COMMENTARY: Finding story of Nemo highlights concerns over Caruso plan

Carlsbad lagoon foundation no friend of nature in fight over Measure A

Richard Riehl

A billionaire Los Angeles developer came to town planning to transform one of Carlsbad’s three lagoons into a magnet for tourist dollars. After winning the approval of local officials, he encountered a group of protesters bent on preserving the lagoon the right way.

No, that’s not the story of Rick Caruso’s plan to build a shopping mall next to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. It’s about another L.A. developer’s failed attempt to build an amusement park, Nemo’s Secret Harbor, surrounding the Batiquitos Lagoon in 1972. The Los Angeles Times carried a retrospective story about the fiasco on March 31, 1985.

The size and scope of the 1972 project dwarfs Caruso’s. But the developer’s aim was the same — to make money off the site’s beauty while putting it at risk. There are, however, two important differences:

  • In 1972, the developer was honest. He didn’t promise to preserve anything. Caruso claims he’ll be the savior of the Strawberry Fields and open space, even though the people of Carlsbad voted to make that happen by approving Proposition D in 2006.
  • The opponents of the amusement park were led by the president of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation. This time around, the chair of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation and its CEO lead the campaign to build the lagoon mall, raising questions about the foundation’s tax-exempt status.

The slogan “Preserving Carlsbad’s Open Space the Right Way” was crafted to appeal to conservationists. After I learned it was a smoke screen for a new shopping center, I was astonished to learn of AHLF’s support. So I compared the foundation’s mission statement to those of the Batiquitos and Buena Vista Lagoon foundations.

“The Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation is dedicated to the preservation, enhancement, and protection of Batiquitos Lagoon, one of the few remaining tidal wetlands on the southern California coast.”

“The Buena Vista Lagoon Foundation’s objectives are: to conserve and restore the Buena Vista Lagoon marsh and wetlands area … and manage such lands for the public good.”

“The mission of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation is to inspire people through education and outreach to preserve the Agua Hedionda Lagoon as an accessible and healthy watershed.”

Unlike the other two, which are primarily about conservation, the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation is focused on fundraising for more public access. It’s sadly ironic that its Discovery Center, which teaches children about watershed preservation, could provide them with a view of a high density shopping mall that threatens it.

Unlike the open space surrounding the other two lagoons, almost entirely publicly owned and free of commercial uses, the Agua Hedionda Lagoon is surrounded by commercial stakeholders: a utility company, power plant, desalination plant, aqua farm and a water sports marina.

That explains why the AHLF board is packed with representatives of corporate sponsors, including Michael Gazzano, a Caruso Affiliated executive, whose boss has a major stake in the lagoon’s tourism revenue. The newest member is Jimmy Ukegawa, the wealthy Strawberry Fields owner whose prosperity depends on Caruso’s success. Ukegawa was a major donor to Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall’s and Councilman Michael Schumacher’s 2014 campaigns.

Unlike the leadership of the other two lagoons, AHLF officers have no background in environmental or biological sciences.

One current AHLF board member, Eric Munoz, has spoken out against Measure A in a letter to Citizens for North County, the group opposing Measure A. His 18 years of experience on the city’s planning staff led him to cast the single vote opposing the foundation’s support of Measure A, explaining:

“A past planning commission chair, a retired planning director, and a retired city attorney have all voiced concerns with the plan only to be discredited. So input of those who have provided technical guidance for planning commissions and city councils for 25 to 30 years is off base? Those who wrote and/or provided legal counsel for the city’s Growth Management Plan, Proposition D and the region’s first Habitat Management Plan suddenly have no credibility?”

Munoz tells of how Caruso’s 85/15 promise is built on a lie: “Power line easement areas and environmental wetland buffers are constraints that cause this 48 acre commercially-zoned property to have an estimated net developable acreage of about 27 acres.”

The former city planner gets my profile in courage award for bucking the tide of true believers on the foundation board.

High profile endorsers of Measure A have something to gain from doing so. The foundation itself gets regular grants from the city, amounting to $208,000 in 2014-15. Last year, Caruso Affiliated donated $15,000.

It’s hard to believe a new 13-acre shopping mall with single-road access would not create crime and fire safety problems, no matter how many traffic control features the developer promises. So why do Carlsbad’s police and fire department union leaders agree with the mayor and City Council in their support of Measure A?

The only explanation I can think of is a paraphrase of dialog in the film “Casablanca.” I’m “Shocked! Shocked!” to think union bosses would want to be friends with the five persons who control the pay and benefits of their members.

The scheme to bring an amusement park to the Batiquitos Lagoon failed 40 years ago because an L.A. billionaire’s plan was thwarted by a state environmental review revealing it was a nesting site for the endangered Least Tern. Shame on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation board for not insisting the plan of this developer, who’s already displayed his lack of integrity, should face the same environmental scrutiny.

On a final note, if Measure A passes, Carlsbadians will need to brace for the predatory developer to set his sights on the property that becomes available when the power plant smokestack comes down. Watch for the slogan: “Preserving Carlsbad Beach the Right Way.”

Richard Riehl is a Carlsbad resident

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