EPA finally steps in to look at the Redwood City salt ponds

March 28, 2015

San Francisco Chronicle

One of the biggest and most contentious development projects in the Bay Area — a massive housing plan in Redwood City, right on the bay — has been in limbo for years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just ensured that the limbo is going to last quite a bit longer.

Cargill, a food and agricultural products company, owns the site — more than 1,400 acres that it’s been using for industrial salt production. It’s been working with DMB Associates, an Arizona-based developer, to secure development permission for more than six years. Originally their plan was to develop a community of some 12,000 homes; they’ve scaled that back in the face of serious political and environmental opposition.

The new plan has fewer homes, develops less acreage, and still comes with plenty of community amenities (wetland restoration, parks, hiking trails) to make it more palatable to development-averse Bay Area residents.

But the continued resistance they’re meeting from Bay Area lawmakers, environmental groups, and now, the EPA — which just announced that it’ll scrutinize the site to see if it should be afforded protection under the Clean Water Act — reflects a hard truth.

This simply isn’t a good site for housing development.

The EPA was at pains to tell us that it won’t be making that determination. “Our job is not to determine land use or zoning,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the local regional administrator for the EPA. “Our job is to come up with a scientifically based determination about the proper use of these waters.”

Fair enough. But if the EPA determines that any of the property on the site falls under the protection of the Clean Water Act, that means the project will likely need special permits.

That’s more review, more delay, and more possibility for an ultimate denial.

Nor will the EPA process itself be easy — “We really wanted to make sure that this was done right, it’s a big site,” Blumenfeld said. “We want to make sure that there’s legal and scientific evidence for the public to see. And it has to withstand legal scrutiny.”

The development group is understandably frustrated. This project has been in the works for years, and the feedback they need to proceed has been slow to arrive and confusing to sort out.

“We simply want an answer,” said David Smith, an Oakland attorney who represents the project. “The process is supposed to take 60 days. It’s going on three years now.”

The corps and the EPA have been at odds over which agency has jurisdiction over the site. The two agencies haven’t been completely transparent with either the developers or the public about what’s been going on with their reviews. There are politics involved — Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, sent a letter (also signed by the members of the Bay Area congressional delegation) last month expressing concern over who has the final jurisdiction over the project.

It’s tough to look at this mess and not see some of the same problems — agonizing delays, public resistance, endless environmental reviews — that have unnecessarily plagued Bay Area housing development for decades.

But while the process should’ve been clearer and smoother, it doesn’t change the facts on the ground.

The site is a tidal plain. It’s located at sea level. It would require levees during a time of climate change.

Developing the site would likely require infill or dredging in a delicate ecosystem that fronts the bay. The Bay Area has overwhelmingly moved away from doing development that disturbs the bay’s ecological needs — and just in time. Some 90 percent of the Bay’s historic tidal wetlands were lost during the 20th century.

Instead, local governments are trying to shift development to central cities and near transit corridors. It’s healthier for the environment and for economic growth.

We could go on and on. The point is this: the site’s review process is taking an unfortunately long time, but that’s because the site isn’t right.