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Locals worry Orinda development could affect Tilden’s fragile wildlife

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Thursday October 25, 2001

Several Berkeley residents who attended a public meeting called by the Army Corps of Engineers Monday are sounding the alarm about a proposed development in the East Bay hills. 

The “Montanera” project is the latest incarnation of a 15-year old plan to build upscale housing in the Gateway Valley area in Orinda.  

Developers are proposing 225 houses, each of which is expected to sell for over $1 million, and an 18-hole golf course. 

Critics of the project say that it would damage critical wetlands and streams, and would interfere with the wildlife migration patterns of the region. 

“This project would devastate the (East Bay’s) wildlife migration corridor,” said Juliet Lamont. “Wildlife uses that corridor to move along the ridges between the regional parks. 

“This project would just shave off yet another corner of that, which should be unacceptable in this day and age.” 

Lamont said that the development could directly affect Berkeley citizens in several ways.  

She said that the effect would be felt most keenly in Tilden Park. 

“I think that if this project goes through, you’d see the impact on wildlife in Tilden,” she said. “It would cut off another corridor into and out of the park, which means less habitat for wildlife to use. You’d see a loss in the number of species and biodiversity in the park.” 

Gateway Valley is located at the east end of the Caldecott Tunnel.  

Its mouth, from which it extends south, is at Highway 24’s Gateway Valley overpass, which was built is the 1970’s in anticipation of a highway spur that would run through the valley and to San Ramon.  

The highway was never developed, but the overpass, which currently leads nowhere, was built. 

The Gateway Valley is home to a number of rare and threatened species, including the red-legged frog and the foothill yellow-legged frog. It’s also a designated habitat for the Alameda whipsnake, a federally listed threatened species, although there is some doubt about whether there any of the snakes currently live on the site. 

Michael Olson, project manager for Montanera LLC, said Wednesday that concerns about the detrimental environmental impact of the project are overblown. He noted that only 300 acres of the nearly 1,000 acre site will be built upon, and that the rest of the property, which lies mostly in the hills, will remain as open space in perpetuity. 

“The wildlife corridor that they’re talking about extends from Tilden Park to Sibley Park over the Caldecott Tunnel,” he said. “It will also continue on the ridges of our property, which will remain undeveloped.” 

Still, according to some activists, the development will affect those areas of the property – the creeks, wetlands and riparian zones – that are most crucial for threatened species. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the developers are applying to fill nearly five acres of wetlands and 20,000 feet of creeks. 

“They’re proposing to create ‘new creeks,’ but there’s no proof that this will work for the wildlife that’s there,” said Lisa Viana, conservation outreach coordinator for the Urban Creeks Council. “They’re destroying wildlife habitat to make these cute little Disneyland creeks.” 

Olson said the developers had taken pains to insure that the project would be acceptable to the entire community, including Orinda, which he said was “environmentally sensitive as anyone else.” 

“I have been working with the city of Orinda for four years,” he said. “At each of the meetings – which probably number in the hundreds – public comment was encouraged, and public comment was used in fine-tuning the project. And we were approved unanimously at every stage. 

“We consider ourselves environmentally sensitive. We have listened to people’s concerns, and we have acted on them.”  

Though the area slated for development is largely rural, it lies within the Orinda city limits, and has already won the approval of the Orinda City Council. But because it calls for alterations to two year-round streams, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with regulating public waterways, must give its assent. The California Regional Water Quality Control Board must give its approval. 

The Corps of Engineers is accepting public comment on the Montaneras project until Nov. 5. Those interested should contact the Army Corps of Engineers’ Regulatory Branch at (415) 977-8448.