Redwood City Council Ignores Local and Regional Opposition, Votes to Encourage Massive Cargill Development in Bay

May 25, 2010

Rejecting broad, strong and growing opposition to Cargill Inc.’s massive Bay-fill plan on restorable salt ponds in Redwood City, the Redwood City Council voted unanimously yesterday to begin a lengthy, time-consuming and unnecessary environmental review process for the unprecedented project.

“The vote to start the review process demonstrates that the Redwood City Council supports building on the site. The council is encouraging this massive development on salt ponds that can and should be restored to tidal marsh habitat to benefit people and wildlife,” said Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis.

Minnesota-based agribusiness giant Cargill and Arizona luxury home developer DMB Associates are proposing to build a new city with 25,000 people on 1,436 acres of restorable salt ponds in Redwood City. This project would be 17 times larger than any Bay fill approved since state and federal agencies began regulating shoreline development in the 1960s, making it the largest development threatening the Bay.

Bay Area Newspapers Oppose Salt Pond Development
The City Council’s action comes as opposition to the controversial project continues to grow. On Sunday, May 23, the San Jose Mercury News editorialized strongly against Cargill’s proposal, stating: “This region has long been committed to restoring the fragile bay ecosystem … 12,000 houses and 25,000 people on this site would represent a stark reversal of that commitment.” The Mercury News also noted the cost in resources of the Council’s action:  “Controversies like this take a public toll in dollars, including staff time at public agencies, and in civic energy. The region would be better off if Redwood City just dropped it.”

The San Francisco Chronicle also editorialized against this development, stating: “Ecologically sensitive salt ponds on the outskirts of Redwood City are the wrong place to build up to 12,000 new homes… Now is the time to say no.” (Against the Bay, March 4.)

Over 125 Elected Officials Urge Redwood City Council to Halt Project
Over 125 current and former elected officials representing all nine Bay Area counties have signed a letter urging the City Council of Redwood City to reject the massive development on Bay salt ponds, declaring, “The era of filling San Francisco Bay is over.” In the letter, dozens of Bay Area mayors and city council members, county supervisors, and state legislators strongly oppose the project, noting that “salt ponds are not land to be paved – they are part of San Francisco Bay to be restored to tidal marsh for wildlife habitat, natural flood protection for our communities, cleaner water, and recreation areas for everyone to enjoy.”

"We don't need years of costly studies and litigation to know that this project should not even be considered," said State Senator Mark Leno. "We oppose further filling or development of the Bay, our beautiful natural treasure loved by people around the world."

Contra Costa Board of Supervisors Chair John Gioia agreed: “The proposal to build in our Bay is a direct assault on the whole Bay Area’s quality of life and our region’s residents will not stand for it.”

State Senator Loni Hancock and State Assemblymember Jared Huffman sent their own letters to the Redwood City Council, joining Senators Ellen Corbett and Mark Leno and Assemblymembers Jim Beall and Tom Ammiano in opposition to the project.

“CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) explicitly entitles any city to reject a project without conducting an EIR when that project is inconsistent with a city’s general plan and zoning, has obvious flaws, or is unlikely to receive regulatory approval,” said Senator Hancock in her letter. “This project meets that criteria and Redwood City should feel no obligation to formally study any proposal to build on an area its general plan designates as Tidal Plain, where development is prohibited.” Hancock serves on the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality and is the former chair of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

“This proposal is unacceptable on many levels,” said Assemblymember Huffman, “especially for those of us who are committed to protecting and restoring San Francisco Bay and its wetland habitat, stepping up to the challenges of global warming, and sustainably managing California’s limited water supplies.” Huffman is Chair of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife and author of laws on California water reform.

Industry Concerned Development Would Hurt Business
Development of the Cargill salt ponds for housing would pose a threat to the adjacent Port of Redwood City, the only deepwater port in the South Bay, spurring opposition to the project from the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and other adjacent industry, including the West Bay Sanitary District which operates overflow sewage ponds in the area.

“Redwood City’s elected officials are encouraging destruction of restorable Bay salt ponds, ignoring their constituents, endangering the Port, and thumbing their nose at the region,” said Lewis.

Project EIR Won’t Consider Value of Bay
“Save The Bay insists that any environmental impact report (EIR) address all of the many impacts and concerns raised by elected officials and other regional leaders, industry, community and environmental groups,” said Lewis.

However, because the EIR covers only the Cargill proposal itself, the study will not consider the value of the Bay to the region, examine full restoration of the site, or consider the benefits of building transit-oriented development downtown instead of in salt ponds at sea level.  All of these issues could have been addressed in Redwood City’s General Plan, but the City Council last year precluded those options by removing Cargill’s salt ponds from the General Plan study area, following a request from DMB. .

Era of Filling in the Bay is Over
By the 1960s one-third of San Francisco Bay had been filled or diked off and there were plans to fill 60 percent of the remaining Bay, leaving only a narrow shipping channel. Only ten percent of the Bay’s original wetlands remained, less than six miles of shoreline was accessible to the public and the Bay was choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution.

Because concerned residents founded Save The Bay in 1961, and created BCDC in 1965, the Bay is now cleaner and healthier. Citizen advocates stopped major Bay fill projects, secured better sewage treatment and reduced pollution from factories. Now more than half of the Bay is ringed with trails, linking a necklace of shoreline parks.

Salt Ponds Should be Restored to Tidal Marsh
Salt ponds are now being restored to wetlands throughout the Bay Area. Along the Napa River north of Vallejo, salt ponds nearly identical to Cargill’s Redwood City ponds are being restored to tidal marsh by the California Department of Fish and Game, with funds from the California Wildlife Conservation Board and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s federal stimulus program. And in Redwood City, after voters prevented Bair Island from being developed a generation ago, it was purchased and added to the Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge and is now being restored to tidal wetlands. Scientists recommend that tens of thousands of wetlands must be restored to ensure a healthy Bay for people and wildlife.

Bay Area Community Wants Bay Restored; Authority Pursuing Restoration Funding
Polling shows overwhelming public support for Bay restoration and willingness to bear the cost. A new regional special district was established in 2008 by Assembly Bill 2954 (Lieber) to raise and grant funds to restore shoreline wetland habitat around San Francisco Bay. The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority is currently laying the foundation for funding measures that will help pay to restore thousands of acres of thriving wetlands.

Redwood City Salt Ponds are Part of the Bay
The Redwood City salt ponds are undeveloped open space and part of San Francisco Bay, providing habitat for shorebirds and other animals. Salt ponds are legally “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act and other federal and state laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently called the Redwood City salt ponds a “critically important aquatic resource that warrant special attention.” Salt ponds are regulated as part of San Francisco Bay under state law, and fall under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Redwood City's own General Plan says of the site: "Due to the sensitive nature of these open space areas, it should be assumed that they will remain as open space forever." The city’s "Tidal Plain" zoning does not allow for industrial use – only agricultural uses including salt making, or public parks.

Wetlands Are Vital Habitat
Wetlands are home to endangered species, such as the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. They keep the Bay healthy by filtering runoff pollution to improve water quality. Additionally, they act as a sponge, providing flood control when water levels are high and create a protective buffer for communities threatened by rising sea levels associated with global warming.

"People understand that a thriving Bay is vital for our region's quality of life and economy; and this deep support is a critical asset in protecting the Bay, restoring more tidal marsh and making the Bay healthier for people and wildlife," said Lewis.

About Save The Bay
Save The Bay is the largest regional organization working to protect, restore and celebrate San Francisco Bay. As its leading champion since 1961, Save The Bay protects the Bay from pollution and inappropriate shoreline development, making it cleaner and healthier for people and wildlife. We restore habitat and secure strong policies to re-establish 100,000 acres of wetlands that are essential for a healthy Bay. We engage more than 25,000 supporters, advocates and volunteers to protect the Bay, and inspire the next generation of environmental leaders by educating thousands of students annually.