Ballot measure may heighten tension over Cargill land

The Mercury News
March 6, 2008

Ballot measure may heighten tension over Cargill land

by Shaun Bishop
Bay Area News Group

Local conservationists unveiled a ballot measure Thursday that would give Redwood City voters power to veto development in the city’s open space areas, an effort the mayor fears will heighten tensions over a large area of Bayfront property owned by Cargill, Inc.

The initiative would change the city charter to require two-thirds approval from city voters on top of any OKs given by city officials for plans to build on areas defined as open space.

The three environmental groups involved will now begin gathering signatures to place the measure on the November ballot.

“This is a response to the assault on parks and open space in our area,” said David Lewis, executive director of Oakland-based non-profit Save the Bay, at a press conference in front of City Hall. “The important thing is to not lose any more open space without a vote of the public.”

The measure is co-sponsored by Save the Bay, Friends of Redwood City and the Committee for Green Foothills.

Thursday’s announcement intensifies the latest debate over building on Bayfront land in a city where voters have twice before rejected city-approved projects on the waterfront.

While Lewis said “open space” includes parks and protected wildlife areas, the groups’ effort is aimed squarely at a 1,433-acre plot of land on the San Francisco Bay that Cargill is eyeing for a mixture of development and wetlands restoration.

A real estate development firm, DMB Associates, has been holding public meetings to gather residents’ input, but no formal plan has been submitted yet for the land Cargill has used for salt harvesting for a century.

The environmental groups say the entire expanse should be restored and kept as open space.

Redwood City Mayor Rosanne Foust said she is upset that the groups did not approach the city about the ballot measure before announcing it. She said the city is planning a public process for when Cargill submits a plan for the site.

“I wanted no more of ‘us and them’ and I didn’t want to divide the community, and a ballot initiative is an ‘up’ or ‘down,’” Foust said.

The measure had not yet been finalized Thursday. Lewis said he hoped to file it with the city clerk by today.

Lewis said he was surprised at the mayor’s reaction and said he believes residents will be supportive of the initiative.

“I think residents will unite around this,” Lewis said. “I don’t see anything divisive about offering voters a chance to vote on something that’s important to them.”

DMB Associates Vice President John Bruno declined to comment on the measure itself but said his company would “take it seriously.”

“Once we read this language, if in fact it is submitted, we will deal with it in the appropriate way so that we’re respectful of the Redwood City residents and ensure we have the ability to develop a plan that reflects what their priorities are,” Bruno said.

DMB says its surveys and community meetings have shown a majority of residents want a mix of uses on the site, including housing, public parks and wetlands restoration. The Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, which advocates the construction of housing, has backed DMB’s mixed-use approach.

“This is a site we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand” for building housing, said Greg Richane, program organizer with the housing group. “It’s kind of irresponsible to consider doing that.”

Redwood City spokesman Malcolm Smith said the city will wait until the ballot language is submitted to do a thorough analysis of how the measure could impact the city.

Foust said she worries the measure could have “unanticipated and disastrous impacts on our community,” though she wasn’t sure what those could be at this point. The city’s attorneys will closely examine the ballot language, she said.

The battle over building east of Highway 101 is a familiar one for longtime city residents. The Friends of Redwood City spearheaded two voter initiatives in 1982 and 2004 to successfully block large developments on land by the Bay. The 2004 project, Marina Shores Village, was drastically downsized and was approved as the Peninsula Park project last year.

The city council had approved the Marina Shores project before voters shot it down. Ralph Nobles, founder of the Friends of Redwood City, said he wanted to take action earlier this time instead of waiting to see if the city would approve the Cargill plan.

“It seems better to do it this way,” he said.

Contact Shaun Bishop at [email protected].

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