Judge Kills Initiative by Albany Mall Foes

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 04, 2006

An Oakland judge Tuesday barred a November vote on an initiative that would have stopped waterfront development pending the creation of a new plan. 

The measure had been sponsored by a coalition of Albany residents and environmental groups opposing a Los Angeles developer’s plans for a mall on the Golden Gate Fields parking lot. 

Though one in four Albany voters signed petitions for the Albany Shoreline Initiative, its sponsors had failed to give the legally required notice before they started gathering signatures, ruled Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith. 

The judge ruled on a petition filed by Pacific Racing Association, the operators of Golden Gate Fields—where Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso had teamed with track owner Magna Entertainment on plans to build an upscale mall. 

The initiative, launched in response to the plan, called for a moratorium on waterfront development pending the completion of a waterfront specific plan and prohibited any new development within 600 feet of the shoreline. 

Named as defendants were Marge Atkinson, chair of Citizens for the Albany Shoreline (CAS) and a City Council candidate, and Albany City Clerk Jacqueline Bucholz. 

Smith ruled that Bucholz failed to fulfill her responsibility under state election law to verify that the petitioners had met all their legal obligations before she accepted the petitions for certification. 

Specifically, supporters filed to post copies of the initiative and petition in three public places, and similarly failed to publish a neutral summary of the measure as a legal notice in a newspaper declared eligible by a county court to publish such notices.  

“Proponents’ noncompliance deprived voters of the opportunity to review neutral information regarding the initiative, as the Legislature intended, in a pre-campaign environment,” Smith wrote. 

Following publication and posting, the law states, proponents are required to file affidavits with the city, which show how they met the requirements. 

Initiative supporters failed on all three grounds, Smith ruled. 

While supporters did publish a notice in the same paper the City of Albany uses for notices, that paper—the West County Times—lacks court certification. 

“We lost on a technicality,” said Robert Cheasty, a CAS activist and former Albany mayor. “There are two strains in recent decisions on the issue, and Judge Smith followed the more constrained course.” 

“Our focus, as always, is on protecting the shoreline,” said Atkinson, who left the door open for another petition drive. 

Calls and emails to Caruso spokesperson Matt Middlebrook, who campaigned for the mall project over the past year, were not returned. 

CAS had been joined for the initiative drive by supporters from the Sierra Club, Citizens for the East Shore Park and other groups. 

In one sense, the initiative supporters won, given that Caruso withdrew his project after the City Council refused his demand that the city agree to complete an environmental impact report before rejecting his proposal. 

The council denied the request on July 17 after a lengthy session that ended well after midnight, and Caruso announced to a supporter, as he left council chambers, that he was pulling the project. 

Atkinson said she isn’t convinced his withdrawal is permanent, and Mayor Alan Maris told a reporter during Smith’s court hearing July 19 that he hoped Caruso would reconsider. 

Five days later, the City Council voted to implement one of the initiative’s key proposal, a waterfront planning process to “include evaluating and identifying desired alternatives that can realistically be implemented.” 

Initiative supporters are continuing the fight, with a Save Our Shoreline Benefit plans at Ashkenaz in Berkeley next Friday.