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In The News

Cargill site comes before Bay commission

By Michelle Durand
The Daily Journal, 3/06/09

Having triumphed over a ballot battle that could have killed development on the former Cargill Saltworks site, developer DMB Associates is now turning to the Bay Area commission whose approval it still needs.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission must issue a permit for development of the site. Although that end is still quite far away, Cargill developers DMB Associates offered up a briefing of conceptual plans before BCDC yesterday.

“At this point any suggestions or comments can still be incorporated within the application,” said DMB spokesman Jay Reed. “This lets us know what they want and gives them a chance to hear background about the site and the planning efforts.”

The briefing also provided Save the Bay Executive Director David Lewis the chance to argue why the salt ponds should be restored rather than developed into housing.

Lewis and other opponents addressed the commission but Lewis did not return a call for comment on his specific points. Lewis spearheaded the effort to defeat development of the land during last year’s contentious election battle and Save the Bay Political Director Stephen Knight said he planned to echo the sentiments.

The property is considered important wetlands in the San Francisco Bay. At one time it was part of a plan fostered by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein for the federal government to purchase and restore endangered salt flats. That plan eventually dropped the Redwood City salt flats from preservation and instead was to preserve some land in the South Bay for a price tag close to $100 million.

The BCDC has jurisdiction over any development on San Francisco Bay waters but Cargill, as successor to Leslie Salt, claims it is exempt. However, the California Attorney General’s Office decided Cargill falls in BCDC’s “salt pond” jurisdiction, according to Will Travis, BCDC executive director.

Historically, the commission has had authority over the entire salt pond system of the Bay but not the refining and processing facilities. The two groups are now agreeing to disagree but working on ensuring the site’s use is consistent with the current BCDC laws and policies.

Applicable salt pond policies include the caveats that development be guided by maximum access to the Bay without adverse effects on wildlife, permanent dedication of some of the water surface area and providing for resource conservation.

BCDC policy also requires every effort be made to sell the land for public use before OK’ing development — a requirement BCDC Commissioner Rich Gordon said is challenging.

“At the end of the day, in this climate, I don’t know where those dollars would come from,” said Gordon, also a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

BCDC also tackled the need for transportation if the site is developed even though that issue is not in the commission’s jurisdiction, Gordon said.

“Although we cannot rule over that, it lets the developer see here’s a set of public officials raising those concerns,” Gordon said.

DMB has committed that any plans will be fully consistent with the commission’s Bay plan policies, Travis has said. But absent any final plan, Travis said it is impossible to predict whether it would be approved.

DMB is pushing what it calls a 50-50 plan, providing 50 percent for wetlands restoration, recreation and open space uses and 50 percent for mixed uses including housing. DMB accompanied its plan with a list of 10 commitments to the community, including flood control issues, creating a transit-friendly development and ensuring the project is self-sufficient.

Reed said DMB anticipates a development plan will be submitted in the next several months but currently nothing definitive is on the table.

Despite the absence of a development plan, yesterday’s briefing was scheduled because of the proposal’s large-scale scope, the policy issues raised and the controversy of using the site for something other than salt production, according to BCDC staff.

The saltworks site is a 1,433-acre parcel of land — the largest untouched area in the Bay Area outside the Presidio in San Francisco — whose potential development has long been debated in the community. Last year, the dispute erupted into a full-out war between organizations like Save the Bay, Redwood City and a smattering of grassroots groups who took no sides other than opposing a ballot measure which would have significantly changed the city charter.

Measure W, initially known as the Open Space Vote, would have altered the charter so voters rather than councilmembers decide the fate of development on land zoned open space. Proponents said the measure did not preclude development, instead giving voters a direct input in the decision and forcing proposed projects to be better. Opponents worried some homeowners would be forced to ask the city as a whole for every home improvement or change.

In response, the Redwood City Council proposed Measure V which would have changed the charter so any decisions on only the Cargill Saltworks land required a vote.

Ultimately, both failed and the issue returned to square one.

Redwood City is currently updating its general plan and recently decided to use the current designations for the saltworks site. If DMB proposed changing the general plan to accommodate its development proposal, the developers will need to push a future amendment. Current estimates suggest that could happen in 2010.

 

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