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Campland and Mission Bay RV Resort to pull down fences

Coastal commission accuses San Diego of dragging feet

Campland public beach
Campland public beach

A luxurious stretch of private beach on calm water, guest parking, lots of amenities - visitors to Campland and Mission Bay RV Resort were promised the moon. But it was supposed to belong to a wider public.

Since 1967, the resorts, located in the northeast corner of Mission Bay, have been offering up public tidelands for profit, violating their lease with the city of San Diego, which neglected to stop them.

Mission Bay RV Park beach parking

Last week, the state coastal commission fined the operators of the resorts, Michael and Jacob Gelfand, in a settlement agreement that will provide free camping to underserved youths, and new amenities for the public.

To some, the terms - $50,000 per year for five years, totalling $250,000 for the free camping program, and a $250,000 fine - were no match for the crime.

"One has to wonder how many children and families were denied access to the public shoreline over time," said Pam Heatherington, with the Environmental Center of San Diego.

"Those of us who grew up on the northeast corner of Mission Bay and saw it turned into private residences, and private beaches, realize it's been a long, long time."

Mission Bay, the largest human-made aquatic park in the country, was created out of public tidelands. Once held in trust by the state, they are now held by the city of San Diego, which leases them for public purposes.

The resorts are on a boot-shaped peninsula, in a corner of Mission Bay known for boating, watercraft, and swimming, and surrounded by the 20-acre Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve , an area targeted for major wetland restoration and study of carbon capture.

"Campland looks right over Kendall Frost Marsh, which is an incredibly great place to enjoy nature," said Jim Pugh, conservation chair of San Diego Audubon Society.

"Huge numbers of people walk the shoreline around Mission Bay, and this is a part of the shoreline that simply couldn't be done."

Over the years, fencing, signs and security guards kept out the masses.

In 1967, the city entered a lease with the prior owner to operate a resort. Public beach access was a requirement. The Gelfands bought the lease in 1975. In 2017, they began a new three-year lease with the city requiring beach access, 31 free public parking spots at Campland, and signs saying the area is open to the public.

In 2019, the lease was extended to 2023. How did the city miss the other signs - that the lease was being violated?

From 2015 to at least 2018, Campland's website stated that the resort "has a luxurious stretch of private beach." The advertisement was repeated on other website profile pages like Tripadvisor, said Rob Moddelmog, who works on enforcement at the Commission.

Then there were the unpermitted signs for "$20 visitor parking" at Campland's entrance. Where were the 31 free spaces?

"We received multiple reports of guards at the gates, telling people no public parking existed at Campland. In some reports, guards also told people the public is not allowed in Campland at all."

But the beaches can only be reached by entering the parks.

At Mission Bay RV Resort, the prior operator wasn't required to provide public entry to the parking lot, which has over 120 spaces to Campland's 80 or so, counting the 31 free spots.

When the city entered into a four-year lease with the Gelfands in 2019, signs stating that the 70-acre park was private weren't taken down. A map on their website labeled an area where the public could park, "RV guest overflow parking."

The violations are a threat to environmental justice, coastal commissioners said, since they impact those who can least afford to stay at the resorts. Campland includes amenities a typical campground lacks (a pool), but is about double the price of nearby state campgrounds. And so is Mission Bay RV Resort.

The consent agreement includes fence removal, public electric vehicle charging stations, new signs and public restrooms. The operators will advertise in San Diego for those who might not hear about the program, and provide funding for group transport and camping equipment.

"We were very sensitive to the potential ending of these leases and tried to make everything as flexible as possible," said Lisa Haage, the commission's chief of enforcement. For instance, due to sea rise and plans for wetland restoration, the restrooms will be mobile trailer bathrooms, easy to move as needed.

"They're adding public drinking fountains, as well as showers, which are all very difficult to acquire absent a consent agreement like this." And though it's about access violations, it has important environmental provisions, including the reduction of plastics, she said.

If the leases are extended, the terms of the order will be, too.

The free camping program will get underway once the consent agreement is signed by the commission, Gelfand said. They are already working with groups in San Diego to find participants.

Commissioner Brownsey asked for a date when the plan must be active. "Because we would hate to have a year go by, given the persistent violations."

Haage said the entire plan has to be submitted within 60 days. Signs must be removed within 24 hours and the fence within 10 days of the order being issued.

Commissioners asked if their own staff ever talked to the city of San Diego to find out why they never enforced the provisions in their lease. Did they ever visit the site?

"The city was unaware of the issues here," Moddelmog said.

Haage said their order will hopefully spark more awareness in the future. "Local governments have been slow to realize the value of the tidelands to the public."

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Campland public beach
Campland public beach

A luxurious stretch of private beach on calm water, guest parking, lots of amenities - visitors to Campland and Mission Bay RV Resort were promised the moon. But it was supposed to belong to a wider public.

Since 1967, the resorts, located in the northeast corner of Mission Bay, have been offering up public tidelands for profit, violating their lease with the city of San Diego, which neglected to stop them.

Mission Bay RV Park beach parking

Last week, the state coastal commission fined the operators of the resorts, Michael and Jacob Gelfand, in a settlement agreement that will provide free camping to underserved youths, and new amenities for the public.

To some, the terms - $50,000 per year for five years, totalling $250,000 for the free camping program, and a $250,000 fine - were no match for the crime.

"One has to wonder how many children and families were denied access to the public shoreline over time," said Pam Heatherington, with the Environmental Center of San Diego.

"Those of us who grew up on the northeast corner of Mission Bay and saw it turned into private residences, and private beaches, realize it's been a long, long time."

Mission Bay, the largest human-made aquatic park in the country, was created out of public tidelands. Once held in trust by the state, they are now held by the city of San Diego, which leases them for public purposes.

The resorts are on a boot-shaped peninsula, in a corner of Mission Bay known for boating, watercraft, and swimming, and surrounded by the 20-acre Kendall-Frost Marsh Reserve , an area targeted for major wetland restoration and study of carbon capture.

"Campland looks right over Kendall Frost Marsh, which is an incredibly great place to enjoy nature," said Jim Pugh, conservation chair of San Diego Audubon Society.

"Huge numbers of people walk the shoreline around Mission Bay, and this is a part of the shoreline that simply couldn't be done."

Over the years, fencing, signs and security guards kept out the masses.

In 1967, the city entered a lease with the prior owner to operate a resort. Public beach access was a requirement. The Gelfands bought the lease in 1975. In 2017, they began a new three-year lease with the city requiring beach access, 31 free public parking spots at Campland, and signs saying the area is open to the public.

In 2019, the lease was extended to 2023. How did the city miss the other signs - that the lease was being violated?

From 2015 to at least 2018, Campland's website stated that the resort "has a luxurious stretch of private beach." The advertisement was repeated on other website profile pages like Tripadvisor, said Rob Moddelmog, who works on enforcement at the Commission.

Then there were the unpermitted signs for "$20 visitor parking" at Campland's entrance. Where were the 31 free spaces?

"We received multiple reports of guards at the gates, telling people no public parking existed at Campland. In some reports, guards also told people the public is not allowed in Campland at all."

But the beaches can only be reached by entering the parks.

At Mission Bay RV Resort, the prior operator wasn't required to provide public entry to the parking lot, which has over 120 spaces to Campland's 80 or so, counting the 31 free spots.

When the city entered into a four-year lease with the Gelfands in 2019, signs stating that the 70-acre park was private weren't taken down. A map on their website labeled an area where the public could park, "RV guest overflow parking."

The violations are a threat to environmental justice, coastal commissioners said, since they impact those who can least afford to stay at the resorts. Campland includes amenities a typical campground lacks (a pool), but is about double the price of nearby state campgrounds. And so is Mission Bay RV Resort.

The consent agreement includes fence removal, public electric vehicle charging stations, new signs and public restrooms. The operators will advertise in San Diego for those who might not hear about the program, and provide funding for group transport and camping equipment.

"We were very sensitive to the potential ending of these leases and tried to make everything as flexible as possible," said Lisa Haage, the commission's chief of enforcement. For instance, due to sea rise and plans for wetland restoration, the restrooms will be mobile trailer bathrooms, easy to move as needed.

"They're adding public drinking fountains, as well as showers, which are all very difficult to acquire absent a consent agreement like this." And though it's about access violations, it has important environmental provisions, including the reduction of plastics, she said.

If the leases are extended, the terms of the order will be, too.

The free camping program will get underway once the consent agreement is signed by the commission, Gelfand said. They are already working with groups in San Diego to find participants.

Commissioner Brownsey asked for a date when the plan must be active. "Because we would hate to have a year go by, given the persistent violations."

Haage said the entire plan has to be submitted within 60 days. Signs must be removed within 24 hours and the fence within 10 days of the order being issued.

Commissioners asked if their own staff ever talked to the city of San Diego to find out why they never enforced the provisions in their lease. Did they ever visit the site?

"The city was unaware of the issues here," Moddelmog said.

Haage said their order will hopefully spark more awareness in the future. "Local governments have been slow to realize the value of the tidelands to the public."

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