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— Lawrence Graf says the San Diego Unified Port District has no right to build any convention-center extension on land reclaimed from San Diego Bay because it's an illegal authority. The bay belongs solely to the United States government.

Which means, according to Graf, that the port also has no jurisdiction over him and his World War II submarine chaser anchored in the middle of San Diego's South Bay.

Graf, 73, admits he has an ax to grind. He needs a safe, free anchorage -- as he says is his right according to ancient admiralty laws -- so he can live in peace on his boat. But he says he has a pile of U.S. Supreme Court decisions to back him up.

"I fought in the army in World War II to defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States and their freedoms," he says. "And here they're being taken away by these despots. It started out with our own personal loss of our freedom [to anchor]. But now it's expanded to a much bigger fight."

Now, he says, it's a battle for boaters' rights, against a bullying port that he says usurped its power from his elected government.

"You've got to understand that this legal action on our part, [my wife] Joyce and I started 13 years ago," he says. "And we've had many, many suits involved, and it's cost over $300,000 in attorney fees. And we've found a lot of discrimination in the courts. But we're not giving up."

This conversation's taking place on Graf's 110-foot-long, 18-foot-wide converted sub-chaser, Paradise, a 30-year work in progress he and wife Joyce, 67, call home. It took 20 minutes to get out here to the middle of the harbor in their Bellboy powerboat. We took off from Chula Vista marina, where the couple land three times a week (weather permitting) for supplies and showers. This is the only place left in the bay where the port allows Graf to anchor, Area A-8. The most exposed patch of water in the bay. Often the tidal waters combine with the Sweetwater River's outflow and force Paradise to lie side-on to the wind-driven waves. Any breeze over 20 knots and they're stuck out here. Which means during these El Niño months, they've been isolated from land for days on end.

Graf's campaign started small. All he ever wanted was a guarantee of time-honored rights to "innocent passage" and a safe (and free) anchorage in the bay. But one thing has led to another. The battle for his own rights, Graf says, uncovered the "shocking discovery" that the port has no jurisdiction over him at all, that the State of California created the port illegally, despite being told in court, case after court case, that only the United States federal government has jurisdiction over San Diego Bay and other "inland" bodies of water. That jurisdiction, Graf claims, reaches up to where tidal waters met the land as it was configured when California joined the Union in 1850. That is, before any landfilling began.

If true, some of the implications are bizarre: if the existing convention center is built on landfill over federally owned submerged lands, then last year's Republican National Convention was illegal. (No party political activities are allowed to take place on federal property, as Bill Clinton and Al Gore were recently reminded when answering accusations of soliciting for election funds from the White House.) And for any extension of the convention center, the port has no authority to use public funds, at least without a federal okay.

Graf's claims also revive issues as old as the Union itself: the right of the national government to regulate strategic coastal waters and tidal basins. The balance of power between states and the central government is an issue that has become more acute this century as individual states have discovered such offshore assets as oil and sunken treasure ships.

But is it possible that California's agent, the Port District, is actually "squatting" on federal lands it doesn't have title to? Through perhaps a dozen court cases, the Grafs and other boaters have consistently lost in this claim -- in municipal, state, and federal district courts. But they insist this issue has never been properly addressed.

"This case turns on who is the true owner of San Diego Bay's submerged lands, tide lands, and added lands," wrote Claire Doucette, a floating neighbor of the Grafs, to the Ninth Circuit in December 1995.

"The Submerged Lands Act granted [a] three-mile belt [of coastal waters] to the State, but specifically removed all bays from the grant, indicating they would remain Federally owned unless the State [of California] could show historical rights. [...] In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that none of the waters, including bays on California's coast, had historical rights. [The State of California] owns all lands completely surrounding the Bay, but not the Bay itself. Without ownership [the Port has] no jurisdiction."

"I thought this was pretty close to being black and white, [confirming] that the federal government owned [San Diego Bay]," says Floyd Morrow, the lawyer and ex-city councilman who advised the boaters when they first contemplated attacking the port's legitimacy. "I had a research analyst who worked in my office who also felt that was a good solid point. But because of the tremendous [Port District] infrastructure that had been in place over many years, it probably would never see the light of day. I'm afraid they may be tilting at windmills."

* * *

Donald and Daisy, the Grafs' adopted mallards quack on the blue poop deck of Cream Puff, the boat moored alongside Paradise. It's the ex-Vietnam river patrol boat -- with bullet holes in the hull to prove it -- that the Grafs have decided to gradually move aboard. Cream Puff is smaller, simpler, less hassle, easier to move when the port finally comes waving eviction papers.

Joyce holds out breakfast crusts. "Watch. It'll be a race between the ducks and the fish," she says. "The fish are waiting under Paradise."

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