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In The News

Atherton hears opposing views on Cargill

by Barbara Wood

The Almanac, 6/2/10

Cargill's proposal to build a new community for up to 25,000 people in Redwood City, where there are now only salt ponds and a salt-processing operation, will either solve many of the Bay Area's environmental woes, or will multiply them.

Those who attended the May 27 annual meeting of the Atherton Civic Interest League at Holbrook-Palmer Park heard from two speakers with these opposing views on the plan.

Redwood City recently ordered an environmental impact study on the bayside project, called Saltworks by its developers, as one of the first steps in a review process that will take years to complete.

In addition to the homes, Cargill and developer DMB have proposed retail space, parks, schools, public transit and the restoration of some of the wetlands on the property. It is in Redwood City east of U.S.101 and immediately south of Seaport Boulevard. The project is on land the developers say has been used for salt production for more than 100 years, and which opponents say was originally part of the San Francisco Bay.

Opponents and proponents of the project cite many of the same existing problems as they argue for or against it. The developers say the project will fight urban sprawl by attracting residents who now live in distant suburbs; the opponents say it is urban sprawl, sprawling right into the Bay.

The developers say a levee planned as part of the project will protect it and neighboring properties against predicted sea level rise; the opponents say rising sea levels will threaten the new homes and taxpayers will have to pay to save them from rising waters.

The developers say locating housing near existing jobs will help offset the Bay Area's traffic nightmare; the opponents say the new residents will add massive numbers of cars to already overcrowded streets.

Tim Frank, an environmental consultant who is active in the Sierra Club and who has been helping the developers design the project, spoke in its favor at the meeting. He said the site is an infill parcel located right in the heart of the job center, and the new housing could go to some of the more than 40,000 people who commute to work in Redwood City each day.

The project is sustainably designed, he said, "so that people don't actually have to get in their cars for every errand," he said. Getting people out of their cars is necessary to fight global warming and "the most important way to do that is to build housing where the jobs are," he said.

Stephen Knight, political director for Save the Bay, spoke against the proposal, saying it will harm the Bay. "Urban sprawl is one of the greatest threats to the San Francisco Bay," he said. "They're on the wrong side of 101. They're building in an undeveloped salt pond."

Mr. Knight insisted that the development would prove to be a traffic nightmare. "No one in their right mind thinks that 30,000 new people ... could possibly reduce traffic," he said.

He and many opponents of the project argue that if it does not continue to be used for salt production, the entire site should be restored as wetlands. "This site can and should be restorable," he said. "We need to protect our existing open spaces."

But Mr. Frank argued that the cost of restoration is more than the public would be willing to bear. Instead, the developers will restore some of the wetland at no cost to taxpayers, he said, with half the site ending up as "green space" parks or wetlands.

Where the water the development requires will come from is another subject of controversy. Mr. Frank said the developers have purchased the rights to water from Kern County that will not only serve the needs of the development but of other nearby areas as well.

Mr. Knight said that proposal will not work. "It's a very complicated plan — it's not going to survive the extensive regulatory review," he said.

Developer DMB is no newcomer to controversy about proposals to build on ecologically fragile land, or to approval processes that take many years to complete. They are behind the Tejon Ranch project north of Los Angeles, and Martis Camp between Truckee and Lake Tahoe. Both projects received approval after years of negotiations.

The event was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County.


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