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Legal Battleships Are Still Docked At De Anza Cove

Watching the sun sparkle on the water is familiar to San Diegans who have visited Mission Bay. And it's also the view you get from the mobile home of Ernie Abbit, who told me what he likes about living at the De Anza Cove mobile home park.

"Everything. Absolutely everything. It's peaceful. It's beautiful. It's quiet. It's the kind of neighborhood you want to be in,” he said. “I've always liked the waterfront."

The years-long court battle over 76 acres of Mission Bay Park, and the mobile homes that remain there, could end early next year. Or an appeal could set it back in motion.

But Abbit, and his neighbors who now occupy more than 300 mobile homes, aren't supposed to be here because their lease ran out in 2003. The reason they remain relates to a prolonged legal tangle with the city, which the courts may resolve early next year.

Scott Chipman is a Mission Bay community activist whose views sum up the frustration of many people who want the city to reclaim the land.

"The important point here is that the rights of the people of San Diego are being denied the use of Mission Bay Park as it was intended to be used,” said Chipman, "because we have people who have permanent housing on tidelands and on Mission Bay Park property."

The De Anza Cove mobile home park takes up 76 acres in the middle of Mission Bay Park. Most of the residents of De Anza Cove are elderly, and they are paying rents that are far below the commercial rates you'd expect of waterfront property.

Despite the many disputes in this case, one fact is undeniable: Residents of the mobile home park had known for years that their leases would end in 2003. William Rathbone, a private attorney representing the city, said the plan to terminate the lease was spelled out in a long-term rental agreement, established in the 1980s.

"And every resident who entered the park after that date signed a document saying they agreed with that provision," said Rathbone.

But Abbit, who also serves as the head of the De Anza Cove homeowners association, said residents of De Anza Cove have limited options as to where they can move. He also said the city has not met its obligations to them.

"If we had been treated justly and properly, we would have left, and it wouldn't have been any problem," said Abbit.

Five years ago, a district court judge upheld the lease expiration. But he also ruled the city could not evict De Anza residents on the basis of their rental agreement. He said state law, governing mobile homes, must determine how much money, in the form of relocation benefits, the residents are entitled. What those benefits will be remains a question.

Assuming De Anza Cove is turned back to the city's park system, there is one other question: What will the city do with it? Will they turn it back into green space and playgrounds? Or will they try to lease the land to a resort hotel like the Mission Bay Hilton?

Bill Gelfand is the former manager of the De Anza Cove mobile home park, who now runs a campsite in Mission Bay Park called Campland. He said the city's desire to develop a hotel on De Anza Cove goes way back.

"When we purchased the lease back in 1969, right off the bat they told us they wanted the property converted to hotels," he said.

But there's not a lot of talk of building hotels these days. Gelfand said recessions have put a damper on hotel financing. And the limited leases that are allowed on California tidelands discourage hoteliers from building on the land.

Community activist Scott Chipman has another plan, which he's shared with at least two City Councilmembers. It would expand park green space on the shores De Anza cove and would move Gelfand’s operation, Campland, across Rose Creek onto the De Anza Cove property. But Chipman points out that his plan, or any other, depends on getting the legal mess taken care of.

“The city has an obligation to settle this as soon as possible, because this has been dragging out and dragging out,” said Chipman.

Some people suggest the city may be willing to drag its feet, given the rents they still receive from De Anza Cove. But City Councilman Kevin Falconer, the former chairman of the Mission Bay Park Committee, says he want to see things finished up.

“Every year that litigation continues is another year that property is not open for the public,” he said. “And that's what the property needs to be. Open for the public."

Early next year, a judge is expected to render a ruling that spells out the relocation benefits for the residents of De Anza Cove. But the city, and the mobile home owners, are $50 million apart in what they want those benefits to amount to.

Ernie Abbit said if mobile home owners think the judge's decision shortchanges them, they will consider filing an appeal. I asked him what he thought of the possibility that an appeal could cause this litigation to go on for years to come.

“That’s fine with me,” he said. “I will stay here as long as I have to and want to. And I do want to.”

Whatever the district court judge rules next year, there's still no telling when the legal process will loosen its grip on De Anza Cove.

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