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In The News

Saltworks project lurches along in wrong direction

By Bil Paul – Local Columnist

The Daily News, 1/21/10

Redwood City’s proposed Saltworks development continues to move forward. The project, which envisions a community with a population the size of Los Altos or Belmont on 1,000 acres of salt evaporation ponds, is certainly the most controversial housing proposal in the Bay Area. What happens with it will be watched by many environmentalists and home builders around California and the U.S.

Even though there is some merit to the developers’ claim that their salt evaporation ponds are an industrial operation, I am very concerned about the historical tendency to fill in the Bay incrementally. A chunk here, a chunk there, and to date we’ve lost 95 percent of the Bay and Delta region’s fresh- and saltwater marshes and wetlands. Salt evaporation ponds are one step removed from its marshy origin, but I strongly feel that to fill in even portions to build housing and commercial buildings — as was massively done to create Foster City — is moving in the wrong direction. We need to either leave salt evaporation ponds alone or restore the areas as wetlands.

Although the Saltworks development partnership of DMBAssociates and Cargill won the first voter-box skirmish against local conservationists who want that area returned to a marshy state that was only the beginning of a long process of governmental deliberation. Plans for the project were submitted by DMB to Redwood City last year, and the planning department and its consultant are currently reviewing the proposal to see whether it can pass the initial litmus test of three criteria: • It must stand a good chance of approval by a long roster of state and federal agencies with jurisdiction over that area, including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and the state Fish and Game Department, among many others; • Saltworks residents’ transportation needs could be met, and the additional vehicular traffic generated could be absorbed into existing, nearby road systems; • And the developers must be able to provide potable water because Redwood City has no extra water to contribute.

Cognizant of the last point, DMB last month told Redwood City it had obtained a water commitment from an unnamed source. Scuttlebutt has it that DMB arranged to purchase part of another city’s quota of water that’s going unused. Earlier, DMB had looked into the possibility of using well water.

As far as obtaining the permission of a raft of governmental agencies to build on historical wetlands, landowner Cargill has challenged the Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s control over Bay Area salt ponds. According to the state attorney general, the McAteer-Petris Act that created the commission in 1965 gives it control over all these ponds. Cargill argues that the commission has jurisdiction over only some of the ponds.

However, in a 2005 paper, the commission seemed willing to consider returning half of the Redwood City salt ponds to wetlands and allowing Cargill to develop the other half. This willingness may have encouraged Cargill/DMB to eventually propose its 50-50 Plan to Redwood City, in which half of the 1,400 acres would be developed and the other half devoted to open space. But the open space in this case would encompass sports fields and parks, and only 30 percent of it would be restored to salt marshes. This may not match what the commission’s staff was thinking.

Yet, Cargill/DMB constantly drills in with its mantra of 50-50 — publicly and in documents it submits to the city.

If the developers jump the first hurdle of the three areas listed, and Redwood City’s planning commission and city council approve, the proposed project will enter an environmental review phase under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). At that point, instead of DMB and its public relations firm Laer Pearce — which claims a 96 percent success rate in getting development approvals — running public outreach meetings, the city will run them and hopefully bring some impartiality.

As part of this process, city officials should be hearing from neighbors near the proposed development, some of whom are unhappy about the prospect of a new city at their doorsteps. For example, Port of Redwood City officials note that when new housing is built near such facilities, homeowners complain about noise, dust and lighting from ship loading and unloading operations. Also close by is a cement plant. On the other side of the proposed development are West Bay Sanitary District ponds that store excess wastewater during rainstorms.

The sanitary district feels that Saltworks residents would complain, presumably about odor.

Who wants to live next to wastewater out in the open air?

Then there are the residents of several trailer parks between Highway 101 and the proposed development. At least some residents there will tell Redwood City they don’t want their broad, open views replaced by multi-story buildings and they don’t want more traffic.

Finally, nearby cities have been making noise about opposing the project. In Menlo Park, council members Andy Cohen and Kelly Fergusson have proposed a resolution stating a Saltworks project would be harmful to their city. Following their lead, the Belmont City Council on Jan. 12 discussed preparing a similar resolution, saying that Redwood City needs to consider regional environmental impacts. Palo Alto Council Member Yoriko Kishimoto said in an op-ed newspaper piece the salt ponds are the wrong place for a large development, just as Bair Island was the wrong place earlier. Bair Island is now a wildlife refuge.

On the other hand, Cargill/DMB is likely to tell Redwood City that the development will provide housing for a growing Bay Area population and that it will contribute to shorter vehicle trips for commuters. It’s also likely to stress that it will fund wetlands restoration and provide parks and recreational areas for local residents.

As part of this CEQA process, a variety of options will likely be presented to Redwood City’s planning commission and city council to consider. They would range from no development to DMB’s 50-50 plan. I wouldn’t be surprised if the current city council approves some development, but approvals from the many government agencies responsible for husbanding San Francisco Bay will be much tougher to come by.

DMB brings a lot of high-powered resources to the table, and the maneuvering between its camp and environmentalists will provide a colorful dose of civics lessons on how arguments, money and power influence decision-making.

And there is a lot of money involved here.

 

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