Category: Northern News

Contra Costa County tidal marsh restoration will be the largest of its kind in California. But it’s taking forever

By Tara Duggan, San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 2021 

“When completed, the $63 million restoration [of the 1,200 acre Dutch Slough tidal wetland in Contra Costa County] will be the largest of its kind in California, creating habitat for endangered salmon and other wildlife in a blueprint for how the state can become more resilient to climate change.

“The state Department of Water Resources, which leads the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project [has] a goal to restore 30,000 acres of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s original 360,000 acres of wetlands long lost to farms and housing.

“ ‘[I]f you put [carbon] in wetlands, it can stay a very long time. The limitation is we have a limited amount of land area we can convert,’ said Dennis Baldocchi, professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

“The catch is the slow pace of the overall project: The remaining restoration is not expected to see completion until roughly 2025.

“ ‘Every year matters,’ said Dylan Chapple, senior environmental scientist at the Delta Stewardship Council, which administers grants for Baldocchi’s research. ‘Wetlands are a really critical nature-based infrastructure.’

“It’s the same permitting process as a housing development, even though we’re creating better habitat than was here before,” said Molly Ferrell, senior environmental science specialist at the state Department of Water Resources.”

Read the full article here. (~5 min.)

Return to Northern News here.

Appeals court rejects last legal challenge to California bullet train

By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2021

“The last pending civil lawsuit seeking to stop the California high-speed rail project hit a wall Tuesday when a state appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling that the project did not violate the California Constitution by adopting a segmented approach to building the system.

“The case alleged that the project violated key restrictions written into the 2008 Proposition 1A bond act that required the $9 billion be spent only for segments that are ‘suitable and ready for high-speed train operation.’

“The meaning of ‘suitable and ready,’ the court said, could be traced to the rail authority’s 2012 business plan, which adopted a blended approach to the system [where some segments would be shared with improved conventional rail].

“The result of the blended system meant that the rail authority has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to improvements to the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California far in advance of any bullet trains that would operate. … When it would reach Los Angeles or San Francisco is uncertain.

“[San Joaquin Valley farmer John] Tos, who became the most stalwart bullet train opponent, said the project has had a major effect on his farming operations. … Separate eminent domain actions are pending.”

Read the full article here. (~3 min.)

Return to Northern News here.

An Oakland urban forester’s work reveals the plight of the city’s namesake

By Andres Picon, San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 2021

“In the 170 years since Oakland’s founding, coast live oaks, the city’s namesake trees, have been felled to clear space for roads, homes and buildings. Vast oak forests once stretched from Lake Merritt to San Francisco Bay, but today, there are only about 4,600 oaks on Oakland streets and landscaped parks, said David Moore, Oakland’s senior tree supervisor.

“[Urban forester Tim Vendlinski represents] a vigilante approach to urban forestry — a form of guerrilla gardening that is often at odds with the policies and standards of the city of Oakland’s tree supervisors.

“Vendlinski typically plants [oaks] in his backyard nursery … Occasionally, his guerrilla gardening draws criticism from Moore and the city, who worry that oaks planted on streets could create problems down the line.

“Oakland’s master street tree list, the list of trees approved to be planted on city sidewalks and medians, includes 59 tree species. Of those, eight are oaks. Only four of the trees on the list are native to Oakland, Vendlinski said, calling the list ‘horrific.’

“Oak advocates such as Vendlinski and Erica Spotswood, the lead scientist for the Urban Nature Lab at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, say that long-term considerations ought to include the oaks, not condemn them.

“Through a Cal Fire grant awarded in 2018, the city is developing its first-ever urban forest master plan, a long-term and wide-reaching effort that will improve the city’s tree distribution based on the city’s needs and conditions.

“While that’s happening, oak advocates say, city and state leaders could do more to protect the trees and safeguard their status as a keystone species throughout California.

“Broader and more impactful initiatives could start at the state level. Lawmakers could establish uniform statewide oak protections, which do not currently exist, and embrace a no-net-loss standard for California oaks, which would shore up oak populations across the state, said Angela Moskow, an information network manager with California Oaks, a project of the California Wildlife Foundation.”

Read the full article here. (~7 min.)

Return to Northern News here.

Los Altos Hills passes “urgency ordinance” to restrict SB9 applications — inviting legal challenge

By Alexei Koseff, San Francisco Chronicle, November 24, 2021

Los Altos Hills, the affluent Silicon Valley town that maintains a standard of minimum one-acre lots to preserve a semi-rural character and where homes sell for millions of dollars, led the way last week when it adopted an urgency ordinance, likely the first in the state, restricting the type of housing that residents can build if they split their properties [to take advantage of SB9’s allowance for duplexes or quadplexes].

“The Los Altos Hills ordinance, approved unanimously last week by the town council, caught the attention of SB9 supporters because of [wide-ranging restrictions on lot splits, including capping new units at the minimum required by state law].

“To discourage lot splits, which could allow one of the properties to be sold, the town would allow homeowners to build up to two additional secondary units if they change their parcel deed to prohibit subdivision. All units approved under SB9 would be restricted to low- and very low-income households, though they would not receive any discount on municipal development fees, which critics contend is a way to make the law altogether financially infeasible in Los Altos Hills.

“Mayor Kavita Tankha defended the rules as accommodating residents’ desires to maintain their privacy, preserve open space, and reduce fire risk.

“[YIMBY Law] Executive Director Sonja Trauss … said a lawsuit could pertain to the emergency rule-making, which requires an imminent threat to public health and safety, as well as a belief that the restrictions illegally reduce the amount of new housing that can be built, in violation of another state law.

“Representatives for the California Department of Housing and Community Development … and Attorney General Rob Bonta … said they are monitoring the situation.”

Read the full story here, including more accounts of push-back against SB-9 in Cupertino, Campbell, and Pasadena. (~8 min.)

Return to Northern News here.

Skunk Train owner acquires Fort Bragg mill site, upending city plans

By Mary Callahan, The Press Democrat, November 24, 2021

“The owner of Fort Bragg’s iconic Skunk Train now owns nearly the entire west side of town after using its status as a federally recognized railroad to [obtain] the vacant Georgia-Pacific mill site through eminent domain [after agreeing to pay $1.23 million for the land].

“Whoever possesses the more-than-300-acre bluff-top property ― with its sweeping views of the coastline and ocean ― will control the type and scale of new residential, business, and tourist-oriented development in a community badly in need of renewal.

“Officials with the Mendocino Railway, owner of the Skunk Train, … are ready to move forward with a unified plan for the roughly 375 acres it now holds.

“But for city officials, the railway’s acquisition amounts to an end-run [around a city plan that] would have allowed for greater civic involvement, enhanced environmental oversight, and greater public good.

“The city has filed a suit in Mendocino County Superior Court challenging the railway’s standing as ‘a common carrier providing transportation.’ The suit seeks to ensure the railway complies with city ordinances, codes, and authorities.

“[The] railway’s plan to run the Skunk Train line to Glass Beach and along a relatively new public coastal trail at the very edge of the mill site will not be subject to environmental review even though most coastal development undergoes oversight by the California Coastal Commission. [Mendocino Railway] said anything except railway-related activities ― housing, commercial uses, a hotel ― would be subject to the planning and permitting process.

“[Fort Bragg Vice Mayor Jessica] Morsell-Haye said the city was tantalizingly close to finalizing its own deal with Georgia-Pacific for the remaining real estate, working with several other agencies, including state parks and the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, only to lose out to the railway.”

Read the full article here. (~6 min.)

An aerial view of the Fort Bragg area
Satellite image of Fort Bragg; oceanfront mill site visible at left. Source: Google Maps

See the city’s 2009 vision plan for the site here, and the 2012 Mill Site land use plan here. The article notes, “the city envisioned expanded open space and inroads toward a new ‘blue economy’ focused on ocean resources and resilience.”

Return to Northern News here.

Superior Court upholds Lafayette’s controversial 315-unit housing project

By Shomik Mukherjee, East Bay Times, November 20, 2021

A proposal to build 315 apartment units — one that has roiled the city for years — has cleared a major legal [hurdle] after a Contra Costa County judge struck down claims by [Save Lafayette, a citizen group,] that it wouldn’t be environmentally sound.

“The apartments, including 63 affordable units, would be spread across 14 buildings. The project also includes a two-story clubhouse, leasing office, and 550 parking spaces, all on a 22-acre site at Deer Hill and Pleasant Hill roads.

“Save Lafayette’s previous challenges of the development resulted in unintended consequences. In 2018, after having succeeded through its persistent resistance to the apartments to force O’Brien Homes to submit a scaled-down plan of 44 houses, the group … qualified [and won] a ballot referendum asking voters to reject the latest plan too.

“But then, the state legislature approved the 2019 Housing Accountability Act, which removes some local control over housing projects that guarantee a certain number of affordable units. O’Brien Homes subsequently resubmitted its original 315-apartments proposal.”

“For attorney Bryan Wenter, who represents O’Brien Homes, the drawn-out battle illustrated why California has a housing crisis.”

Read the full article here. (~3 min.)

NOTE: For a longer version with more images, read the story in the Contra Costa Herald here.

Previously in roundup: “The Terraces has been the subject of 20 public hearings since it was first proposed in March 2011. But a new housing law, Senate Bill 330…, limits the number of public hearings to five for new applications.” Covid-19 delayed a key vote scheduled for March 2020 on the original proposal after a hearing in February. Read that story here.

Due-process concerns over further hearings compelled the city council to vote on the project in August 2020. Read about Lafayette’s approval in August 2020 here.

Return to Northern News here.

In first, Audubon Society sues a California wind project

By Amanda Barlett, SFGate, November 19, 2021

The National Audubon Society is suing Alameda County over its recent approval of a controversial new wind turbine facility at Altamont Pass. It’s been described as a ‘poorly planned project’ that’s a threat to birds and bats in the area due to its lack of sufficient environmental review, according to a press release shared by the organization.

“The National Audubon Society argued the turbines have long been hazardous to migratory avian species such as the golden eagle, whose nesting population at Altamont Pass is the densest in the world, though their numbers have been declining in the region due to incidents related to the turbines, the press release stated.

“ ‘With the approval of this project, the County is putting the Altamont Pass back on pace to kill as many Golden Eagles as it did 15 years ago,’ Glenn Phillips, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, said.

“The project at Mulqueeny Ranch was approved by Alameda County supervisors on Oct. 7, despite an appeal from the National Audubon Society requesting that the Alameda County Board of Supervisors ‘hear its recommendations on how the project could be modified to reduce impacts to the birds.’

“The National Audubon Society also called the wind farm located between Livermore and Tracy a ‘black eye on the entire wind industry since its construction’ and ‘a population sink’ for Golden Eagles.

“It’s the first time the organization has filed a lawsuit in opposition to a wind project in California.”

Read the full article here. (~3 min.)

Return to Northern News here.

Association of Bay Area Governments formally denies nearly all regional housing needs allocation appeals

By Daniel Maroon, Alexander Merritt, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP blog, November 18, 2021

“On Friday, November 12, 2021, the Association of Bay Area Government’s (ABAG’s) Administrative Committee formally denied 27 out of 28 appeals of draft housing allocations filed by local jurisdictions within the Bay Area region. In approving final written denials for nearly all appeals filed by cities and counties within the Bay Area, the Committee signaled strong confidence in the draft Regional Housing Needs Allocation (“RHNA”) Plan prepared by ABAG’s Housing Methodology Committee and approved in May. Local jurisdictions in the Bay Area must now incorporate the Plan’s housing allocations into their Housing Elements.

“Bay Area jurisdictions appealed their allocations for a wide range of reasons. Among the most common arguments were that ABAG failed to adequately consider the availability of land suitable for urban development or conversion to residential use and that ABAG’s methodology failed to exclude future development on lands within various natural disaster hazard zones.

“The sole partially successful appeal was that filed by Contra Costa County, which argued that ABAG improperly included an area annexed to the City of Pittsburg in 2018 as part of unincorporated Contra Costa County in the Plan Bay Area 2050 Blueprint.

“The ABAG Executive Board will meet on December 16, 2021 to consider and adopt the Final RHNA Plan. Once that occurs, local jurisdictions must turn to updating their Housing Elements to incorporate their RHNA allocations.”

Read the full article here. (~2 min.)

Return to Northern News here.

‘A spectacular landscape’ — Vast Redwood Coast ranch to become public nature preserve

By Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle, November 18, 2021

“[A 26,600-acre ranch with 16 miles of riverfront and two herds of Roosevelt elk] on the Eel River, which spans both Mendocino and Trinity counties, will go to a conservation group. The Wildlands Conservancy closed escrow on the tract [on November 16] and plans to turn this mostly untamed stretch of mountains and valleys into a preserve open to the public.

“The property is at the heart of [Eel River Canyon] and at the center of the organization’s long-term goal of protecting and providing access to much of the Eel River’s 196-mile run — from the Mendocino National Forest to the Humboldt County coast. The Witter plot, once known as Lone Pine Ranch and set to be renamed the Eel River Canyon Preserve, is the group’s fifth and largest acquisition along the river.

“Across the river was another selling point for the Wildlands Conservancy and its supporters: the out-of-service Northwestern Pacific Railroad. The ranch acquisition is expected to advance efforts to turn the lengthy rail line into a public path for hiking and biking. The project would be part of the Great Redwood Trail, a multi-use path in the works by a coalition of support groups and local lawmakers, running from from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay.

“The [Wildlands Conservancy], based in San Bernardino County, obtained the $25 million [to purchase the Eel River ranch property] from a recent $10 million state budget appropriation, state grants, the Center for Biological Diversity and a Packard Foundation loan through the national nonprofit Conservation Fund. Fundraising efforts continue to repay the $8 million debt.”

Read the full article here. (~4 min.)

Return to Northern News here.

California is being denied $12 billion in federal transit funds. Here’s how it’ll hurt the Bay Area

By Ricardo Cano, San Francisco Chronicle, November 12, 2021

“A decision by the Biden administration to withhold $12 billion in federal transit funds from California could immediately affect services provided by the Bay Area’s 27 transit operators as they attempt to recover deep financial losses sustained during the pandemic, local officials say.

“The denial of the transit funding is the latest twist in a long dispute over whether California’s 2013 Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act, which capped pension benefits for new employees, infringes on the collective bargaining rights of public transit workers in the eyes of the federal government.

“The state sharply disputes the Labor Department’s interpretation and vows to fight the decision.

“In a Nov. 10 letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Gov. Gavin Newsom questioned the legal reasoning behind the ruling and said it ‘has created tremendous confusion and uncertainty for numerous infrastructure projects.’

$9.5 billion for transit infrastructure projects are blocked. Another $2.5 billion in COVID relief funds for transit services “had not yet gained Labor Department certification at the time of the ruling.” This loss “could be felt most immediately by Bay Area transit agencies and their riders.”

“ ‘We have the highest level of confidence this issue will be worked out at the federal level without an impact to BART projects and our efforts to seek grant funding,’ BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said in a statement.”

Read the full article here. (~3 min.)

Although transit funds may be blocked, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains billions for other critical transportation projects. Chastity Hale reported in the Peninsula Press on November 10, 2021: 

In a recent news release, MTC and ABAG wrote that they also expect the Bay Area to receive some of the $4.5 billion in competitive funding allocated to California for bridge repair, as well as ‘dedicated resources for zero emission vehicle charging and resilience projects.’

“There needs to be more electric vehicle charging infrastructure in order to support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order to phase out gasoline-powered cars by 2035. In 2018, the California Energy Commission set a goal of 250,000 chargers by 2025; however, as of January 2021, the state is still thousands of chargers short of meeting this target. And over 1,000 bridges throughout the state, like Santa Clara County’s Interstate 280 over Lawrence Expressway & Creek, are in poor condition and need to be repaired or rebuilt.”

Read more about the intended impact of the infrastructure bill on the Bay Area here. (~3 min.)

Return to Northern News here.