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Park District Aims to Save Richmond Marsh By F. TIMOTHY MARTIN Special to the Planet

Tuesday October 18, 2005

Richmond residents opposed to a developer’s plan to build 1,000 residential units at Breuner Marsh are looking to the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) to insist the land be preserved as open space. 

Senior park staff have recommended using eminent domain to force the sale of the 238-acre property and add it on to adjacent Point Pinole Park in order to preserve a wetlands habitat they say is critical for the health and survival of several endangered species. 

The park district board of directors is scheduled to decide whether to adopt the proposal at a Nov. 1 public meeting, which will be held at their offices in Oakland. 

“We feel it’s very positive, it’s what we wanted,” said Whitney Dotson, a resident of the nearby Parchester Village neighborhood who has been one of the staunchest supporters of preserving the marsh. “The parks department is stepping up to the plate.” 

The Richmond City Council has vowed to fight the park district’s proposal and has authorized staff to file a legal challenge if the district moves ahead with the plan. 

This is not the first time the site’s owners, Don Carr and Bay Area Wetlands LLC, have tried to develop at Breuner Marsh since they acquired the property in 2000. In 2001, they proposed a light industrial park at the site, but a similar coalition of community and environmental groups rallied to defeat the plan. The current plan calls for a mix of 1,050 residential units and retail development, as well as a transit station. The marsh is currently zoned partly as light industrial and partly as open space.  

Dotson and other opponents of developing the marsh came out to Point Pinole Park on Saturday for the second annual North Richmond Shoreline Festival, which was held to raise awareness of the development proposal and to promote opposition to it. The event, which featured a free BBQ and entertainment, drew more than 100 people. 

“We’ve got to get the community plugged in to what this represents,” said Dotson, who pointed out that in the late 1940s developers of Parchester Village agreed to leave the marsh as open space to be enjoyed by residents of the historic African-American community. Residents say they fear the increase in noise and traffic that would result if the development plans are realized, as well as the loss of the area’s aesthetic appeal.  

Environmentalists point to dwindling wetlands in the Bay Area, over 85 percent of which have been lost to either landfill or development, according to Arthur Feinstein, former executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. 

The loss of Breuner Marsh, says Feinstein and others, would severely impact endangered species such as the salt marsh harvest mouse and the California clapper rail, a bird which once ranged from Monterey to Humboldt County, but is now only found in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

But not everyone in town sees it quite the same. 

Last month the Richmond City Council voted 5-3 to oppose the park district’s proposal for eminent domain as well as to authorize legal action to stop it. City leaders cited the potential loss of up to $4 million in annual revenues. Others argued that Richmond’s existing parks were already underutilized. 

At least one councilmember was critical of the park district’s failure to inform the city of its intentions, and said that lack of dialogue may have affected the council’s vote.  

“Had they contacted the city before we started hearing what their intentions were, things might have turned out differently,” said Councilmember John Marquez. “As two public entities we ought to have communication.” 

For their part, park district staff said they’ve offered a fair deal. According to Nancy Wenninger, the district’s land acquisitions manager, the site’s owners turned down an offer of $4.9 million for the land despite having paid $3 million in 2000—though that’s small change compared with the reported $50 million deal nearly negotiated in 2003 that would have sold the parcel to another residential developer, Signature Properties. 

While eminent domain has gotten a lot of attention following a recent Supreme Court decision, Wenninger was careful to distinguish that the park district’s use of it follows a long established provision under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that allows the state to acquire land for the public good. The park district most recently used eminent domain in Hercules to construct a portion of the Bay Trail. 

“Eminent domain is our method of last resort. We much prefer to deal with a willing seller,” Wenninger said. “We’ve made an offer based on appraisals of a fair market value,” adding that the developer would have to spend a lot of money and effort to push development plans forward—including a change in zoning laws—without any guarantee of success.  

Wenninger said she expected a much bigger battle over eminent domain in Richmond, where the park district is already involved in litigation with the city over development of the Point Molate Casino. 

Despite the friction between the city and park district, some city officials applauded the park district’s initiative. 

“There’s too much effort on dollar signs and revenues, and not enough on giving the community what it wants and needs,” said Gayle McLaughlin, one of the three Richmond council members to vote on the side of the park district. “To allow development to deface this incredible area would really be a crime.”