“They lost their chance back in the late 1960s,” says Mick McCoy of the effort to develop the valley. “Before all that legislation was passed, there was nothing stopping them; it would have been Mission Valley II out there.” McCoy is a tall, thin man with a bushy red beard. Along with his wife Pat he has been fighting to preserve the Tia Juana River estuary ever since moving to Imperial Beach in 1971. The McCoys are well known in this city of nearly 23,000, but while their outspoken views have earned them respect, they have also created animosity. Among the comments I heard about them recently in Imperial Beach:
“They have been called communists, which is the epithet they hang you with down here when they really want to make you sound despicable. That and homosexual.” “They’ve been in physical danger because of their attitude.” “They’re not hypocrites. They live their lives the way they believe.” “They are dedicated. They have a reverence for nature.” “Put them on donkeys and send them toward some windmills.”
The McCoys know their views are unpopular with a majority of the city’s residents. When they aren’t out working, attending hearings, or putting together leaflets, they sometimes laugh about it.
“A lot of people consider us crazed environmentalists, and I suppose we are,” Pat McCoy told me. “We’ve given them the sanctuary sort of like medicine, and they don’t like it.”
I met the McCoys one afternoon not long ago at their home on Citrus Avenue in Imperial Beach, about half a block from the ocean. They own a small, one-story house, and though the McCoys said they had moved in six months ago, the living room was nearly bare except for a few chairs, a desk, and a sofa. Papers and other items were heaped in cardboard boxes in the corners.
Mike McCoy explained that after the dike and levee system was completed in early 1979, the city’s main hope for development in the estuary became a marina. (In the mid-Sixties, Imperial Beach had sold 126 acres of city-owned marshland to the Helix Imperial Harbor Development Corporation for the construction of a marina.) The marina had several incarnations over the years, but the latest one called for dredging more than 400 acres in the northwestern corner of the estuary and replacing it with high-rise condominiums, private homes with boat slips in their back yards, and a commercial marina designed to accommodate several hundred boats.
The McCoys and a few others opposed the marina plan all the way. Where developers saw boats tied up, the McCoys saw nesting grounds for two endangered species of birds, the least tern and the light-footed clapper rail. When the developers talked economic gain for the city, the McCoys talked economic loss if the river’s flow of nutrients were cut off, ultimately affecting the productivity of the continental shelf and the commercial fishing industry. They pointed out that the marsh was the largest one left in the county and one of the few left at all, and they constantly harped on the fact that federal and state laws would almost certainly prohibit the marina from being built. “We felt like a chorus in a Greek play, singing out the laws, saying, ‘These are the reasons you can’t do it.’” Remembered Pat McCoy in her soft voice touched with an English accent. “The fact is, Imperial Beach was going after the impossible dream for a not very noble cause. Call it progress, call it what you want. I call it plain old greed. People will say we gave up the marina for a bunch of birds, but we were trying to protect the basic thing that keeps us alive.”
In April of 1980 the city sponsored an advisory proposition that called for the marina to be built. Backed by Mayor Brian Bilbray, the measure won overwhelming support of the majority of Imperial Beach residents. But it was a moot point; by Christmas of that year the Helix Corporation had given up and sold its 505 acres of marsh, including the property it had purchased from Imperial Beach. To the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service began to talk about the possibility of a permanent sanctuary. At the time, Bilbray said he was surprised by Helix’s move, but the McCoys scoffed at this. “We tried to tell him it would happen,” Pat McCoy told a reporter from the San Diego Union. “But he totally ignored us.”
Brian Bilbray was born and raised in Imperial Beach, the city in which he is now the mayor. He was elected to the city council at the age of 25 and became mayor at 28. Today, at thirty years of age, he is undoubtedly the most influential person in the city, and at least as controversial as the McCoys. Almost everyone in Imperial Beach has an opinion:
“He’s outspoken, and that’s just what this city needs.” “The guy has guts.” “He’s impatient and abrasive with those who don’t support his viewpoint.” “The reasons I despise him is he doesn’t think things through. He seems to jump without thinking of all the consequences, the costs.” “We need the flamboyance of Brian. He is totally devoted to this city.” “He’s brought us publicity, but what about the quality of the publicity?”
“The first time I met him,” remembers Bill Russell, “there were a bunch of people in my bar who were going to tear it up. And they basically left because of the force of his personality. He was not on the city council at that time, although he might have had political aspirations. But I recognize a natural leader when I see one.”
Bilbray remembers the incident a little differently. “I was eating dinner and I was halfway through my meal when these two guys started fighting,” he told me when I asked him about it. “They were on the floor, so I grabbed them by the heels and dragged them outside and shut the door behind. I couldn’t see a couple of bums tearing up a poor guy’s business.”