Town without Pretense

To be I.B. or not to be I.B.?

Late last week, the San Diego County Grand Jury nodded paternally toward the citizens of Imperial Beach, patted them on their heads like a good dog, and told them to heel. Many of its substantive recommendations already had been implemented by city leaders prior to the report’s issuance in Thursday – the second grand jury inquiry into Imperial Beach in fifteen months.

So what, according to two grand juries is wrong with Imperial Beach? The latest report was a fraternal twin to its predecessor, released in the summer of 1987. The more recent report reiterates much of what was said in the first document – I.B. is poor, undeveloped, surrounded by parks, and politically volatile. Both grand juries assumed that changing those circumstances is desirable. While acknowledging that I.B. “is a pleasant town with one of the few remaining underdeveloped beaches in California,” last week’s grand jury report also recommended to the citizens that they abandon their silly allegiance to private property and create a redevelopment agency – something I.B. voters have already twice rejected.

How two consecutive grand juries decided to deride a small South Bay beach town when there was no merit to any serious charge of wrongdoing against it is an interesting study. But it is not a study in criminal justice or public oversight. It is, instead, a study in politics. The grand juries’ reports ended up making political recommendations based on popular social theories, not in uncovering crime or malfeasance.

Last year the 1986-87 grand jury began the assault. It took the City of Imperial Beach into its Star Chamber and worked it over. When the grand jury finished roughing up the city, I.B. staggered out with a black eye, several gashes on its forehead, a swollen lip, and a bloody nose.

Although its assault on the character of I.B. was thorough, the grand jury was unable to deliver a death blow. In the end, the panel of citizen investigators produced a seventeen-page report that did little more than hold the city up for public ridicule. In every instance in which allegations of criminal wrongdoing were alleged, the jury concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the charge. That technicality, however, did not give the grand jury pause. Even though the allegations already had been found untrue by the district attorney, the grand jury decided in its report to repeat them. Its suggestion of criminality was accomplished simultaneously with its acknowledgement that there was no factual basis for the conclusion.

What the jury found were “perceptions” of conspiracy, collusion, secret meetings, and influence peddling. Had it known more about the people of I.B., the grand jury would not have found distrust of the government so irregular. The truth is, the grand jury didn’t like I.B. That prejudice was exposed in a five-page prologue to the report in which Imperial Beach was bashed for being Imperial Beach. The city has no marina. It has no land in use by heavy industry. Most of the people who live in I.B. are renters. It has the lowest tax-base of any city in the county. It employs fewer people than any city in the county. It has set aside thirty-three percent of its total land area for parks and recreation, the highest of any city in the county. Since its incorporation thirty-two years ago, “no commercial structure of significant size has been built on its undeveloped beaches.”

Shame, shame, shame. The grand jury called these facts about I.B. “deficiencies,” which, it insisted, could have been corrected had the city’s voters only approved a sweeping 1985 redevelopment proposal called the Seacoast District Specific Plan. (Last week’s report called the same facts “negatives” and also recommended implementation by redevelopment of the Seacoast plan). The city, under the auspices of a redevelopment agency, would have changed the face of a ten-block, thirty-three acre area on either side of Seacoast Drive, the city’s main north-south thoroughfare along the beach. Among the specifics called for were construction of a high-rise landmark resort hotel on the beachfront of between 250 and 450 rooms, realignment of Seacoast Drive to make room for the mammoth hotel, a public plaza with cafes and specialty retail shops catering to tourists; and a series of mixed commercial/residential buildings featuring expensive condos on top and artsy-fartsy little shops below. The plan also provided for a beachfront park, bikeways, and boardwalks – all suitable for showing off the latest in fashionable beachwear.

This massive social engineering, according to the grand jury, was a good idea, regardless of the foolish vote of the people. The transformation of I.B.’s beachfront from cheap and ordinary to expensive and elegant would generate new revenue by increasing the city’s tax base. But the grand jury took little notice of the biggest impediment to redevelopment: the people already living on the beach.

The city’s own planning commission recognized the problem from the outset. “Multiple-family and single-family uses are scattered throughout the area and comprise over half of the developable land,” they noted in an early draft. “Except for recently constructed residential condominium projects, the area is typified by 1940s and 1950s construction and is maintained in varying degrees of quality. No recent commercial construction has occurred, and the image of the area, as well as its location, have not been conducive to commercial development. However, its location at the beach and natural environmental amenities off great potential for tourist commercial development.” All they needed to do was get their hands on the land.

If the grand jury was correct, it was the people of I.B. who failed their government and who voted against their own self-interest. Behind it all, hinted the grand jury, were two beachfront landowners, one who simply did not want his living room converted into a hotel lobby and the other who had his own plans for an eighty-six room motel at the other end of the beach. These landowners supposedly whipped the tiny electorate into a frenzy of fear over the issue of eminent domain, the legal theory that empowers government to confiscate private property “for just compensation” and put it to better use. The hidden agenda, suggested the grand jury, was the bankrolling of political campaigns toward election of a new city council that would let these landowners have their way with the beachfront.

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