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Judge Rejects Tribes' Claim to Prime Navy Land


SAN DIEGO — A federal judge Tuesday rejected a bid by 12 Indian tribes to stop the city from transferring the former Naval Training Center, which covers 430 acres of prime real estate, to a development firm that wants to build hotels, homes and offices.

The tribes claimed the property, arguing that it was part of their ancestral territory before the Mexican colonization of California.

But Judge Thomas Hogan, whose court is in Washington, D.C., rejected the tribes' lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said the Indians have virtually no chance of winning a lawsuit because a 1901 court decision stripped the tribes of ownership rights.

Mayor Susan Golding hailed the judge's decision as a major step toward resolving a 7-year-old dispute about the property and allowing long-delayed development to begin, including construction of a cultural and arts center.

"This is a beautiful piece of property in a beautiful section of San Diego," Golding said. "It's not very frequent that any city gets an opportunity to get a piece of choice property like this."

But San Diego attorney Anna Kimber, representing the tribes scattered throughout Southern California and Arizona, called it "nothing new" that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies "drop the ball when it comes to representing Indian interests."

No decision has been made on whether to appeal, a tribal spokeswoman said.

The Defense Department, which closed the training center as part of post-Cold War cutbacks, plans to deed the property to the city, which will then transfer title to McMillin Land Development, a prominent San Diego home builder that has promised an investment of $500 million.

Unlike many former U.S. bases being returned to civilian use, the former Naval Training Center on Point Loma is not plagued by toxic waste problems. It was mainly used to train recruits.

Also, unlike many former bases that are in isolated areas, it is centrally located, in one of the city's most desirable residential and commercial neighborhoods and close to the bay front, downtown and tourist attractions such as Sea World and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

Beyond being a high-profile land-use issue, the controversy is also an emotional political issue in a city that prides itself on having the largest collection of U.S. Navy and Marine installations in the world.

At the urging of Navy veterans in San Diego and elsewhere, the Navy has promised to preserve many of the historic structures, including the chapel and the mock ship, informally called the Neversail, where decades of young men learned to be sailors.

"A lot of San Diegans have a lot of memories about the training center," Golding said. Opened in 1923, it accelerated San Diego's development into a "Navy town."

For seven years a fierce competition has raged at City Hall among private firms, the Indians and various social service agencies over who would inherit the property. The last recruit graduated in 1994 and the base closed in 1996.

A consortium of Kumeyaay tribes wanted the parcel both for a cultural center and for commercial development so the tribes would not be economically dependent on casino gambling.

The tribes have said they had no plans to build a casino on the property. Still, if the property had been given to them, the city would have had no control over land-use decisions since the tribes are considered a sovereign nation.

As tentatively approved by the City Council, the McMillin plan would include 350 homes, two hotels and a public park. Seventy acres would be dedicated to parkland and a nine-hole golf course. The Navy has retained part of the property for housing.

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