The Loma Prietan - November/December 2011

Cargill Saltworks

Saltworks’ Environmental Problems Worsen

Developer Seeks Exemptions from Rules

by Gita Dev

Beautiful vistas of healthy wetlands inspire many who choose to visit Bair Island.
Beautiful vistas of healthy wetlands inspire many who choose to visit Bair Island.

Saltworks developer DMB has encountered two new major setbacks in the last few months. DMB wants to develop a high-density town the size of Foster City in San Francisco Bay adjacent to Redwood City. Our Chapter strongly opposes this development, as do most environmental groups, many neighboring cities, over 100 government officials, and residents in Redwood City. The new problems are …

Their water supply dried up. State law requires that any development of more than 500 units demonstrate a guaranteed water supply. Redwood City does not have sufficient water to increase its population by 30,000, the number projected to live at Saltworks. The preliminary Environmental Impact Report was predicated on “paper water” transfers from Southern California. Recently, though, the Santa Clara Valley Water agency and other Bay Area water agencies, critical to such a transfer, have distanced themselves from such a plan. This leaves the development with a very doubtful water supply.

Their traffic projections, a nightmare to begin with, got worse. The development would generate 70,000 new daily auto trips on the most heavily traveled intersections along highway 101: Woodside Road and Marsh Road. The project design previously included a new bridge over highway 101 between those roads, diverting some of the traffic into a Redwood City neighborhood. However, the developer recently changed the plan so that the overpass will serve solely as a transit and bike bridge. Traffic engineers point out that this makes the projected traffic at Woodside Road and Marsh Road even more untenable.

The Saltworks project would be built on existing salt ponds zoned for open space. These tidal flats, which Cargill used for salt production for decades, need instead to be restored to wetlands for the environmental health of San Francisco Bay, for water quality, wildlife, fisheries, pollution, and climate change issues.

DMB Lobbies Back

Far from giving up, developer DMB intensified its lobbying to soften up the review process and be able to move forward.

The BCDC watered down its rules. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), formed in the 1960s to stop further filling in of San Francisco Bay, has amended its regulations to reflect current findings about climate change and sea level rise. Cargill and DMB spent almost half a million dollars in lobbying efforts to insert an exception that would allow a new Bay fill development if the developer pays the city the costs of the necessary levees. Despite lobbying by the Chapter, Sierra Club California, and other concerned groups, BCDC has agreed to this foolish regulation.

California watered down its rules, too. DMB also lobbied at the state level to support AB900, legislation that has made it easier for large projects such as Saltworks to skate by with inadequate environmental review. The normal environmental review process required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) used to allow legal challenges to inadequate environmental impact reports; CEQA reviews and challenges were critically important checks for a large project with potentially devastating environmental impacts. AB900 has severely restricted these challenges. Unfortunately, local Assemblyman Rich Gordon, Democrat from San Mateo, co-sponsored AB900. It passed the legislature in its closing hours with no public hearings.

The Chapter continues to work to ensure that the Saltworks project will be forced to face up to the devastating environmental problems it will cause. If these problems are appropriately considered, this project will be seen as the disaster that it is.

Gita Dev is an architect who became active when she noticed she could help the Chapter’s Sustainable Land Use Committee with urban design advice.