Tug of war over salt-pond housing 

Redwood City, at the southerly end of San Mateo County, has been both blessed and cursed by having more vacant or underutilized acreage along the Bay shores than most of its Peninsula neighbors. This is a long-term blessing because Redwood City now has a nearly unique Bay Area opportunity to reinvent itself as a state-of-the-art 21st-century municipality.

But it is also a short-term curse for those harried officials charged with shepherding property change, because every proposed major development today predictably faces intensive resistance from some small cadre of activists who sometimes manage to sway majority opinion. That is exactly what happened to Redwood City in 2004, when a petitioned referendum halted the high-rise Marina Shores project.

Now an even bigger battleground is taking shape. The City Council is already cognizant that years of thorny decisions lie ahead for the Cargill salt works exploration of converting its 1,443 shoreline acres of century-old commercial salt ponds into housing. Cargill formed a joint venture with real estate developers DMB Associates and has begun mailing surveys and holding community forums.

Quickly lining up in opposition are environmentalists and open-space advocates such as Save the Bay and Friends of Redwood City, who are adamant that all 40,000 acres of wetlands surrounding San Francisco Bay should be permanently restored to their natural state. Restoration of the Cargill salt flats is certainly possible if some combination of federal, state and foundation funding offers $50 million to $100 million.

Cargill already sold 16,500 acres of its salt ponds to a state and federal consortium in 2002 for $243 million in cash and taxcredits. But in these tight-budget times, that might be a long shot — especially since 2,600-acre Bair Island adjacent to the salt works is already in restoration.

Development opponents also point out the significant objection that Cargill housing would be constructed on land below sea level at a time when global warming is expected to raise sea levels everywhere. And yet another obstacle to development would be compliance to the strict limits of federal and state clean-water laws.

However, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which has jurisdiction over land within 100 feet of the shoreline, has said that if Cargill first restores at least half the site to natural wetlands, it would then be up to Redwood City to decide how to use the remaining 700 acres. But with so much pressure on the Peninsula for more housing and more recreational opportunities, it seems almost inevitable that sooner or later some mixed-use development plan will eventually pass the formidable barriers.

The Bay Area would be well-served with a large-scale new shoreline park for this side of the Bay, and youth in the Redwood City area have long needed more sports fields. It would be much preferable if zealots on all sides of the issue could dispense with the years of posturing and get to work on negotiating a deal that offers the widest public benefits.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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