September 2, 2014

Vineyards or trees in Sonoma County?

“Exporting Wine to China” was the title of a recent conference in Napa, one of many promoting sales of California wine to virtually unlimited markets. This is an indication that the making of local wines is being overtaken by big business with its characteristic disregard for the web of life. The wine industry is a growth sector that brings with it destruction of habitat and increasing demands on very limited water resources.

The environmental costs of grape growing threaten to overwhelm its economic benefit to the county. Local nonprofit groups compete for millions of dollars of public and private money to restore our watersheds and salmon habitat. At the same time, restoration efforts are swamped by business interests that are exploiting weak rules that allow the wine industry to be treated as if it consists of benign and diverse producers of healthy food. Small local winemakers that care more for the land will not benefit from the mega-expansion of industrial vineyards. It will mean less water, more competition, and the ruin of this bucolic region.

Updating the Tree Protection Ordinance

Now that more than 75% of Sonoma County valley cropland is used for growing grapes, the wine industry is turning its attention to forested land, which is poorly protected in the county code by the outdated Tree Protection Ordinance. The term protection is currently used very loosely in the ordinance. That is to say, certain types of trees are ‘protected’ unless someone wants to cut them down. This applies to even very large vineyard proposals which will require leveling of fields of oaks that have provided groundwater benefits, habitat, cooling effects, and beauty for centuries. The county’s Tree Protection Ordinance allows developers to either replace trees with small trees or to pay a fee. This was the best the county could do in 1985. These mitigations did not and do not apply to agriculture since agricultural projects (such as replacing a forest with a vineyard) do not have to mitigate at all.

Given the above facts, there must be a swift, full-court press to update Sonoma County’s Tree Protection Ordinance. This update must be based on science, including the recognition of the important role trees play in the climate, water, and habitat. Sonoma County will always be a desirable place to live and do business. It does not need to rush to convert forest, woodlands, and watersheds in the service of an unrestrained industry.

Reasonable review of highly destructive projects

Faced with the above realities, the public is attempting to mount an effort to protect more of the county’s trees and natural areas. Currently, large vineyard developments are not subject to the same environmental rules that apply to other large developments. Possible changes in public policy should include instituting environmental thresholds that will be triggered by larger developments and determine whether or not environmental review is necessary. Environmental review informs decision-makers and the public so that we can all understand potential impacts and properly avoid or mitigate them.

Kimberly Burr, environmental lawyer

reprinted from Redwood Needles, the newsletter of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter

Protecting prairie, cleaning up toxics in South Richmond

Channel at Hoffmann Marsh. Richmond is planning for development of the south Richmond shoreline, but is the toxic contamination going to be cleaned up adequately? Photos by G. Donald Bain, 360panos.com. Channel at Hoffmann Marsh. Richmond is planning for development of the south Richmond shoreline, but is the toxic contamination going to be cleaned up adequately? Photos by G. Donald Bain, 360panos.com.

Channel at Hoffmann Marsh. Richmond is planning for development of the south Richmond shoreline, but is the toxic contamination going to be cleaned up adequately? Photos by G. Donald Bain, 360panos.com.

As Richmond moves ahead with its South Richmond Specific Plan, it’s time for it to take a stand for the environment.

We worry that the city will defer to any UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab request for their new “second campus”. The city also faces a confrontation with the Union Pacific Railroad over the Hoffman Marsh, especially remaining privately owned portions. The city still has not made a firm commitment to clean up the toxics at the Zeneca site. For the health and safety of Richmond residents, it’s time for the old industrial sites to be cleaned up.

WhatYouCanDo

Richmond residents, write to Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and the City Council at:

Hector_Rojas@ci.richmond.ca.us
City Hall
450 Civic Center Plaza
Richmond, CA 94804.

Urge the city to:

  • make sure that the Union Pacific cannot develop the Liquid Gold site but instead must clean it up to protect the Bay and wildlife;
  • support the effort to add the rest of the Hoffman Marsh to the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park;
  • require clean-up of the toxic Zeneca site to the residential standard.

Everyone can write to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at:

Richard Philliber, Environmental Planner
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
One Cyclotron Road, MS 76-225
Berkeley, CA 94720.

Urge the Laboratory to work actively to save the coastal prairie at the second-campus site. In particular, the main access road should not be built through the prairie, but around it from the current main entrance at Regatta Boulevard. Richmond residents can include this request in their letters to the Council also.

For more information see the project web site at www.ci.richmond.ca.us/sssp.

Norman La Force, chair, Sierra Club West Contra Costa County Group

Sierra Club files brief in Parkmerced lawsuit

Park Merced, aerial view. Photo by Tom Fox, SWA Group.

Park Merced, aerial view. Photo by Tom Fox, SWA Group.

Correction (Sep. 27, 2013): the previous version of this article said, “The proposed project was to include improvements to the Muni J-Church line, but those improvements remain unfunded.” This should have been the M-Oceanview.

 

The Sierra Club and the California Preservation Foundation have jointly filed an appellate brief as amici curiae in support of a lawsuit challenging San Francisco’s approval of the proposed Parkmerced project.

The proposed project would require tearing down over 1,500 rent-controlled residential units in historic Parkmerced, at the southwest corner of San Francisco next to Lake Merced and the San Francisco State University campus. Parkmerced, built during and just after World War II by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company with the assistance of the federal government, was the first large-scale residential community on the West Coast made up of affordable rental units. The proposed project would also destroy the existing landscaping designed by famed San Francisco designer Thomas Church. The proposed project was to include improvements to the Muni M-Oceanview line, but those improvements remain unfunded. While the proposed project is touted as reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, that wouldn’t happen until roughly 2035 or later. In the short term, the demolition and construction would actually increase CO2 production.

The submitted amicus brief touches on two subjects.

  • Is the city’s interpretation of Proposition M, a General Plan initiative passed by city voters in 1985, entitled to “great deference” by the court?
  • Would destruction of 1,500 housing units in a historic complex violate Prop M’s policies for conserving and protecting existing housing and neighborhood character, and preserving landmarks and historic buildings?

The Club is uniquely suited to submit this amicus brief because it signed on to a ballot argument in support of Proposition M in 1985. By contrast, San Francisco’s then-mayor and much of the city’s political establishment opposed Proposition M. Why should the court give “great deference” to the city’s interpretation of a measure it neither wrote nor supported? This would be like letting England decide the interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.

Assuming that the Club’s brief is accepted by the court, the city and the developer will get to file responses. Then the case will be ready for oral argument, probably in the next few months.

The brief was written by the prominent environmental law firm of Chatten-Brown & Carsten. The case, now on appeal in Division Two of the First District Court of Appeal, was filed by San Francisco Tomorrow and the Parkmerced Action Coalition. The Sierra Club’s San Francisco Group voted to oppose the project and support the litigation.

Stu Flashman, attorney representing the appellants

San Francisco strengthens CEQA protections

240x320_sf-city-hallThe Sierra Club has won a key victory for defending public rights under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in San Francisco (see August-September Yodeler, page 5).

On July 23 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation on city procedures for implementing CEQA. The bill, originally intended to weaken CEQA, had been transformed to actually strengthen public access and protections under the law.

CEQA is designed to ensure that decision-makers and the public are well-informed on potential environmental impacts of projects. After almost a year of politics, the Sierra Club and its allies beat back efforts to gut local CEQA protections. We won a lot.

  • Appeals of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) will continue to be heard by the full 11-member Board of Supervisors. Legislation originally proposed by Supervisor Scott Wiener in the fall of 2012 would have restricted such appeals to a three-member committee of the Board and constrained the timeline for an appeal, making appellant errors more likely. Errors in filing appeals can forever jeopardize the right of appellants to appeal in court. The Sierra Club has either appealed itself, or supported the appeals, of numerous EIRs, including those for Treasure Island, Hunters Point, the Beach Chalet soccer fields, and Parkmerced.
  • When city departments, including Planning, exempt a project from environmental requirements, they will give a more timely and informative notification. The public can now find out about all environmental determinations from a Planning Department map at www.sf-planning.org/index.aspx?page=3447As an example of former problems, early in 2007 the San Francisco Planning Department declared that the Beach Chalet soccer-field project (see “New information supports opponents of Beach Chalet soccer-fields project“) was categorically exempt from the requirement to prepare an EIR–but this was not publicly confirmed until December 2009. 
  • City staff will no longer have to make subjective decisions about CEQA requirements. In 2003  the state revised CEQA, but local law was not amended to conform. The new law sets clear strong rules for public notification and appeal rights.
  • We retained the right to an administrative appeal of environmental determinations when modifications are made to projects that have already received environmental approvals. In such cases, if the Planning Department’s environmental-review officer has not required a new environmental review, members of the public can ask for the officer to hold a televised public hearing to review the decision and potentially reverse it.

A weakness in the changes, however, is that this appeal will take place at the Planning Commission, not the Board of Supervisors. It is considered only an administrative appeal, so that a developer is allowed to continue work while the appeal is pending.

Another loss is that the legislation locks in a shorter time limit for appealing environmental exemptions. After a project has been determined not to have significant environmental impacts and once it receives its first project-wide permit or approval, appellants will have only 30 days to appeal. The Sierra Club and allies had sought to retain a later and longer window.

Even considering these limitations, Sierra Club and its allies were able to reverse a dramatic attack on CEQA protections, and to transform it into a strengthening of the law–to give the public much better notification and information on development projects in San Francisco.

Sue Vaughan, secretary, Sierra Club San Francisco Group

Sierra Club files brief in Parkmerced lawsuit

The Sierra Club and the California Preservation Foundation have jointly filed an appellate brief as amici curiae in support of a lawsuit challenging San Francisco’s approval of the proposed Parkmerced project.

The proposed project would require tearing down over 1,500 rent-controlled residential units in historic Parkmerced, at the southwest corner of San Francisco next to Lake Merced and the San Francisco State University campus. Parkmerced, built during and just after World War II by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company with the assistance of the federal government, was the first large-scale residential community on the West Coast made up of affordable rental units. The proposed project would also destroy the existing landscaping designed by famed San Francisco designer Thomas Church. The proposed project was to include improvements to the Muni J-Church line, but those improvements remain unfunded. While the proposed project is touted as reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, that wouldn’t happen until roughly 2035 or later. In the short term, the demolition and construction would actually increase CO2 production.

The submitted amicus brief touches on two subjects.

  • Is the city’s interpretation of Proposition M, a General Plan initiative passed by city voters in 1985, entitled to “great deference” by the court?
  • Would destruction of 1,500 housing units in a historic complex violate Prop M’s policies for conserving and protecting existing housing and neighborhood character, and preserving landmarks and historic buildings?

The Club is uniquely suited to submit this amicus brief because it signed on to a ballot argument in support of Proposition M in 1985. By contrast, San Francisco’s then-mayor and much of the city’s political establishment opposed Proposition M. Why should the court give “great deference” to the city’s interpretation of a measure it neither wrote nor supported? This would be like letting England decide the interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.

Assuming that the Club’s brief is accepted by the court, the city and the developer will get to file  responses. Then the case will be ready for oral argument, probably in the next few months.

The brief was written by the prominent environmental law firm of Chatten-Brown & Carsten. The case, now on appeal in Division Two of the First District Court of Appeal, was filed by San Francisco Tomorrow and the Parkmerced Action Coalition. The Sierra Club’s San Francisco Group voted to oppose the project and support the litigation.

Stu Flashman, attorney representing the appellants

Putting clean-up, transit first in South Richmond

Channel at Hoffmann Marsh. Richmond is planning for development of the south Richmond shoreline, but is the toxic contamination going to be cleaned up adequately? Photos by G. Donald Bain, 360panos.com. Channel at Hoffmann Marsh. Richmond is planning for development of the south Richmond shoreline, but is the toxic contamination going to be cleaned up adequately? Photos by G. Donald Bain, 360panos.com.

Channel at Hoffmann Marsh. Richmond is planning for development of the south Richmond shoreline, but is the toxic contamination going to be cleaned up adequately? Photos by G. Donald Bain, 360panos.com.

Richmond is planning for development of the south Richmond shoreline, on the former Zeneca site and on northern Hoffman Marsh including the Liquid Gold site and the firing range.

A key issue is the level of clean-up for these contaminated lands. Years ago the Sierra Club worked with the community to get the state Department of Toxic Substances Control put in charge of the Zeneca clean-up, because we believed it would call for stringent standards. Instead, DTSC is waiting to specify standards for particular areas until the city designates uses for them.

The south Richmond community has lived too long with this toxic hazard. DTSC needs to require clean-up to top-level residential standards, so that we can have a safe area for people and for wildlife, and to ensure that toxics will not leach into the Bay. There should be a wide buffer between the Bay and any development, to protect wildlife and habitat. The remaining areas of the Hoffman Marsh should be cleaned up to the same standard, restored, and transferred into the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.

For any development, the city must also figure out how to limit the use of the automobile and promote transit. Some want massive commercial, retail, and residential development in this area which today has only minimal transit. Any development here must be transit-based. The same concern applies to the Lawrence National Lab/UC second campus (see accompanying article).

Norman La Force, chair, Sierra Club West Contra Costa County Group

 

WhatYouCanDo

Contact Jess Dervin-Ackerman, Conservation Organizer for the SF Bay Chapter to find out how you can get involved in this important issue:  jess.dervin-ackerman@sierraclub.org 510-848-0800

Most SF environmental protections not to be gutted, after all

240x320_sf-city-hall(This is an updated version of an article published here on June 27.)

At this point it looks like the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is not going to seriously weaken the city’s environmental protections under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but negotiations continue over important details about empowering community members to challenge faulty environmental determinations and environmentally unsound projects. The final bill may come to the Supervisors in the next few weeks.

In October, Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced a bill that would have seriously interfered with the public’s ability to comment on–and appeal–environmental decisions in the city (see April Yodeler, front page), but it appears now that we are going to get almost all of the basic protections we demanded, and almost all of the bad provisions of Wiener’s original have been stripped out. There is, however, one particularly important exception: for a project deemed categorically exempt from CEQA–that is, not requiring a full Environmental Impact Report (EIRs) or negative declaration with mitigations–the time limit for any appeal will be just 30 days, and it will be triggered by the “first approval” (such as the issuance of a building permit) that the project receives, rather than the final approval.

To mitigate this provision, we are working to get trailing legislation introduced and passed as close as possible to the passage of the main bill. This trailer would apply in cases where a project is significantly modified after its initial approval. It would require clear public notification of such a modification, and enable the public to appeal to the Planning Department to seek a new environmental review due to the change in the project. Sierra Club support for the legislation has been contingent on this trailing legislation.

As an example of the importance of these rules, consider the Beach Chalet soccer-field project, where the SF Recreation and Parks Department proposed to replace grass with seven acres of synthetic turf and 60-foot night lights. This was initially deemed categorically exempt by the Recreation and Parks Department. Due at least in part to public pressure, the Planning Department decided to do a full EIR. Nonetheless this project came too close to slipping between the cracks. The EIR on this project is now being litigated with Sierra Club support (see April-May Yodeler, page 6).

All in all, the current bill is definitely not perfect, but it is massively better than Wiener’s original corporate-giveaway monstrosity, and will give us roughly the same protections as now, but with a lot of very real and strong improvements to the requirements for public notice on decisions.

Thanks to all of you who have contacted the Supervisors about this threat, and who have done the hard work of the difficult negotiations.

Lab and UC need to remember Bay shoreline in lab planning

The Sierra Club appreciates the outreach of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California (LBNL/UC) on development plans for their future second campus at the Richmond Field Station. (The project was started by just LBNL–see September-October 2011, page 5–but the University has since joined in.) We also recognize the difficult issues that must be addressed, especially for a Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) for the campus.

Nonetheless, the Sierra Club is concerned that the draft LRDP neglects the site’s remaining coastal prairie and wetland/shoreline lands. Considering the commitment of these two institutions to cutting-edge biological and environmental research, we’d expect their plan to address the effects of sea-level rise of at least 55 inches (as projected by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission). Instead, the LRDP touts how much brick-and-mortar development will be built over the years and brags about the 10,000 people who will be working at the site–without acknowledging their impact (and that of their cars) on the fragile habitat.

We encourage LBNL/UC to propose an expansion of the coastal prairie and of their research for promoting that expansion and on protecting wetland and shoreline areas in the face of climate change. We urge them to find ways to minimize the impacts of cars on the site.

The Sierra Club urges LBNL/UC to be as imaginative and forward-thinking on the site’s environmental concerns as on all the “biotech” research it projects from the scientists at the site.

Norman La Force, chair, Sierra Club West Contra Costa County Group

Will Berkeley’s Demolition Ordinance preserve affordable housing?

A projected sketch of the Acheson Commons project at University Avenue and Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Courtesy of Equity Residential.

A projected sketch of the Acheson Commons project at University Avenue and Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Courtesy of Equity Residential.

Corrections made July 16 to the description of the second set of amendments.

Affordable housing is critical to the state’s Sustainable Communities Strategy. Affordable housing along transit corridors and in walkable areas gives a chance for people with lower earnings to live close to where they work, rather than commuting into town, as many do now, in Berkeley in particular.

But what happens to affordability when an owner wants to demolish a building containing rental units subject to rent control? Because of long-standing disagreements over interpretation of the Berkeley Demolition Ordinance in such situations, the City Council is considering amendments.

On June 4 the Council was set to vote on new language. This language, from the Sierra Club’s perspective, would have been a “good” compromise. It would make demolitions of certain types of buildings easier, but would provide that if any rent-controlled units are demolished to clear the way for new development, the developer must create an equal number of new units perpetually priced at low-income levels. This would be whether these rent-controlled units were rented or vacant at the time of the application for the demolition, and the requirement would be in addition to any other affordable-housing requirements. The compromise language appeared to resolve most of the previous disagreement. A majority of the Council (Mayor Bates and Councilmembers Anderson, Arreguin, Maio, and Worthing­ton) supported this draft, but the meeting ran out of time.

At the following meeting, a different Council majority (Mayor Bates and Council­mem­bers Anderson, Capitelli, Maio, Moore, and Wengraf) voted to refer a much-changed set of amendments to staff. These amendments would have a weaker set of rent restrictions.

  • A sitting tenant would (as in the previous ordinance) have the first right of refusal to move into the new development, at their last rent ceiling prior to the demolition. If they decline to move in, the first tenant would get the replacement unit at the same rent ceiling.
  • If a unit to be demolished has been vacant for more than five years, or the last rent is not known, the replacement unit would initially be set at a low-income rent level.
  • If a unit to be demolished has been vacant for less than five years and the last rent is known, the replacement unit would initially have the same rent ceiling as under the last-known previous rent ceiling.

In any of these cases, however, once the first tenant would vacate the replacement unit, the owner could rent it at market rate (subject to rent-control-“like” restrictions). The developer could also opt to not replace the old units and pay $20,000 per demolished unit into the City’s Housing Trust Fund. In short, rent control (but with unlimited rent increases allowed every time a new tenant moves in) would replace permanent afford­ability—or developers could simply pay it off.

Why did three councilmembers switch in one week to supporting these much weaker affordability protections? One reason may be that numerous developers contacted the Coun­cil opposing the earlier draft. One of the most fervent was Equity Residential, the nation’s largest developer of residential housing and the property-owner behind the 205-unit Ache­son Commons proposal in Downtown Berkeley.

(The Sierra Club supported the appeal of the Alameda County Building Trades against construc­tion of this project, due to inadequate community benefits around housing and labor; see April-May Yodeler, page 4. The City Council remanded the appeal to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), which in June approved the project with added conditions.)

Equity argued that providing affordable housing would be an onerous requirement, and that rent-control equivalency would be more appropriate. Affordable-housing advocates and the Sierra Club pointed out in reply that market rents, applied to new tenancies regardless of rent control, would likely be between $2,000 and $3,000 per unit (or even more!) in the replacement housing. Further, it is not clear that restrictions on new construction that resemble rent control are legally enforceable under the 1995 state Costa-Hawkins Act, which prohibits rent control in new construction. (Ironically, as a condition for ZAB’s approval of Acheson in June, Equity agreed to either move or replace on-site the eight rent-controlled units that stood in the way of the project, in either case creating eight perpetually affordable units at low-income levels—the very policy that Equity is so vociferously fighting.)

On July 2 the City Council discussed the changes that staff had made based on the June 11 referral. By then, in a show of agreement rare for Berkeley, a number of disparate organizations—including the Sierra Club, the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, the East Bay Community Law Center, the Berkeley Neighborhoods Council, and the Berkeley Tenants Union—all opposed this new draft. Recognizing the solid public opposition to this draft, the Council unanimously referred both the “good” June 4 and the “poor” July 2 draft to the Berkeley Planning and Housing Advisory Commissions for further review. Both are slated to take up this item at their September meetings. This will provide an opportunity for the Sierra Club and other stakeholders to work with the city to devise language that will truly reduce greenhouse gases and provide affordable housing.

To get involved and to learn about further developments, contact Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group chair Olga Bolotina at Olga.Bolotina.ab@gmail.com.

You can read the “good” June 4 Demolition Ordinance draft at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/Clerk/City_Council/2013/06Jun/Documents/2013-06-04_Item_24_Zoning_Amendments_to_BMC.aspx, and the “poor” July 2 draft at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/Clerk/City_Council/2013/07Jul/Documents/2013-07-02_Item_17_Zoning_Amendments.aspx.

Amended SF condominium-conversion ordinance passes!

On June 11 an amended version of the Condominium Conversion Ordinance passed by a mayoral-veto-proof 8 – 3 vote at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At the ordinance’s second and final reading one week later, the vote was the same. Supervisors Eric Mar, David Chiu, London Breed, Jane Kim, Norman Yee, David Campos, Malia Cohen, and John Avalos voted yes, while Supervisors Mark Farrell, Katy Tang, and Scott Wiener voted no. The fact that the original sponsors of the legislation, Farrell and Wiener, voted against it indicates how much it changed over the course of several months of negotiations.

The Sierra Club opposed the original version of the legislation (see October-November 2012, page 6). The primary reason was that it endangered San Francisco’s stock of affordable, rent-stabilized (commonly known as rent-controlled) housing, while doing too little to ensure that affordable replacement rental units would be built.

The newly passed legislation is a compromise. Like the original legislation, it provides an expedited condominium-conversion process for the owners of more than 2,000 TIC units (Tenancies in Common). In exchange for this bypass of the lottery system, tenant advocates and their allies worked with the Supervisors (primarily Chiu, Kim, and Yee) to amend the legislation to address concerns about the loss of affordable, rent-controlled units.

Important changes that enabled the Club to support the amended version include a minimum 10-year moratorium on condo conversions after the bypass described above, and a requirement that all TIC units allowed through the bypass be replaced with new affordable rental housing (using a formula tied to the duration of the condo-conversion lottery suspension). In addition, once the lottery resumes, only buildings with four or fewer units will be eligible, and there will be higher owner-occupancy requirements.

While this vote is a victory for affordable housing in San Francisco, it was pointed out more than once during debate on this legislation that this is just one piece of the puzzle, and that much more work is needed to solve the housing crisis in San Francisco. The passage of this legislation sends the message that solving this crisis shouldn’t involve sacrificing one type of housing (affordable rental) for another (ownership).

Karen Babbitt, conservation chair, Sierra Club San Francisco Group