Friday, September 26, 2014

Op Ed: Whatever federal agencies decide, any Saltworks plan for Redwood City is still a bad idea

By Dan Ponti, published in the Daily News, 8/22/14

The Aug. 16 Daily News story, "Report favoring Saltworks plan stalled," strongly suggests that DMB/Cargill is hoping that some media attention will short-circuit a formal review process that would determine whether their controversial plan to develop the salt ponds in Redwood City is subject to federal government oversight.
More than two years have passed since DMB/Cargill withdrew their initial plan to build a city in the bay, but the bitter controversy that pitted Cargill and its developer DMB against the residents of Redwood City, neighboring communities, and environmental groups has not gone away. They still intend to develop the site and are hoping that if they can get federal agencies to bow out, it will be smoother sailing for the project.
The findings in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers documents that DMB showed the press, if adopted, would reverse long-standing policy regarding salt ponds in San Francisco Bay. As an example, crystallizer ponds located near Napa (and very similar to the Redwood City salt ponds) were deemed "waters of the United States" subject to the Clean Water Act and permitting requirements. Those ponds are now being restored.

Doesn't it seem odd that the Corps would claim jurisdiction and require permits for salt pond restoration projects, yet now claim no oversight role over a huge development on similar ponds? And there are other oddities -- for example, the Corps attorney's bizarre use of the term "liquid" to describe water in the salt ponds. Apparently, the Environmental Protection Agency thinks something is amiss too, and is reviewing the Corps' decision, in part because of "issues raised by the Corps' proposed approach." What would this reversal on the federal jurisdiction mean for other salt ponds and former salt ponds throughout San Francisco Bay? Both the Corps and EPA oversee implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Review by both agencies is a required part of the process in making these determinations -- and it should be allowed to play out.
However, all of this is just a distraction because a jurisdictional determination does not address the real issue here: that growing Redwood City on the salt ponds is a really bad idea.
In the two years since the Redwood City City Council turned its back on Saltworks, things have changed. Fueled by a new General Plan and an ambitious Downtown Precise Plan, housing is being built at an astonishing pace, focused in the downtown area where infrastructure and transit already exist. This is true smart growth that limits traffic impacts, makes efficient use of resources and preserves our open spaces.
In contrast, any new Saltworks project would contradict both the letter and spirit of our General Plan. Instead of growing Redwood City within our core, developing the ponds means more traffic gridlock on our freeways and city streets, needless destruction of restorable wetlands, and threats to the jobs and viability of our port and nearby industries. Add concerns about our water supply, liquefaction and seiche hazards, and the risk of placing thousands of additional residents in the path of rising seas to the list and you have to wonder why anyone would consider building out there. Simply put, Redwood City has neither the need, nor the capacity, to build in the Bay.
So what part of "no" does Cargill/DMB not understand? Redwood City is moving on. Developing on the salt ponds never made sense to our community, and scaling back a bad idea doesn't make it a good one. And that's something you might think about while sitting in traffic on 101.
Dan Ponti is a Redwood City resident and president of local advocacy group Redwood City Neighbors United: Responsible Growth -- Not Saltworks (


Friday, September 26, 2014

Redwood City Saltworks: Federal report that could boost development pulled at last minute

By Bonnie Eslinger, Daily News Staff Writer, published in the San Jose Mercury News, Peninsula Section, 8/16/2014

An Army Corps of Engineers report whose findings could give a boost to Cargill's scaled-back Redwood City Saltworks project was poised to be publicly released but was withheld at the last minute after another federal agency intervened, according to documents reviewed by The Daily News.

And now, officials at the Corps of Engineers are wrangling with those at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine which body has jurisdiction over the controversial proposal to develop 1,400 acres of salt flats.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Op-Ed: Redwood City wrong to let developers flout rules

By Richard White. Published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

We have trouble, right here in Redwood City. This is not "Music Man" wayward-youth trouble. It is City Council, City Planning Commission and City Planning Department trouble. Our trouble could potentially affect the whole Bay Area.

The trouble comes in various sizes, but it all involves a refusal of Redwood City to play by its own rules and implement its own codes and General Plan. What the city is doing - and citizens, courts and state commissions are attempting to stop - is ripping up the environmental and social fabric of an important part of the Bay Area piece by piece.

We can start small. There are sites within Redwood City that don't meet building requirements because of slope, proximity to waterways, environmental conditions and lot sizes. Citizens regard them as environmental amenities and necessary wildlife corridors; the city seems to view them as wasted space.

These lands cannot be developed under normal procedures, so the Planning Department reverts to a special "planned development" process. It is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card.

Judge Marie Weiner has tentatively found that the City Council violated its own municipal code on the Finger Avenue project on Cordilleras Creek. Will the City Council learn from this? Probably not.

The council will meet Monday to give final approval to a development on steep hillsides on Laurel Way. The Laurel Way Joint Venture has proposed to build 16 large homes on small steeply sloped lots. The council is ready to waive rules that have prevented the development of these lots for years.

There seems to be a pattern here, and it is not confined to small developments. The council approved a new development for Pete's Harbor, but it turned out that the state, not the city, has jurisdiction over the outer harbor included in the development. You would think this was the kind of thing planning commissions and departments would notice. The State Lands Commission slapped that one down. The litigation and the expense of hiring consultants are piling up.

Redwood City planners and politicians seem oblivious to the consequences. The largest of the developments - Cargill's Saltworks - will have consequences far beyond Redwood City. The original Saltworks plan involved as many as 12,000 homes, offices, shops and schools but was derailed in a controversy that featured conflict-of-interest charges against a city councilperson. Faced with local opposition, this plan was pulled, but it is coming back.

The state decided long ago to stop filling San Francisco Bay. The Saltworks are tidelands, once very biologically productive. With climate change, rising ocean levels, and the increase in lethal storms, building on the tidelands is expensive and reckless, not only in the medium term but also in the long run. In the short run, there is money to be made.

Cargill wants to make money, but it is not Redwood City's job to help them. Cargill will try to grandfather the Saltworks development to avoid the ban on filling in more of the bay. The Redwood City Council seems eager to help them.

It is hard to imagine a more environmentally dangerous and costly development on the bay than the Saltworks, but it is of a kind with the smaller developments in Redwood City. To focus only on Saltworks and not the smaller developments on Laurel Way, Pete's Harbor and Cordilleras Creek is to miss the core problem: Redwood City does have rules and policies for dealing with this kind of development; it has a perfectly respectable ordinances and new General Plan.

Yet Redwood City ignores them to chase developers' dollars. We have trouble, right here in Redwood City.

Richard White is a professor of history at Stanford University. He lives in Redwood City.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

RCNU forum focuses on environmental regulations, possible changes to development act

By Michelle Durand, San Mateo Daily Journal

Redwood City currently has no new major development controversies on the horizon but that isn’t stopping some in the community from gearing up for potential changes to the state’s stringent environmental review requirements.

Redwood City Neighbors United, a citizens group formed to fight the Saltworks development on the former Cargill site, is hosting a public forum Wednesday night on proposed tweaks to the California Environmental Quality Act. Speakers include environmental attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley and Bruce Reznik, executive director of the nonprofit Planning and Conservation League.

The forum is a way for the public and members of RCNU to get a handle on the 10 CEQA bills currently pending in the state Legislature, according to President Dan Ponti.

“It’s important that the community hear from experts who really know CEQA and fully understand how changes to the law could impact Redwood City,” Ponti said. “There are a lot of myths out there about what CEQA does and doesn’t do.”

The group holds forums a few times annually with topics pertaining to the Saltworks plan, such as January’s meeting with a former member of the Army Corps of Engineers over jurisdictional determination. However, this forum’s topic, CEQA, goes far beyond any one project.

CEQA is invoked in several forms for potential developments, from full-fledged environmental impact reports down to lower levels of review like mitigated negative declarations. City officials use the findings to approve or deny projects or require changes to limit the potential impacts.

Opponents of CEQA argue the laws result in costly litigation and drag projects out for years needlessly.

The proposed state bills threaten to weaken current CEQA requirements by changing the way traffic impacts are analyzed, limiting the analysis for infill projects and restricting the public’s ability to sue for alleged violations, according to Ponti.

The potential changes hit close to home for Ponti and the RCNU because the Saltworks proposal by developer DMB — the primary reason for the group’s inception — has been characterized as “urban infill.” The group opposes such a definition and worries that any CEQA changes regarding infill, among other possibilities, give DMB wider opportunity to successfully push through the mixed-use project.

“It will make it easier for them because certain things won’t need to be scrutinized,” Ponti said.

The plan is currently on hold after DMB withdrew its application. But even without it currently looming, RCNU says now is not the time to soften its stance.

“While there may not be a Saltworks proposal on the table right now it’s very important for the community to be aware of, and weigh in on, actions in Sacramento and elsewhere that could affect our ability to be fully informed about the negative impacts of Saltworks or other irresponsible development projects,” RCNU member Nancy Arbuckle said in a prepared statement.

The group or others interested in CEQA at least have a local ear. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, chairs the Committee on Environmental Quality and while Ponti said he isn’t certain if the Peninsula leader is fully in their corner, the group did take him on a tour of the Saltworks site and is glad to have someone local in the influential position.

The CEQA forum is 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 29 at the Redwood City Public Library community room, 1044 Middlefield Road, Redwood City.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Bay Area environmental group proposes hybrid levees for bay

Chris Palmer, San Mateo Times

As global warming escalates, San Francisco Bay's existing flood protection system will be no match for rising sea levels. But according to a new report by a Bay Area environmental group, fortifying the bay's shoreline with levees fronted by restored tidal marshes will be a cheaper, more aesthetic and ecologically sensitive alternative to traditional levees.

The Bay Institute's report proposes restoring tidal marshes with sediment from local flood control channels and irrigating the marshes with treated wastewater. The plan also calls for "horizontal levees" that are a hybrid of traditional earthen levees and restored marshes.
Tidal marsh restoration in the bay has been a priority for environmental groups since the 1970s. More than 5,000 acres have been restored in the past two decades, with another 30,000 acres purchased and slated for restoration.

"Marshes act as the lungs of the bay," said John Bourgeois, manager of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. "They can clean and filter the water that comes down our tributaries before it hits the bay."

The tall, dense vegetation of tidal marshes can also absorb a significant amount of the energy of surging ocean waves during storms. "The concept is a good one. The physics of it are accurate," said Lisamarie Windham-Myers, a wetland ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "It's been proven over and over that wetlands help reduce storm surges." Therefore, she said, levees don't have to be as tall.

The Bay Institute estimates that shorter levees fronted by tidal marshes would bring down the cost from more than $12 million to less than $7 million per mile, while providing the same level of flood protection. With 275 miles of bay shoreline to protect, total savings could eventually exceed more than a billion dollars.

"We knew the cost would be reduced, but we were shocked at the actual savings," said Marc Holmes, the Bay Institute's marsh restoration program director.

Funds to build and maintain levees have come over the years in piecemeal chunks from the federal government and local floodplain control agencies. The result has been a patchwork quilt of aging earthen levees, designed to protect against present-day sea levels.

The Bay Institute report was released about three weeks after U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer reintroduced the San Francisco Bay Restoration Act, which seeks federal funding for wetland restoration and water improvement projects in the bay and its watershed.

"We hope we have now given them the ammunition to say, 'Look, this is not going to cost us money, it is going to save us money,'" Holmes said.

As carbon emissions cause the Earth to warm, polar ice melts and warmer ocean water expands. Already, sea levels in the bay rose 8 inches in the past century, leading to occasional flooding of major regional roadways such as state Highways 37 and 101 during winter storms.

According to a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report, sea levels off the California coast south of Cape Mendocino will rise another 1.5 inches to 11.8 inches by 2030, 4.7 inches to 24 inches by 2050 and 16.5 inches to 65 inches by the end of the century.

Even a moderate rise in sea level will likely lead to increases in flooding frequency and intensity. Developed areas particularly at risk are San Francisco and Oakland international airports and tech giants such as Oracle and Facebook.

Though rising sea levels are a concern, winter storms riding in on higher tides can cause the most havoc. "In the next century, we're going to get more storms, fiercer storms," Holmes said. "Locations that were once outside of the danger zone are now inside, simply because storms are arriving on higher sea levels."

The goal of the Bay Institute study was to find a way to build a cost-effective network of levees that could lessen the flood threat caused by storm surges, while also providing benefits to the environment. The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is considering a similar "horizontal levee" for its Alviso flood protection plan, which will be released later this year.

"With Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, it has been well-documented that tidal marshes in front of levee systems do a great job of absorbing storm surges and add significant amounts of flood protection to the built environment," Bourgeois said.

The Bay Institute report imagines tidal marshes filled with silt to create a gentle upward slope from the bay shoreline to the top of a wedge-shaped earthen levee. Near the levee, tall, quick-growing plants with deep root systems would be irrigated with wastewater from nearby water treatment plants.

The sloping marsh can slow down storm surges, and the dense vegetation can absorb it like a sponge. Using marshes to buffer storm surges means earthen levees built on the landward side of the marshes can be built half as tall. As the vegetation grows taller and the root systems expand, the horizontal levee will be able to protect against the rise in sea levels expected in the coming decades, provided the restoration begins sooner rather than later.

Nearly 150,000 of the 190,000 acres of the bay's tidal marshes that existed in 1850 have been destroyed by conversion to uses such as salt evaporation ponds and agriculture.

Efforts to restore a few thousand acres of marshes that began in the late 1970s have now evolved into the largest marsh restoration plan in the country, with the goal of restoring 100,000 acres. The bay marshes are home to endangered species that exist nowhere else, as well as the largest estuary on the western coast of North and South America.

The Bay Institute report also recommends that Congress allocate $1 billion to establish a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency that would coordinate the various efforts to restore and protect the bay.

Congress has established a handful of comparable programs for nationally important regions such as the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

"Obviously," Holmes said, "we could make that case in San Francisco Bay persuasively."


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