Land war heating up over Cargill salt ponds 

One of the most heated Bay Area land-use battles of the century is shaping up as different interests take sides in a plan to partly develop and partly restore a 1,436-acre salt harvesting site in Redwood City.

Diversified international company Cargill sold most of its Peninsula salt ponds in 2003 for $100 million to government agencies that plan to restore the shoreline habitats to create a sweeping federal wildlife reserve.

But Cargill held onto a site adjacent to the Port of Redwood City, which it values at $200 million, and it has spent several years preparing development plans for the land under a partnership with Arizona-based developer DMB Associates.

The land has been used for commercial salt harvesting since 1901.

The development plans currently include as many as five schools, 63 acres of sports fields, 759 acres of restored habitat, and neighborhood parks and sports fields, 1 million square feet of commercial space and 8,000 to 12,000 new homes.

The 25,000 residents who could eventually call the former salt ponds home would swell Redwood City’s population by one-third.

The only comparable development project in the city’s history is the construction of the swanky Redwood Shores community on 1,500 acres beginning in the 1960s.

The Association of Bay Area Governments has found that the Peninsula suffers from an imbalance of jobs and housing that forces many of its workers to commute to work.

DMB Associates Vice President John Bruno said some housing within the development — called the 50/50 Balanced Plan — will be affordable for working-class families.

“We’ve made a commitment that 15 percent of all the housing stock will be BMR [below market rate] housing as defined by county of San Mateo for low and very low income residents,” Bruno said.

The salt pond development plans call for a transit link, such as a trolley, between the homes and downtown Redwood City.

Despite years of work, the development plans are still preliminary, and two to three years of refinement and environmental analysis will be required before needed permits could be issued by scores of local, state and federal agencies.

Nearly 100 Bay Area environmentalists and current and former government officials have opposed the project in a letter to Redwood City officials. They favor environmental restoration.

The plans call for extensive waterfront habitat restoration work between the new homes and the narrow slough that separates the site from Greco Island, which is part of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.

Nonetheless, the proposed development could create a glaring gap in the middle of miles of planned shoreline habitat. The potential gap has enraged environmentalists and other Bay Area residents.

“These salt ponds are part of San Francisco Bay,” said David Lewis, executive director of nonprofit Save the Bay, which is organizing the opposition. “They’ve been borrowed and diked off for salt making and have otherwise not been altered.”

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency that would need to approve the development proposal before construction could begin, has not approved a major Bay-fill project since the 1970s, when it granted permits for the Seventh Street Terminal at the Port of Oakland.

Neither the developers nor existing state law agree, however, with the common claim that the project would fill in the Bay.

“The project site is not in San Francisco Bay as defined in state law — it’s in salt ponds,” said Will Travis, the commission’s executive director. “The current rules that we have do not preclude the commission from approving development in salt ponds.”

The proposal could pose the commission with an unprecedented decision.

“We have not approved large projects in salt ponds, although there was the conversion of some salt ponds to a marina in Redwood City. Most of the other ponds have been sold to the state and federal governments for the restoration project,” Travis said.

The City Council of Redwood City recently directed staff to continue investigating the development proposal by hiring a consultant to conduct a needed environmental impact report.

“As part of that process, we’ll begin to develop a greater understanding of the different components of the project,” Redwood City planner Blake Lyon said. “Part of what the public will have the opportunity to do in that process is to begin to craft various alternatives.”

An economic impact report will also be commissioned, according to Lyon. Those reports will help guide the council in its decisions regarding the future of the site in the coming years, he said. A preliminary study found that none of the potential hurdles to developing the site — such as traffic and transit impacts and water demand — are insurmountable, according to Lyon.

Tricky plan proposed for water delivery

Developers have proposed quenching a proposed salt pond development’s water needs through a complex arrangement that has never been attempted locally.

Redwood City, which has a population of roughly 75,000, struggles to keep within its 12,250 acre-foot annual allocation of snowmelt from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

DMB Associates purchased the rights to 8,400 acre-feet a year of water in Kern County to meet the needs of the businesses and 25,000 new residents that could eventually move to its Redwood City project, according to Vice President John Bruno.

The water would be transferred to Redwood City or exchanged for supplies that are available locally in coordination with water agencies, according to Bruno.

“The transfer and exchange of water is something that’s done all the time in the state of California,” Bruno said.

Executing such a transfer and exchange plan would be complicated, according to Nicole Sandkulla, an engineer at the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, which represents Redwood City and 23 other cities and water districts in negotiations related to water rights.

“It’s not something that’s happened before in this service area, primarily because it hasn’t needed to happen,” Sandkulla said.

There are not presently any connections between the Hetch Hetchy water system and other major Californian water systems, according to Sandkulla.

Scores of agencies must approve

- Army Corps of Engineers
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service
- Federal Emergency Management Agency
- Federal Aviation Administration
- San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission
- Regional Water Quality Control Board (San Francisco Region)
- State Water Resources Control Board
- California Department of Fish and Game
- Caltrans District 4
- State Lands Commission
- San Francisco Public Utilities Commission
- Department of Water Resources
- California Air Resources Board
- Bay Area Air Quality Management District
- San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission
- California Department of Conservation
- Other local agencies

Cargill development proposal

88 acres: Low-density housing
183 acres: Medium-density housing
84 acres: High-density housing, some with ground-floor commercial space
17 acres: Offices, stores and other commercial buildings
37 acres: Schools and public facilities
436 acres: Restored habitat and wetlands
200 acres: Bayside park
63 acres: Sports fields
60 acres: Multiuse open space
55 acres: Recreational waterways
223 acres: Roads

Source: Redwood City

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