In The News
Developer control of Saltworks project EIR questioned by critics
City says it will vet work of company’s consultants
BY BONNIE ESLINGER
Daily News, 3/14/12
Even though consultants already have begun studying the potential environmental impacts that the controversial Redwood City Saltworks project might cause, opponents of the massive housing development are suggesting they should stop.
That’s because most of the consultants are paid by, overseen and required to answer to DMB Pacific Ventures, the developer that wants to build as many as 12,000 homes on 1,436 acres of salt flats owned by Cargill along San Francisco Bay.
Although it may be legal for the developer to control the analysis work being done instead of Redwood City, opponents say the arrangement smells like a conflict of interest and could swing results in favor of the project.
“It’s not appropriate to have an interested party provide the information,” said Dan Ponti, co-chairman of Redwood City Neighbors United, a group that formed last year to fight the Saltworks project. “It should be done in a form that’s as objective as you can make it.”
DMB Senior Vice President David Smith counters that the arrangement is spelled out in the project description and just a “starting point” in a protracted vetting process.
“We get to decide what we’re proposing to the city, we’re the best ones to write that,” Smith said. “It’s substantive data and analysis by experts in their field. Then it will go to the city. It’s a starting point, not a conclusion.”
While local governments often contract directly with consultants for studies on proposed development projects — and send the bills to applicants — it’s not unusual for municipalities to accept provided studies and then review the work, said Stanford professor Deborah Silvas, director of the university’s Environmental Law Clinic.
“It is very common,” Silvas said. “Whether it’s a good practice is up for debate.”
The practice “does create the opportunity for the sin of omission,” Environmental Law Clinic attorney Leah Russin said, noting that parties who later review the studies may not notice if anything has been left out.
The California Environmental Quality Act outlines 18 environmental impact “topics” that must be studied for some developments, said Redwood City Acting Planning Manager Blake Lyons.
Lyons said the city put its own experts on two of those topics — transportation/ traffic and public services/utilities — but allowed DMB to start studying the others. If Redwood City’s hired consultants find that the developer’s documents are inadequate the city won’t hesitate to “push back” or do its own independent study, Lyons said.
He also noted that the overall environmental report the city ultimately prepares for the Saltworks project will also be examined by other government agencies and the public.
The city’s review of the Saltworks project was put on hold late last year when DMB pulled its proposal — which also calls for office buildings, stores, schools, playing fields and restored marshlands — to make revisions.
Smith said changes to the proposal based on public comments are still being made and did not indicate when the company intends to release an update.