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In The News

Dispute over Cargill land reignites
Environmentalists take on developers with platform of turning salt ponds into wetlands

By Julia Scott
San Mateo County Times, 5/23/09

Ralph Nobles takes in the full sweep of the Cargill salt production site, waving in the direction of lilac-colored salt ponds crusted in white as far as the eye can see. Then he turns his back on all of it.

“Right out there is where it’s going to be if it is,” he declares, with a mischievous smile on his face that says: “We’ll see.”

After three years of preparation and public comments, developer DMB Associates presented its vision for a new community to the Redwood City City Council on Tuesday night — a vision for the Cargill Saltworks site that includes seven new neighbor hoods and as many as 12,000 new homes, space to house up to 25,000 new residents by the edge of San Francisco Bay.

Nobles has a different vision. He would like to see the entire 1,433-acre property transformed back into the wetland estuary it was more than a century ago before Cargill diked it off into the crystallizer ponds that are still in use today. He is unimpressed with DMB Associates’ proposal — dubbed the “50/50 plan” — to build on no more than 50 percent of the site and turn the rest into restored wetlands, parks and playing fields on the portion closest to the Bay.

Environmental groups around the Bay Area have joined Nobles and his organization, Friends of Redwood City, in preparing for a battle royal against the development should the city council approve it and agree to amend the city’s general plan to allow for housing on the salt flats (the area is currently zoned as open space). If they choose to put the issue forward as a public referendum, a tactic that has worked before, their main challenge will be to convince residents that the development represents the opposite of “smart growth,” poses a serious environmental threat, and doesn’t account for sea-level rise.

That may be a tough argument to make considering the only other feasible alternative — at least for now — is more salt production and no new wetlands at all.

Nobles, a retired nuclear physicist, has led two successful local referendum initiatives to overturn proposed developments along Red wood City’s shoreline. This is the first time that so many local and national environmental groups have signed on to work with him.

For their part, DMB and Cargill intend to argue that the new homes — which could grow Redwood City’s population by one quarter — must be built to account for the coming population boom on the Peninsula and the new jobs that will be created in the next 30 years. The proposal will appeal to city council members by including room for as many as five much-needed local schools. And the project’s backers have tried to pre-empt environmentalists’ arguments that the isolated development fuels car use by pro posing a trolley service that would shuttle residents to the Caltrain station downtown.

“The site provides a unique opportunity to address the significant housing and jobs balance on the Peninsula. I think that the opportunity to create housing that’s affordable and close to major employers is ‘smart growth,’” said John Bruno, vice president and general manager of Redwood City Industrial Saltworks, a development partnership between DMB and Cargill.

Environmental groups such as Save the Bay have already made the argument that state and federal regulatory agencies should reject the project based on its location alone — the homes would be erected on the largest portion of restorable wetlands since Foster City was built more than 40 years ago, on land that is no more than one to two feet above sea level. A 3-mile-long levee would be required to keep the new community from disappearing underwater. The threat of sea-level rise is, by now, a known threat to real estate closest to the edges of the Bay. But no local, statewide or federal agency is empowered to stop a project based on sea-level rise. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, whose mission is to guide sustainable shoreline development, is still grappling with the best approach to dealing with development proposals like this one.

The best the commission can do is ask the developer to build a high enough levee (it predicts a rise of up to 1.4 meters by century’s end; DMB Associates plans to build a levee that accounts for up to one meter.) The BCDC will also decide whether the developer has set aside the “maximum possible” amount of land for wetland restoration and public access, but there is no consensus on what that number ought to be.

“The easiest thing to do to deal with sea-level rise would be to also acknowledge that the Bay Area is seismically active and simply move away and never allow anything to be built along the shoreline of the Bay. Another way would be to build a big wall,” said Will Travis, executive director of the BCDC. Neither of those choices are an option, so his agency will have to figure out what comes next.

The commission has not seen a formal plan yet for the Salt works site, but DMB Associates made a presentation a few months ago. Reaction was mixed, Travis said.

“We had some commissioners who were skeptical about any proposal to develop in a low-lying area in the face of sea-level rise. We had other commissioners who were open to the notion of development on the site because of the benefits of developing in the naturally air-conditioned area around the Bay, and we had others that said ‘I don’t know yet, we’ll have to see how it evolves,’” he reported.

It may also be difficult for environmentalists to argue that the project harms local birds and fish, since no evidence exists that wildlife is thriving in Cargill’s high-saline networks of ponds and mud dikes. If none are found during the environmental review process, that will minimize the decision-making role of agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s possible that some birds, such as the threatened western snowy plover, may nest on the site based on the fact that they live at salt pond crystallizer sites elsewhere on the Bay, said Mendel Stewart, local wildlife refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Based on what we see in other areas around there, snowy plovers tend to like those kinds of places,” he said.
 
Project proponents are quick to point out that adding 440 acres of wetlands where there were none before will give wildlife a new place to nest and feed.
 
That’s cold comfort to opponents like Nobles, who still hopes to see the land sold to the state and included in the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. Unfortunately, the state can’t afford the land — the last time Cargill offered it for sale in 2003, it was priced at $200 million.
 
“The question is, if you want to restore it, who in the public has money to do it?” Travis asked. “In this instance, it isn’t a choice between wetlands and development, it’s a choice between industrial salt ponds or half wetland and half development.”
 
That’s a false choice, Nobles said. “All wetlands should be re turned to the Bay. The Bay is a wetland ecosystem. The Bay is the place we all love to live. It’s the most valuable resource we have.”
 

 

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