|Developer Divides to Conquer
August 14, 2002
The following story, which appeared in the East Bay Express, describes a conflict among traditional environmental advocacy groups over public shoreline access versus wildlife habitat. The apparent winner is the developer, who would skate on having to build a long-planned shoreline trail spur/overlook. However, the shoreline access advocates and the wildlife advocates have found a compromise that would result in the developer swapping a trail extension to Point Pinole Regional Shoreline for not having to construct the spur/overlook. The developer wants to do neither. This will be working its ay through the City of Richmond Planning Commission, Design Review Board, and probably the City Council this fall.
Originally published by East Bay Express
Aug 14, 2002
A Company's plan to sell "wetland credits" to East Bay developers pits open-space advocates against federal agencies.
By Bill O'Brien
You can probably already predict how this story is going to play out, right? A developer buys a large parcel of bayside land along Richmond's waterfront, just south of Point Pinole Regional Shoreline. It announces plans to construct an office-and-technology park on one corner of the land and restore the rest as wetlands. Neighbors and environmentalists are certain to oppose the buildings, while welcoming any restoration and addition of open space, particularly if it means new habitat for endangered species like the California clapper rail and the salt-marsh harvest mouse.
This case, however, isn't your typical NIMBY-versus-developer scenario. The developer, Bay Area Wetlands, seems to be spending more time defending its habitat restoration plans than its 550,000-square-foot technology park. The company is caught, its principals say, between trail advocates, community activists, and the East Bay Regional Park District on one side and powerful state and federal agencies on the other.
A little history: Three years ago the company, headed by commercial developer Stan Davis and environmental consultants David Guthridge and Jeff Olberding, bought the 238-acre Breuner Marsh property, named after the Western retail-furniture dynasty that previously owned the land. At the time of the sale, says Guthridge, the property's main feature was a group of dilapidated buildings occupied by longtime squatters. Someone's horses grazed in the weeds, and a number of wrecked automobiles were scattered about. Broken concrete and other detritus had been dumped on the site over the years, and there were even rumors -- probably unfounded -- of bodies being buried somewhere on the property.
Davis and his colleagues had had been looking for development opportunities, but when Olberding saw the real estate listing, "I said to myself, there's a little more to this property than commercial development," he recalls. He suggested to the developer that the trio create a mitigation bank; Davis liked the idea.
Mitigation banks have existed since the mid-1990s, but the Breuner site would be the East Bay's first. Here's the concept: A company buys a piece of property and builds or preserves wetlands on it. In exchange, the company gets to sell wetland "credits" to other developers planning projects that will destroy wetlands or pose a threat to rare plants and animals. The Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the program, says the banks allow for the creation of large habitat areas that are much easier to monitor than dozens of individual projects would be. Bay Area Wetlands, Guthridge says, may be interested in building other mitigation banks, possibly in the South Bay, and would like to use this one as a showcase project.
Had it planned an office park to fill a large portion of the site, the company would have faced serious bureaucratic obstacles from local, state, and federal agencies, not to mention environmentalists. (The proposed construction is not technically sited on wetlands, so it doesn't fall under the same stringent regulations.) But by creating a mitigation bank, the developers hoped to be seen as environmental good guys and make a decent profit on the land to boot.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. The land isn't much different now than it was in '99, except that the old buildings have been knocked down, the squatters (and horses) evicted, and the cars towed away. Stands of native pickleweed and saltgrass intermingle with exotic grasses and brush, and chunks of broken concrete and asphalt form low hillocks that occasionally break through the surface. The eastern side of the site is bordered by a high railroad embankment, while just off shore is a series of half-rotted pilings, remnants of a forgotten pier.
Things might have gone more smoothly for the company were it not for a narrow, unpaved road down the middle of the property that leads to a small spit of land jutting out about a quarter-mile into the bay.
Although connected to the Breuner site, the spit is actually part of Point Pinole park, and it commands a beautiful vista of San Pablo Bay. The road has been sketched in as a spur of the Bay Trail, which, when completed, will form a 400-mile ring all around San Francisco Bay. City planners have also included it in the Richmond General Plan and the North Richmond Specific Plan.
But the road isn't on any of the maps Bay Area Wetlands has drawn up. The company wants to remove it in order to restore tidal flows across the property and provide more wildlife habitat. As an alternative, it proposes building a trail along the southern edge of the property, skirting the wetlands and leading to a 400-foot recreation pier the company would like to build.
Although the dirt road is not officially a public right-of-way, it's one of the few paths by which a determined neighbor could reach the bay at all. Whitney Dotson, head of the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council, points out that most of Richmond's waterfront has long been industrialized: "I grew up right across the railroad tracks. I could only look at [the shoreline], I couldn't go down there." Even Point Pinole doesn't have the broad expanse of shoreline that the Breuner property does.
Nor do Dotson and other local activists like the location of the proposed pier, which would be just over the property line from the Richmond Rod and Gun Club. The sounds of target practice -- and, in the winter, hunters popping shells at ducks out on the water -- aren't conducive to a relaxed day at the shore, they say. "Being next to a firing range isn't like being in the solitude and beauty of the spit extending out into the Bay," remarks Bruce Beyaert, who chairs the Trails for Richmond Action Committee.
"The trail alignment has been planned for a long time," Beyaert adds. The alternative pathway is much shorter, and wouldn't provide anything comparable to the views from the promontory, he says.
Guthridge and Olberding sympathize with the neighbors, but claim there's nothing they can do: To gain approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies for their mitigation bank, the road will have to go. A letter from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, filed along with the project's draft environmental impact report (EIR), notes that this trail would disrupt the hydrology of the marsh and allow predators such as red foxes, rats, and feral cats into the sensitive wildlife areas. Even worse, people and their dogs would be able to get too close to birds' nests and areas used by the harvest mice. A mitigation bank with such a trail "is unlikely to be approved by the Service," the letter continues, concluding that the company's alternative is acceptable.
Some folks have proposed replacing the road with an elevated boardwalk. Ed Wylie, the region's Army Corps section chief, says that won't work. "That just becomes a launching platform for predatory birds to scope out the marsh."
But Bob Doyle, assistant general manager of the East Bay Park District, doesn't share that view. "There are plenty of wildlife areas that have boardwalks," he says, citing Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline and the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge. "We design them all the time in our restorations."
The district's emergency vehicles also need continued access to the shoreline in case of fire, shootings, or boating accidents. "Our trucks can't drive across a pickleweed marsh," he says.
The park district, adds Doyle, is in favor of giving people access to the shoreline whenever possible. "It's a social justice issue."
But the proposed project isn't a park, notes the Army Corps' Wylie. "You're always going to have a conflict between people and critters," he says. "We're trying to make a mitigation bank for the critters."
The company doesn't plan to challenge this policy. "We're not inclined to take on the federal government when we professionally agree with them," says Guthridge.
Trails for Richmond Action Committee and the other groups are floating a compromise. In exchange for eliminating the spur trail, the company could extend a second trail planned for the eastern side of the wetlands so that it connects with the existing trail system of Point Pinole.
Olberding responds that he'd be open to helping the park district obtain permission and do the design work, but paying for construction of a trail that's not even on his property? Out of the question. "Is that supposed to be the responsibility of the guy doing the mitigation bank?" he says. "I don't think so."
Though mitigation banks may seem like a reasonable compromise between conservation and development, many environmentalists question the concept. The banks don't actually result in wetland creation, says Arthur Feinstein, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. They merely replace habitat being lost in other locations.
That's the theory, at least. Skeptics note that since purchasing conservation credits is far easier than actually designing and building wetlands, developments that otherwise might be scrapped may go forward.
For his part, Feinstein believes mitigation banks should only be allowed to compensate for the smallest of projects, where rebuilding a wetland is technologically or financially impossible. "Destroying wetlands should not be made easy," he says. "For every acre being restored, there will be an acre destroyed somewhere else."
Approval of the Breuner mitigation bank, however, is in the hands of the feds, not local government: The city of Richmond has no say in the matter, other than to certify the environmental impact report and to approve routine grading permits and the like. Unless the trail advocates can sway the various federal agencies involved, they'll be hard-pressed to stop demolition of the access road.
The fate of the technology park itself, however, depends on the Richmond City Council's support -- a fact that may give locals some influence over the wetland bank.
East Bay Parks' Doyle thinks that much of the current dispute is a result of poor communication. "Unfortunately, the developer has moved forward without the cooperation of the community and the biggest landholder -- us," he says. Still, he's optimistic that something can be worked out.
Feinstein and other environmentalists favor turning the Breuner property into an open space that can be shared by humans and animals, perhaps making it an extension of the Point Pinole Shoreline. The park district looked into purchasing the land a decade ago, but gave up because of possible groundwater contamination from nearby industries. Both Doyle and Feinstein point out that a public agency or a private group such as the Nature Conservancy could probably raise the funds to buy the property.
"This land was on the market for ten years," counters Guthridge. "Nobody else wanted it. It's not like we stole it."
Without the profit incentive, he adds, it's highly unlikely that the wetlands will ever be restored. "We've got a developer who is interested in doing restoration projects," adds Olberding. "Where else do you have that?"