San Francisco bay front battle to play out on Redwood City ballot
Ralph Nobles still remembers sailing his boat on San Francisco Bay in 1962, right when developer Jack Foster began pouring enough dirt to fill 1.5 million dump trucks into the wetlands along San Mateo County's shoreline.
"I just felt sick in my heart. They went out with their dredges to San Bruno Shoal and piled up millions and millions of tons," said Nobles, 87, a retired physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. "They changed the whole hydraulics of the bay."
Lost were vast amounts of habitat for ducks, fish, harbor seals and other wildlife. Born was Foster City, a community of 28,000 people today.
Now Nobles is opposing a new plan for 1,433 acres of Cargill Salt property on Redwood City's shoreline — a plan he says would lead to the biggest bayfront development since Foster City. He and other environmentalists have put up a huge roadblock, Measure W, which Redwood City voters will consider Nov. 4.
The most high-profile environmental battle in the Bay Area this election, Measure W, if passed, would require approval by two-thirds of voters to develop not just the salt ponds but any open space land in Redwood City.
Although the measure has been endorsed by many of the region's major environmental groups, it has sparked nearly $2 million in campaign spending, alarm from some neighbors and broad opposition from local political leaders.
Opponents call it overly draconian and muddled.
They contend the measure is poorly written and could require some property owners to go to the voters any time they wanted to remodel their homes, churches or businesses. And its reach could include hundreds of homes in Redwood Shores that might want to build boat docks.
"Measure W was hatched overnight in some legal board room. The consequences would be devastating for homeowners," said Jay Reed, a spokesman for DMB Associates, an Arizona developer working with Cargill Salt to draw up plans for the site.
Although they have not unveiled a detailed project yet, DMB is proposing to develop half the property with homes, stores, parks and commercial buildings and restore the other half to wetlands.
That kind of balance, with clustered housing near jobs and a potential future ferry terminal, is just what Silicon Valley needs, they argue.
"We have done a wonderful job of exporting housing to the Central Valley. This project has the opportunity to be anti-sprawl," said John Bruno, general manager for the DMB-Cargill project.
Bruno said a two-thirds vote is an unreasonable standard.
"We've seen it in Sacramento. You have minority rule," he said.
DMB has held more than 400 meetings with school boards, Rotary clubs and other groups since 2006.
The property has been used since 1901 to make salt. For years, Cargill has evaporated salt in giant ponds around the bay and scraped it from the Redwood City site to sell as road de-icer.
But the company has cut production since 2003, when it sold 16,500 acres around Alviso, Fremont and Sunnyvale to the state and federal government for $100 million to be restored as wetlands for wildlife.
The Redwood City property was to be included in that deal. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, however, cut it out after appraisals — later found to be flawed by state regulators — showed it would raise the price beyond what she said Congress would fund.
Environmentalists say they want all of the site converted back to wetlands.
"This is not infill development like Bay Meadows or Santana Row. This is building on the Bay," said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay in Oakland. "It should be part of the bay again."
Through Oct. 18, the Yes on W campaign raised $384,000, with 92 percent coming from Save the Bay. No on W raised $1.5 million, with 88 percent from DMB Associates.
Measure W is endorsed by the Sierra Club, Committee for Green Foothills, the Sequoia Audubon Society, former state Sen. Byron Sher and former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey.
The measure is opposed by the Redwood City's City Council, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, the Port of Redwood City, Oracle and the major youth sports leagues in Redwood City.
In August, the City Council placed a competing item, Measure V, on the ballot. It affects only Cargill's property and would require a lower threshold of 50 percent voter approval for development. If both pass, the one with the most votes becomes law.
One of the leading opponents of Measure W is Mark Fassett, whose home through a quirk of planning is located in an area designated as "park" in the city general plan. Fassett, 45, is a member of the Sierra Club. He said he opposes Cargill's development plans, but worries that if he wants to build a backyard shed, or tries to sell his home, he'll face red tape.
"I feel for what Save the Bay is trying to do. But they went too far," he said. "They accidentally ensnared us."
Lewis, of Save the Bay, says the measure will only require a public vote on zoning changes, not administrative permits like backyard sheds or docks. He says DMB and Cargill "have built a campaign on one big lie. It's a scare tactic."
The city's lawyers say the measure can be read two ways. Tim Willis, a San Leandro attorney working with the city attorney's office on the issue, said the initiative is "confusing" and will end up in court if it passes.
"Clearly things like a boat dock or a tool shed would not need a two-thirds vote," he said. "But you may be prohibited outright from even getting a permit for them."
Environmentalists have a long history of defeating bayfront development in Redwood City. In 1982, Nobles organized a ballot measure to kill plans by Mobil Oil for 4,700 homes at Bair Island. The area is now a wildlife refuge. In 2004, he helped defeat a plan to build 17 high-rise condominiums near the Port of Redwood City.
"People want to live here because there is a healthy San Francisco Bay," he said. "And if you destroy that, you destroy our most precious commodity."
If Measure W loses, Nobles said, he'll wait for Cargill to submit a project, then put that on the ballot.
"We've done it before," he said. "And we'll do it again."
Deja vu all over again
A powerful out-of-state developer is poised to get rich off a massive development on Redwood City salt ponds. After the City Council unanimously approves the development, residents turn out in droves for a signature campaign. Council members form an opposition group called "Save Redwood City." Neighborhood activists are attacked as "outsiders."
Confusing ballot language written by the Council misleads voters. The developer-funded campaign outspends the grassroots groups by at least 10 to 1.
This story describes Redwood City residents' 1982 fight to save Bair Island, which is now being restored to tidal wetlands.
Almost the same script is being replayed today. Save The Bay, along with local neighborhood and environmental groups, is once again fighting the permanent destruction of restorable Bay wetlandsâ€”this time against "Toxic Ten" giant, Cargill.