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In The News

Seeking the Fine Line of Where the Bay Ends

By DANIEL WEINTRAUB

New York Times, 5/7/10
 
Typically in the Bay Area, a densely populated, transit-oriented development with schools, offices and grocery stores built near jobs and within walking distance of a mix of apartments and townhomes would be a big hit with environmentalists.

But just such a project proposed in Redwood City has come under fierce attack. And any real estate agent could tell you the reason: location, location, location.

This particular project, depending on whom you ask, is either on the shore of San Francisco Bay — or actually in the bay itself. Which one it is may not ultimately have any legal bearing on whether the project can be built. But the developer and the project’s opponents are fighting over the question as if it will decide the matter.

“This site is part of San Francisco Bay,” said Stephen Knight, political director for Save the Bay, a nonprofit group based in Oakland that is leading the opposition. “There is no way that they can work their way around the fact that they are trying to build a new city in a salt pond at sea level in San Francisco Bay.”

But David Smith, a vice president of DMB Associates, the developer, argues that the site is not in the bay at all. Mr. Smith notes that the ponds are above the high-tide line, a common definition of where the bay ends and the shore begins.

“The tide hits the levee, and that’s where the bay stops,” Mr. Smith said.

That might seem disingenuous, since the current owner’s predecessors in the salt business built those levees years ago. But the same can be said of much of San Francisco, where homes, shops and office buildings sit on fill-in places that were once part of the bay. And no one is proposing to turn that land back to nature.

The law is somewhat muddled on the question. The salt ponds are considered “waters of the United States” under the federal Clean Water Act and fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. But the ponds are defined as distinct from the bay itself in the charter of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

“It’s not part of B.C.D.C.’s bay jurisdiction,” said Caitlin Sweeney, the commission’s deputy director.

If the ponds were part of the bay, Ms. Sweeney said, a development of the kind proposed could never be approved. But it is possible that the project could be allowed on a former salt pond.

“It’s really a legal definition rather than an ecological or historical definition,” she said.

If you have never seen them, the idea of “salt ponds” might conjure an image of brackish water lapping through reeds and grasses, sort of like a saltwater marsh. But these ponds are nothing like that. They are entirely man-made structures separated from the bay by levees of rock and dirt. They are the last stop in an industrial process that shunts water in a semicircle along the bay’s eastern and southern shoreline before it reaches Redwood City.

In the final ponds, that water is allowed to evaporate, leaving 8 inches to 12 inches of solid, crystallized salt behind. Huge mechanical harvesters are driven over the dry pond bed, chipping away the salt and depositing it in piles to the left and right of the machines. After the salt is trucked away, scrapers arrive and grade the ground to a 1 percent slope. At this point in the process, the land does not resemble the bay at all.

But that land could be turned back into wetlands, at a price. The developer is conceding as much by proposing to restore about a third of the property, or 400 acres, to wetlands as part of the project. The rest of the project, the company says, is so progressive that it will become a model for a low-carbon future.

The builders are promoting the project as the best way to fight global warming and rising sea levels. But they are still proposing to build a new levee high enough and strong enough to hold back even those rising tides, to keep the water from reclaiming for itself the land that once was, but for the moment no longer is, part of the bay.

Daniel Weintraub has reported on California politics and policy for more than 20 years.

 

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