The controversial Cottages at the Cays development project is moving forward following a 4-3 vote at the San Diego Board of Port Commissioners’ meeting on February 14.
More than 75 people spoke during two hours of public comment, mostly Coronado residents or politicians, and most in dissent of the development. In addition, hundreds of letters were sent to the board ahead of the meeting, and more than 1400 signatures of dissent were collected between two petitions. Coronado’s objection was clear and fervent.
But ultimately, commissioners said, their duty was not just to residents of Coronado, but also, to all residents of California.
“This is an area that belongs to the state of California; it belongs to all Californians,” Commissioner Ann Moore said. “The fact is, right now, it is only being used and enjoyed by a very small part of California and a very select group of people.”
The proposed development comprises 41 small, two-bedroom, two-bath vacation rentals with off-street parking, restaurant and retail space, as well as a publicly accessible boardwalk, enhanced beach access, a playground, bathroom, and showers. It’s a scaled back version of the Inn at the Cays, a 204-room hotel that was originally proposed in 2020.
The Cottages would be built on a 7.3-acre parcel under a public trust overseen by the Port of San Diego. The parcel is currently leased to the project’s developer, Cays Resort, LLC, until 2034. Under the Port Master Plan Update (PMPU), the area is set aside as recreational open space, though the portion under commercial lease is noted as an exception.
The project is often referred to as an RV park, as the proposed cottages are actually stationary recreational vehicles. The project will include onsite, car-only parking for each unit, so large RVs would not be driving in and out of the development. Currently, the site hosts boat storage engulfed by a chain-link fence.
Dissenters said the development would cause traffic, density, and safety concerns in the Cays neighborhood. They also questioned the loss of parking, wildlife habitats, and recreational water access on the largely undeveloped area, calling it a peaceful retreat rare to the region’s urban waterfront. They called for a park or greenspace – not development.
Supporters were scarce, but they lauded the affordable access to waterfront recreation the development offers. While the average hotel room costs $450 per night in Coronado, the cottages will sleep six, theoretically diluting the cost per person to would-be visitors and opening bay front vacations to those who could not currently afford them. Others said the project would create jobs and increase public enjoyment of a rarely used waterfront parcel.
“I think a fair reading of the community feeling is that no commercial project (on this parcel) is acceptable,” Commissioner Michael Zucchet said after public comment stretched an early afternoon meeting into the evening. “That’s a difficult standard to hold to someone who does have rights under the lease he holds.”
The Coronado City Council wrote a joint letter of opposition to the board ahead of the meeting, as did Mayor Richard Bailey. Current and former council members spoke during public comment, and Frank Urtasun, Coronado’s representative on the commission, was the development’s biggest critic.
“From the Port of San Diego’s perspective, promises made should be promises kept,” Urtasun said, referring to the recreational open space cited in the PMPU. “If we told the community that we’re going to work in making this an open space area, that’s what we need to continue to move forward with.”
The port has no obligation to extend Cays Resort’s lease beyond 2034, and commissioners and the public alike noted that, once developed, undoing it would be difficult, implying that approval now would equate to tacit future approval.
Supportive commissioners noted that future lease considerations, as well as environmental impact, would be considered in future steps; yesterday’s affirmative vote does not mean the project has full approval yet.
Commission Chair Rafael Castellanos, who also voted against the development, echoed Urtasun’s sentiment, saying the project couldn’t go forward without an extension of the lease. He also agreed with Urtasun that Cays Resort engaged negotiations for its development too late in the game after buying out the lease in 2013. The lessee’s first proposal to the commission was in 2020.
However, Castellanos expressed chagrin for the language in some of the public comments submitted by email or comment card to the port. He read some aloud: “The cottages look like a high-density ghetto.” “Take your homeless housing somewhere else!” “No ghetto trailer park.” “Rentals do not attract the best people.” “This is a trailer park, putting lipstick on a pig.”
While most of the comments were civil, Castellanos conceded, and while he ultimately voted in opposition of the development, he said he felt it necessary to pause development talk and publicly oppose the attitude behind some of the dissenters.
“When I was born, my parents lived in a trailer park,” Castellanos said. “My first memories as a human being were from living in a trailer park. … I just want to say that in 10 years on this commission, hearing all sorts of different projects and proposals, I have never heard language like this submitted to the Port of San Diego. I find it offensive. I find it repugnant. I find it upsetting.”
Ultimately, a majority of the board disagreed with Urtasun’s criticism about the project’s community engagement, and found that the scaled back project – the Cottages at the Cays instead of the original Inn at the Cays – did sufficiently take into consideration community concerns about density.
Further, the port is beholden not just to the city in which the land lies, but also, to the beneficiaries of the land trust and to contracts negotiated decades ago.
“I just want to be clear,” Zucchet said, “I was appointed by the San Diego City Council to sit on this board, but I do not represent the City of San Diego on this board. I swore an oath to the people of the state of California, and my duty is to them.”
And, Commissioner Dan Malcolm said, even though the community would prefer no park, the commission also had an obligation to uphold the sanctity of Cays Resort’s lease and give its proposals due consideration.
Commissioners Urtasun, Castellanos, and Sandy Naranjo voted in dissent. With the affirmative vote, the project’s next steps include initiating a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, creating a Port Master Plan Amendment (PMPA) to add the project to the Port Master Plan (PMP), before Cays Resort returns to the board for PMPA approval and a coastal development permit. During the meeting, port staff estimated the project would take two to three years.
“It’s a balancing act of the interests of the port, the state of California, and the city of Coronado,” Malcolm said. “(The project) is scaled down and will provide benefit to the people of California – and ultimately, at least some benefit to the people of the Cays.”