Court documents spell out economic, statewide impacts of SF waterfront-heights measure

A San Francisco ballot measure passed last year that requires voter approval for height-limit increases along The City's waterfront appears to have made a splash throughout California.

San Francisco business leaders and public-policy advocates, including the Chamber of Commerce, Bay Area Council, Center for Creative Land Recycling and San Francisco Building and Trades Council have filed an amicus brief in San Francisco Superior Court that voices support for a lawsuit by the California State Lands Commission against The City over the validity of Proposition B.

The move is the strongest stance yet from the chamber and other organizations against Prop. B since it passed in June, and aligns with a separate amicus brief filed by the San Diego Unified Port District last week that outlines statewide concerns regarding Prop. B.

Prop. B has been deemed potentially the first measure of its kind in the U.S. However, opponents argue that it could lead to other potentially jeopardizing initiatives along California's waterfront.

The State Lands Commission — comprised of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Controller John Chiang and state Finance Director Michael Cohen — maintains that Prop. B is illegal because while the waterfront is managed by The City's Port Commission, the state Legislature retains ultimate authority over the property, per the Burton Act of 1968.

The amicus briefs also question the validity of the proposition and highlight its economic ramifications, specifically how it could threaten public-private partnerships needed to address $1.5 billion in repairs at the Port of San Francisco.

The City's waterfront served as a major maritime cargo port until the 1970s, and has since evolved into a visitor industry port and cruise terminal, among other uses, said Jim Lazarus, the chamber's senior vice president of public policy. Prop. B threatens the Port's ability to make related capital improvements, the city groups' brief states.

“We've had to change the use of our facilities. The facilities in many cases are very, very old,” Lazarus noted.

The Warriors had proposed a new basketball arena along The Embaracadero waterfront before shifting plans to the Mission Bay waterfront last year, which was a financial blow to the Port, according to the brief. Additionally, a mixed-use development at Pier 70 was reduced from its initial size because developers were required to put a height-limit increase before voters, likely decreasing Port revenue from the project, the brief states.

“That is just an example of what may happen if Prop. B is not struck down,” Lazarus said of the potential lost revenue.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Unified Port District highlighted its concerns for its waterfront property over Prop. B in a separate amicus brief. Unlike the Port of San Francisco, San Diego's port sits in the jurisdiction of five cities, which could set “a dangerous precedent” for the San Diego Unified Port District, the brief states.

“Should initiatives like Proposition B be upheld, the District faces even greater harm than single-city public trustees, as there is the potential for different local initiatives being passed related to the District by the voters of Chula Vista, Coronado, National City, Imperial Beach or San Diego,” the brief reads.

San Diego is familiar with such concerns. In 2008, an initiative similar to Prop. B sought to give voters the authority to approve a mixed-use development — including a football stadium — on Port property. That prompted a 2010 amendment to the California Public Resources Code that, the Port argues, was meant to prevent local initiatives from subjugating the decisions of public trustees.

The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a nonprofit that represents the maritime industry on the West Coast including California, is also concerned about what other initiatives might be spurred throughout the state from Prop. B.

“It might be a height initiative here, [but] in another port, it might be something else,” said Mike Jacob, the association's vice president and general counsel.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera maintains that Prop. B is legal and has promised to aggressively defend the measure.

Herrera contends that the Burton Act actually calls for local control of the waterfront because the state granted authority of San Francisco's “tidelands and submerged lands” to The City through a harbor commission.

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