San Diego Business Journal

It hasn't been the smoothest of sailing, but SeaWorld San Diego's campaign for major expansion along Mission Bay is closing in on what could be its final stages.

Changes to the aquatic theme park's master plan , allowing SeaWorld to build structures taller than 30 feet , are expected to go before the San Diego Planning Commission on June 21, then to the City Council on July 9 and to the California Coastal Commission for final approval in October.

If the Coastal Commission approves the changes to the park, construction could begin on several projects , including a roller coaster-like water ride whose tallest point is 95 feet high. The ride, for which the park would not disclose a cost, is planned to open for the 2003 summer season.

According to Bob Tucker, director of public relations at SeaWorld, the attraction will be similar to one at the SeaWorld Orlando park, called "Journey to Atlantis." The San Diego ride, however, will be themed around an exhibit of Commerson's dolphins.

The dolphins have been kept in a behind-the-scenes area since more than two years ago, when the park needed the space for its Shipwreck Rapids water ride, which opened in the summer of 1999, Tucker said.

Other projects that could begin soon after the Coastal Commission's decision would be renovations to the theme park's entrance, its education building and development of its catering facility.

The park pays an estimated $6 million annually in rent, which is a percentage of its sales.

Three Year Campaign

In the spring of 1998, SeaWorld began a campaign to exempt itself from a 30-foot height limit for structures built on coastal property.

It became a bitterly contested battle between the park and community activists concerned about how the expansion could affect Mission Bay Park, which is a natural reserve, and increase noise and traffic problems in the surrounding area.

Taller structures, in particular, were feared to destroy the views near the park. As of then, the only structure extending higher than 30 feet was the park's 320-foot Skytower.

By a margin of less than 1 percent, voters exempted SeaWorld from the 30-foot restriction and gave the park permission to build as tall as 160 feet.

At that point, opponents' concern increased to include the issue of how much leeway would be given to the park in the master plan process, since few details were released about what it planned to build. In the fall of 1999, at meetings for the environmental study process, city planning commissioners asked the park to give more details about their plans and involve the public more.

Questions Raised

At the most recent meeting with SeaWorld May 10, commissioners raised additional questions about the expansion.

According to Mike Westlake, development project manager with the city's development services department, some of the issues included: assuring the public's ability to appeal staff decisions on future projects; restricting a proposed hotel site and parking structure to 30 feet; and the cumulative impact of all of the Mission Bay projects.

Planners also were concerned SeaWorld could be changing its mission to focus more on adventure rides rather than marine education, Westlake said.

According to Westlake, commissioners were considering adjusting several requirements. One was that SeaWorld treats a percentage of the water it uses before the water enters Mission Bay, and planners were thinking of increasing it to all of the water the park uses.

Also, plans currently require the park to make any structure taller than 100 feet be 50 percent transparent, and planners were interested in increasing the requirement to all structures 50 feet and taller.

Commissioners also wanted to know more about plans for a transit station at the park, traffic effects, who would absorb the cost of impacts on Interstate 5, and wanted to see the impact the public has had on the master plan.

They also wanted a continuous public-pedestrian path around Mission Bay, including where SeaWorld borders the bay.

Tier 1 Projects

Commissioners talked about approving only the Tier 1 projects, that would be completed within two to six years. They include the water ride, entrance and education and catering facilities.

Although eight sites have been identified for them, no details have been given on the Tier 2 projects, Westlake said. A third category is special projects, which includes the Perez Cove marina, hotel, parking structure and transit station.

Although he couldn't discuss specifics because the master plan is still a hearing item, Planning Commissioner Bill Anderson said he was pleased with the park's outreach.

"They've taken extraordinary efforts to meet with the public to discuss their plans with the public and to identify issues," Anderson said.

Carolyn Chase, a volunteer with the Sierra Club and an opponent of SeaWorld's plans, the community forums haven't had much of an impact, she said.

"I didn't see much of anything that came out of that reflected in the EIR," she said. "I think they were nice dog-and-pony shows, feel-good exercises, and I don't think they really influenced what they wanted to do out there."

Unusual Path

Part of the park's communication with the public has been to emphasize its business of drawing visitors. According to SeaWorld's Tucker, it's been an unusual path for a theme park, but necessary because SeaWorld is located on public land. The coastal location outweighs the complications, he said.

Chase said she wants the public to have an impact on the passage of future projects and still fears taxpayers will have to pay for some of the expansion's effects.

"I'm basically concerned that there be any unmitigated impacts with that because unmitigated impacts mean, absolutely, the taxpayers are going to take it on the chin, and so are the public and the environment," she said.