city boundary.
In many ways, the land is ideal for industry: adjacent to an interstate highway, three miles from the Otay Mesa border crossing, and two miles from Brown Field airport. Kassman estimates land costs at $5 to $6 a square foot--well below prices in North County.
So the city has set its sights high, hoping to attract clean industries like warehousing and light manufacturing. Redevelopment officials predict 3,000 new jobs and relief from the city's historic dependence on its largest employer, Rohr Industries.
"We think that, to be a healthy city, we have to have a balanced economy and balanced employment," said Paul Desrochers, community development director. " . . . We want to build a base of light industrial to complement the residential."
So far the plan is working. New tenants already preparing to move in include San Diego Gas & Electric and several Fortune 500 firms. A medical products research firm is moving in, and an old tenant is planning a 60,000-square-foot expansion.