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A sign outside of the Marina Inn in Imperial Beach proclaims it as the most southwesterly bar in the United States. It is no idle bit of public relations. From the inn’s parking lot you can look south three miles across a marsh to the coastal hills of Mexico. About 500 feet to the west is the Pacific Ocean. People in Imperial Beach are generally proud of this accident of geography and political boundary-drawing — both the city itself and its one newspaper, the Imperial Beach Star News, advertise themselves as the most southwesterly in the continental United States — but in reality, it is as much bane as it is boon. “You almost have to be coming to Imperial Beach on purpose to come here at all,” says Bill Russell, the owner of the Marina Inn. In other words, Imperial Beach isn’t on a path to anywhere. If it were a street, it would be a turnaround. For a businessman it’s bad news. “We’re kind of a small town next to a big city. We’re still not greatly populated, and that’s kind of nice.”

If this sounds a little unusual for coastal San Diego County – a strip better known for luxurious playgrounds like La Jolla, Del Mar, La Costa, and points north – it is. But unusual is a good word for Imperial Beach. It has some of the last vacant ocean-front lots in the county, and nobody will buy them. It’s a place with a reputation for lawlessness and drugs, a place with nearly two miles of ocean front and no way to launch boats into the ocean, a place where, just two years ago, the city council had to bail out the chamber of commerce with a loan. “When I go down there, I look around and think, ‘Am I still in Southern California?’” one woman from the East Coast told me recently.

With housing costs about $35,000 less, on the average, than the rest of the county, Imperial Beach has traditionally been a place where people who can’t afford to live near the beach live near the beach. But for years the city government has been trying to make Imperial Beach not only affordable but desirable. A number of schemes have been proposed to bring in more development and clean up the community’s image, and nearly all of them have included building a marina in the marsh next door.

The marsh is really the estuary of the Tia Juana River, which flows north from Mexico, passes into the U.S. a few hundred yards west of the border crossing at San Ysidro, and empties into the ocean just south of Imperial Beach. Sentiment to protect the marsh has been around for at least as long as plans to build a marina, and last month the possibility of a marina seemed to evaporate for good when the marsh was designated a national estuarine sanctuary, the tenth in the United States and only the second in California, to be preserved for research, education, and wildlife management.

The issue of marina-versus-marsh bitterly divided the residents of Imperial Beach, and its outcome has caused something of a community identity crisis. With a nature preserve instead of a marina complex with luxury condominiums, the citizens are wondering where their small coastal city can go from here. “I was very much in favor of a small marina or boat launch facility,” Bill Russell told me. “So were most of the people down here. It’s kind of dumb for me to have a place called the Marina Inn now, because it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any boat activity here at all.”

As he said this, Russell, a ruddy-faced former naval officer with a jovial manner, was sitting at a table at the Marina Inn. It was two in the afternoon, most of the inn’s lunchtime crowd had cleared out, and “On the Road Again,” was playing on the jukebox. Russell sipped a beer as he talked, pausing now and then to wave and say things like, “Harry, thanks for coming in,” when patrons moved toward the lone door to the outside world.

“The marina would’ve been the keystone to our economic development,” he continued. “I don’t want to sound too negative, but we haven’t really come up with any alternatives so far. We need more residents. Major commercial enterprises won’t come in until we have the people living here, and we need something to draw them in.”

Not everyone welcomes the prospect of more people and development in Imperial Beach, however. “People here are very unaware of what they have,” says Mike McCoy, a local veterinarian and one of the most outspoken proponents of the marshland sanctuary. “Imperial Beach is a nice little town to be in, but right now is a turning point. Developers could come in here and destroy this place.”

McCoy thinks the city’s future lies in the long-term economic gains to be had from tourist dollars and increasing property values due to the sanctuary, but Imperial Beach Mayor Brian Bilbray disagrees. Insisting that preservation of the marsh is pointless if pollution from Tijuana’s sewage spills continue in the area, he claims, “The greatest deterrent to a high quality of life in Imperial Beach is not too much development but the lack of it.” These days, Bilbray is just about the only person in Imperial Beach who thinks the concept of a marina isn’t completely dead.

Imperial Beach has been looking to the Tia Juana River estuary for economic salvation ever since the city was incorporated in 1957. At that time, plans called for a concrete channel to carry the river directly from the border into the ocean. With the river contained within the channel and the surrounding valley safe from flooding, hundreds of acres of dried-up marsh could have eventually supported shopping malls and housing tracts.

But the channel was expensive – some $45 million worth – and it was opposed by a few local environmentalists. When new San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson withdrew his support for the channel in the early 1970s, the project stalled, and soon federal and state legislation was passed that virtually prohibited development of the type hoped for anyway. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and others all created a web of conditions and restrictions around developing river estuaries. By 1976 the channel concept had been abandoned in favor of a $12.4 million system of dikes and levees for dispersing flood waters, and hopes for developing the valley faded.

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