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Neighbors Oppose El Cerrito Hills Land Sale

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday May 19, 2006

A nascent plan to develop open space in the El Cerrito Hills is eliciting protests from neighbors who say the city’s natural land must be preserved. 

Residents are marshalling forces to prevent the sale of an undeveloped 15-acre expanse to an Emeryville buyer who is reportedly working with developer Aaron Vitale. Vitale, opponents say, wants to construct 20 to 30 luxury homes at the site, a steep, grassy area replete with vegetation and native wildlife. Vitale did not return multiple calls for comment. 

The private property, called the Willis Parcel (after Orinda owner Ralph Willis), comes with a $3 million price tag, residents say. Buyer Anne Koenig is in escrow for the site, though neighbors say she is still seeking investors. Koenig declined to speak to the Daily Planet about the project, saying only, “I don’t want to talk about it right now,” before hanging up.  

Residents of the newly formed community group El Cerrito Hillside Organization (ECHO) insist the Willis Parcel is the largest remaining unprotected open space in the El Cerrito hills. Natural features include creeks, native oaks, deer, owls and, until recently, coyote dens. The parcel borders the Hillside Natural Area, a 79.3-acre, city-designated stretch of undeveloped land. 

“We are opposed to any development on this land,” said Norman LaForce, former El Cerrito mayor and current chair of the Sierra Club’s West Contra Costa group, in a prepared statement. “We can’t afford to lose these last remaining acres of native oak woodland and riparian habitat.” 

Opposition, though, is not entirely to preserve natural ecosystems. Vitale’s portfolio as a developer includes luxury homes of McMansion proportions, and some fear his structures won’t jibe with other homes in the neighborhood. 

“They’re huge, really out of scale for the area,” said Lori Dair, ECHO member and El Cerrito hills resident for 12 years. “That’s what [residents] are really worried about, not to just mention the aesthetic.” 

Neighbors guess the parcel has remained undeveloped because a quarter to a third is designated as a slide zone. Steep slopes, combined with fill soil and landslide debris make development tricky, if not impossible, they say. 

Berkeley-based geotechnical engineering consultant Alan Kropp, who was hired by Koenig to conduct a preliminary study, agrees portions of the property are unstable but that about 50 percent is on solid ground and ripe for development. 

ECHO member Rob Frankenburg, a resident of the hills for seven years, doesn’t buy it. 

“Big developers will come in, develop the land, leave the homeowners behind, and they’ll be subject to unsafe land,” he said. 

A past attempt to develop the Willis parcel proved unsuccessful. According to El Cerrito Planning Manager Jennifer Carman, the city rejected a developer’s proposal to erect an apartment complex, though it was not due to land instability. The site wasn’t zoned for the project, she said.  

Residents insist other proposed projects have failed, because the terrain is so difficult to navigate. Records are sparce, however, and Willis, who has owned the property since 1977, could not be reached to comment.  

At present, the city can do little to heed citizens’ concerns. If the sale is finalized, developers must submit a project proposal before commencing the city’s approval process, which would include rigorous environmental review and public scrutiny. 

ECHO members hope it doesn’t go that far. 

“We’re trying to discourage developers from spending the money because there is going to be opposition,” Frankenburg said. “We want the opposition to be there upfront, so they know what they’re getting into.”