August 30, 2015

Questions and answers about vegetation management for fire safety in the East Bay hills

Given the very serious drought conditions facing California, combined with longer and more serious wildfire seasons due to climate disruption, it’s more important than ever to prioritize fire prevention in our vegetation management strategies for the East Bay hills. For decades, the Sierra Club has worked closely with fire experts, public officials, fire fighters, and fellow environmental groups like the Audubon Society, the California Native Plant Society, and the Claremont Conservancy to design an ecologically- and fiscally-sustainable model for fire management that not only reduces the risk of fires, but also promotes diverse and healthy ecosystems. This strategy entails removing flammable, ember-generating species like eucalyptus in phases — and only in select areas considered most at risk for fire along the urban-wild interface — so that less flammable natives can reclaim those areas and allow a rebound of biodiversity.

The Sierra Club’s program for vegetation management can summarized as the “Three R’s”:

  1. Remove the most flammable non-native plant species in select areas considered most at risk for fire along the urban-wild interface of the East Bay hills;
  2. Restore those areas with more naturally fire-resistant native trees like bays, oaks, laurels, and native grasslands; and
  3. Re-establish greater biodiversity of flora and fauna, including endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake.

There is a lot of misinformation floating around about this preferred strategy for the care and management of vegetation in the East Bay hills. We hope this document can help correct these misunderstandings and help build support for an approach that would reduce fire risk, encourage healthy ecosystems, and reduce the financial burden on taxpayers.

How did non-natives like eucalyptus get here in the first place?

Non-native eucalyptus trees were introduced to the East Bay hills in the late 1800s by two Oakland businessmen who forested the hills with eucalyptus plantations for hardwood lumber production. The brittle wood proved unsuitable for lumber, however, and the plantations were abandoned and allowed to spread throughout the hills, overwhelming native species and changing the nature of the ecosystem. The result is groves of highly flammable invasives, which can become densely packed at 400 to 900 trees per acre, and can exceed 120 feet in height, with a tendency to dramatically explode when on fire.

What covered the hills before these non-natives were introduced?

Before the introduction of non-natives like eucalyptus and Monterey pines, the East Bay hills were a mix of chaparral grasslands and riparian vegetation along streams. Native plants adapted to the local climate over millennia to be drought tolerant and low consumers of water. Natives are also naturally more fire resistant.

Are eucalyptus and Monterey pines a greater hazard than native vegetation?

Yes! Eucalyptus and Monterey pines can leave up to 50 tons of flammable fuel on the ground per acre, as well as deep duff and dense eucalyptus- and pine-seedling growth within and around the grove. This compares with one to five tons of fuel per acre in grasslands, native live oak groves, and bay forest. A study conducted by the US Forest Service found that a mature eucalyptus forest in the Berkeley hills contains 8.23 tons per acre of litter while an oak-bay woodland contains a mere 1.71 tons per acre.

Eucalyptus branches, leaves, and bark slough off in long pieces that end up draped on one another, creating a near-optimal mixture of oxygen and fuel. The smooth, aerodynamic bark provides a way for fire to climb into the tree canopy and send burning material aloft. Dead debris can also become suspended between branches, creating a nearly continuous arrangement of fuels — horizontally and vertically.

In Australia, eucalyptus trees are sometimes referred to as “gasoline trees” for their tendency to quickly spread explosive fires. Eucalyptus leaves contain enough oil that it is sold as a product in some countries. The leaves have three times the energy of cellulose, so they burn hotter. Blue gum eucalyptus leaves release volatile chemical gases at relatively low temperatures and ignite easily.

What happens when a eucalyptus catches on fire?

Groves of eucalyptus trees create fuel ladders that spread rapidly into the canopy. When wind-driven wildfire reaches eucalyptus tree crowns, it can spur flames that reach over 150 feet into the air, with burning embers blowing downwind beyond a half mile. Eucalyptus embers also stay lit longer than embers from other vegetation. In contrast, native plants generally grow below 40 feet in height and are more easily controlled in the case of a wildfire.

Do climate disruption and changing weather patterns contribute to fire risk?

Yes. Unfortunately, climate disruption means that the conditions that lead to wildfires are much more common. Temperatures are rising and we’re getting less rain, which means that wildfires are more frequent and more damaging, and wildfire season is longer.

Why can’t we just thin the eucalyptus and other non-natives?

Thinned eucalyptus with understory cleared

Thinned eucalyptus with understory cleared

While thinning the eucalyptus and Monterey pine plantations seems like an appealing compromise, in reality it compounds the problem. Thinning actually denudes hillsides to an even greater extent than removing them altogether, because in order to keep the hills fire safe, it requires regular, wholesale clearing of the understory and hanging debris — including native vegetation. This has to happen on an ongoing basis for the life of the remaining eucalyptus. Then, as trees die, they must be cut down and removed to prevent accidents. Thinning means that the hills will end up being a monoculture with a bare understory — a situation that will not support diverse ecosystems including endangered species.

Won’t removing the non-natives leave a barren landscape?

Restored native vegetation in Redwood Park

Restored native grassland prairie and fuel break in Redwood Park

Quite the opposite. Hidden among the eucalyptus and Monterey pine plantations are native oaks, bays, and willows that are struggling to survive under the canopy. These native species cannot grow to full size beneath the canopy of eucalyptus and Monterey pines.

Oaks, bays, and other native trees present under eucalyptus or pine canopies should be saved during non-native removal. Once non-natives are removed, the natives can get the sunlight and water they need to grow and thrive.

Will every eucalyptus in the East Bay hills be removed?

Not at all. Only the eucalyptus in the areas most at-risk for fire and at the urban-wild interface would be removed. Thousands of acres of eucalyptus would remain under this model for vegetation management.

Has the restoration of native landscape been done successfully in our hills?

Restored native vegetation in Claremont Canyon

Restored native vegetation in Claremont Canyon

Yes! When the eucalyptus trees on the south side of Claremont Avenue were removed by the University of California, Berkeley and the Claremont Canyon Conservancy, it did not take long for the native trees and shrubs to flourish and become a beautiful native landscape. Drive up Claremont Avenue to Signpost 29. To the right, looking south, is the restored native landscape that was once a eucalyptus forest. Turn and face the opposite direction and you will see the dense forest of eucalyptus suckers that sprouted after the 1972 freeze. Look closer and you will find native bays, oaks, and willows hidden in the eucalyptus shadows.

How do you prevent the eucalyptus from growing back?

Herbicide application on eucalyptus stump

Herbicide application on eucalyptus stump

Unfortunately, simply cutting down the eucalyptus trees doesn’t solve the problem. Unless the stumps are disabled, multiple stems or “suckers” will quickly sprout, producing several new trees where only one existed previously. There are various methods to prevent eucalyptus stumps from sprouting. The Sierra Club expects agencies to have protocols for handling herbicides and does not endorse any particular method, but understands that the costs and benefits of all options must be weighed in order to find a sustainable and fiscally responsible approach.

In some cases, the agency that manages the land will choose to apply an herbicide like Garlon to the eucalyptus stumps to prevent regrowth. In those cases, the herbicide is applied by hand to freshly cut stumps. Garlon is similar to store brand treatments sold to the public and has been approved by independent experts. The product has been deemed safe for use in all planned application settings and around natural environments.

What happens to the eucalyptus and pine trees once they are felled?

The tree trunks and branches are ground into chips. The chips themselves decompose and disintegrate rapidly. Fire professionals agree that they do not impose anywhere near the fire hazard of the standing trees.

How does this approach measure up in terms of costs?

Costs of maintaining eucalyptus

Costs of maintaining eucalyptus

The approach endorsed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups is the most cost-effective strategy in the long term. Merely thinning the non-native trees would burden taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in future maintenance costs. Over a period of 20 to 40 years, the costs of regular thinning of non-natives and debris removal can be conservatively estimated at around $250 million. These long-term costs would force agencies like the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Park District to levy fire-maintenance taxes as high as $200 per household in the East Bay — or else defer maintenance and risk a deadly and destructive fire. On the other hand, once established, native plant communities are much cheaper to maintain.

Remains of the 1991 East Bay hills fire. Photo courtesy of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services Flickr account.

Remains of the 1991 East Bay hills fire. Photo courtesy of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Flickr account.

Remember that wildfires are incredibly expensive, both in terms of lives and money. The 1991 East Bay hills fire destroyed over 3,450 homes, killed 25 people, and injured 150 others. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the fire cost $3.9 billion in present-day dollars. Given these stakes, it’s critical to employ the most effective fire-management strategy, and that entails the removal of the highly flammable non-natives.

What about wildlife and endangered species?

The restoration of native vegetation creates healthier ecosystems and promotes greater biodiversity. As the California Native Plant Society wrote in its letter of support for the Sierra Club’s position on fuels management in the East Bay hills, “We recognize the importance of native plant communities and native plant habitats, in the intricate and complex web of life that is our natural world. Our locally evolved flora supports a rich palette of interconnected life, from the insect world to birds, amphibians and reptiles, mammals, fungi, etc.”

The endangered Alameda whipsnake. Photo courtesy the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Flickr account.

The endangered Alameda whipsnake. Photo courtesy the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Flickr account.

Restoration of native vegetation also provides an opportunity for the return of endangered species like the Alameda whipsnake. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion calls for the restoration of whipsnake habitat through the removal of the eucalyptus and restoration of native habitat. Eucalyptus and pine groves, even thinned, do not provide habitat for the endangered whipsnake, and the East Bay hills provide prime habitat areas for this endangered species — but only if the invasive non-natives are removed.

Have more questions?

Don’t hesitate to reach out! Call the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter office at 510-848-0800 or

Water price and water use: San Francisco and the East Bay

Usually, we expect supply and demand to be balanced by price. If there is plenty of something, the price will go down — and we may want to use more of it. If the price goes up we tend to use less — thus preserving a limited supply.

On the other hand, we think of water like air. It is essential to life — shouldn’t it be free?

There is a pricing method that has the potential to reasonably satisfy both these goals. Tiered pricing has proven useful in the Bay Area in reducing residential water use. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) and the San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC) have reduced water use by raising the marginal price of water while keeping water costs lower for essential household needs.

In the year that ended June 30, 2014, SFPUC delivered 24.6 billion gallons to its own “retail” customers and twice as much to other water agencies outside San Francisco. We can look at the retail volume, and pricing, by user type.

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at

Beginning in Fiscal Year 2008, SFPUC retail water rates were differentiated by user type and, in the case of some residential uses, by tiers of water use per household. Before 2008, all retail customers paid the same price for every gallon of potable water. In 2008, the price per gallon went up 25% for all non-residential water users and all multi-family accounts. For single-family residential users the Tier 1 rate (for the first 2,992 gallons per month) rose only 6% in 2008, but the Tier 2 rate (for unlimited additional use) was 27% higher. In 2010 a two-tiered rate structure was introduced for multi-family buildings as well (with Tier 1 only 2,244 gallons). SFPUC residential water use declined 5% by 2009, and 9% by 2011, compared to 2007. Non-residential water use, on the other hand, rose 18% in 2008, and remained 14% higher in 2009, compared to 2007.

SFPUC residential water use declined 5% by 2009, and 9% by 2011, compared to 2007. Non-residential water use, however, priced in a single tier, rose 18% in 2008, and remained 14% higher in 2009, compared to 2007.

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at

Data from SFPUC Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports 2009 and 2014 at

By 2014, SFPUC water rates for non-residential use were 174% higher than the 2007 rate; single-family, residential Tier 1 rates were 113% higher than the 2007 level with Tier 2 rates up 179% and multi-family, residential Tier 1 rates were 128% higher with Tier 2 rates up 199%. As a result, despite estimated population growth of over 6% since 2007 in San Francisco, residential water use was down 10% by 2014 while non-residential water use was up 3%.

Local rainfall, of course, can reduce water use for irrigation around homes and in parks. In 2007, the rainfall in the California Central Coast Region, stretching from Petaluma to Goleta, was less than 15 inches (about 62% of the 100 year average). In the four years since June, 2011, Central Coast rainfall ranged from 49% to 76% of the average. This makes the efforts of San Francisco residents to use less water all the more impressive.

Across the Bay, EBMUD delivers all its water “retail”: directly to customers in northern Alameda County and western Contra Costa County. EBMUD has been using three-tiered rates for single-family accounts since before 1975.

Data provided by EBMUD staff, July 7, 2015.

Data provided by EBMUD staff, July 7, 2015.

This three-tiered structure has brought residential water consumption down 26% since 2007. Higher non-residential rates have led public authorities to reduce their water use by 13%, including by using recycled water for irrigation purposes. Industrial water use is also down, by 12%, partially due to increased recycled-water use. However, commercial-sector water use is up by almost 40%. The overall result for EBMUD was a decline in water use of 11% from 2007 through 2014.

Data from EBMUD Annual Comprehensive Financial Reports FY 2005 through FY 2014 at

Data from EBMUD Annual Comprehensive Financial Reports FY 2005 through FY 2014 at

Tiered water rates seem to be more effective in achieving water conservation than higher rates alone. More aggressive use of tiered volume pricing for all multi-family and single-family residential water users could push the water-saving mentality to the vast majority of households. Applying tiered pricing to commercial, industrial, and public-authority accounts would encourage more large-scale water users to connect to recycled-water resources while allowing small businesses, using water prudently, to remain successful.

Tier size based on human needs would better promote equity. Frugal water users in all sectors would have lower water bills. Large industrial water users would seek to use lower-cost recycled water wherever possible. Extravagant water users, consuming volumes in multiples of the first tier size, would bear the costs of finding and delivering that extra water.

— Kenneth Gibson for the Water Committee

Thu, July 23 — Population Committee event on saving the chimpanzees of Ngamba Island Sanctuary in Uganda

WHEN: Thursday, July 23, 6:30-7:45 pm
WHERE: Berkeley Public Library, South Branch, 1901 Russell Street, Berkeley (by Ashby BART)
COST: Free

Photo by Chris Austria.

Photo by Chris Austria.

The Bay Chapter’s Population, Health & Environment Committee and the Institute for Population Studies invite you to a talk on the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, and efforts to save chimpanzees in the face of human population growth and other pressures.

Founded by Dr. Jane Goodall and a group of founding trustees, the Sanctuary provides natural forest habitat for 48 orphaned chimps that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.

Chris Austria is a wildlife conservationist working in partnership with the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. He will give a photo presentation about the chimpanzees at the Sanctuary, and the conservation work that is being done to preserve their natural habitats. For more information about Austria, visit his website

Celebrating wins that give a fair shake to recycling workers and multi-unit residents

Photo courtesy ILWU.

Photo courtesy ILWU.

With the passage of Measure D in 1990 and the imposition of a six-dollar-per-ton fee on all materials landfilled on county-controlled lands, Alameda County became the poster child for progressive communities around the country for how to raise funds to invent a waste-free future. Alameda County became the first multi-jurisdictional county in the country where all communities had full-spectrum organics collections. Full-spectrum organics, or FSO, means not only yard debris but food debris and soiled paper as well. Bay Area residents tend to think everybody does this, but FSO collection is limited to about 400 of the 4,000 local public agencies around the country.

But even then all was not right in the kingdom of Alameda County. People living in multi-unit buildings in Oakland were deprived of FSO collection because the 1995 garbage agreement made building owners pay extra for the green cart service, and few had done so. Meanwhile, workers at five of the seven facilities that sorted recyclables into market-ready commodities were dramatically underpaid while union drivers made three times their wages.

Photo courtesy ILWU.

Photo courtesy ILWU.

So a movement began. First with the workers themselves, then joined by their organizing union, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), then various environmental groups that saw low wages as disrespectful of the people who stand there hour after hour making sure all the goodies get in the right places; it was called the Alameda County Sustainable Recycling Campaign. The Bay Chapter’s Zero Waste Committee, with Ruth Abbe at the helm, was a leader in the effort to create a fair and sustainable model for waste collection.

By April 2015, all of the sorting facilities in the county had committed to the Alameda County Wage and Benefit Standard calling for affordable family health insurance for all recycling workers and wages that will rise to $20.94 by 2019. One worker whose wife also works as a sorter said, “It’s like having another worker in the family.”

The Oakland City Council got behind the Campaign’s message about green bins for multi-family units, and starting this summer the green carts are rolling out to the 3,500 multi-unit buildings where FSO collection had not happened before.


The Campaign is organizing a kick-off event in each Council District in Oakland between now and the end of the year to reach out to residents of multi-family buildings and explain what does and does not now go in the green cart. We will also be distributing kitchen pails and recycling caddies.

Got a child home for the summer and jobless, or time yourself to help this effort? Contact Ruth Abbe to volunteer at (415)235-1356 or

— AR Boone

Art as activism — art’s persuasive power as a tool for the environmental movement

Designing for a sustainable planet requires a lot of creativity in almost every aspect, including policies, city planning, technology, and a myriad of other problems and innovations one may encounter. But we don’t call these “creative” practices, and they’re definitely not considered artistic practices. What if artistic practices were also thought of as essential to the environmental movement?

Barbara Boxer on C-SPAN 2 with photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.

Barbara Boxer on C-SPAN 2 with photograph by Subhankar Banerjee.

Art is persuasive. It is an argument not bound by the rules of language and can manifest itself in a wide range of mediums and forms. A 2003 U.S. Senate debate over drilling in the Arctic changed course when Senator Barbara Boxer showed a photograph taken by Subhankar Banerjee of a polar bear crossing a frozen harbor in response to a claim that the Arctic was just “a flat white nothingness.” Even in its simplicity, it overthrew an assumption that held together the pro-drilling argument, making a huge and abstract issue more tangible and immediate. It was images like this one that convinced lawmakers, including Alaska’s senior senator Ted Stevens, to oppose the drilling.

Both individual artists and large organizations are already using art to help drive political change, from exhibits dedicated to environmental art to huge installations in public spaces. It is happening all around us, and alongside it the potential to create change in a way entirely unique to its craft.

Wallace Stegner once called Ansel Adams and John Muir the “two great poets” of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. Adams worked closely with the Sierra Club, serving on the board of directors and later becoming an honorary vice-president, but his other contribution was his photography. Eventually his photographs of the National Parks built a visual timeline of what the parks looked like before and after tourism, which helped expand the national park system. Art creates emotional attachment in a way that empirical evidence rarely does, and can be both a reminder and a motivator.

Media other than photography can be just as effective. Two of the first environmental artists, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, created a landscape sculpture called California Wash in 1996. Built over a storm drain in Santa Monica, the sculpture formed a trail from the Pico Boulevard to the beach to show the former ecology of the area. It traced the pathway the water had once taken to reach the sea before being replaced by storm drains, with bronze plaques inset with images of the original fauna, and glass imitating the natural geology of the area–a reminder of what had been contaminated or removed after urbanization. It was a “memorial” that the viewer moved through as they walked along the coast, a narrative that could just as easily be applied to our own lost landscapes, such as the Bayshore wetlands or the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

“Solar Eagle” by Spectral Q, Los Angeles. Photo by Jeff Pantukhoff / Spectral Q.

“Solar Eagle” by Spectral Q, Los Angeles. Photo by Jeff Pantukhoff / Spectral Q.

Great art is also accessible. When options feel limited or people feel unequipped to make change happen on their own, it can bring them together to take a collective stance. This happened when thousands of volunteers collaborated on’s eARTh project to make human sculptures visible from space. These human sculptures took place all around the world, including one in Los Angeles called Solar Eagle. The participants’ individual bodies together formed the image of an eagle taking flight to show that people from all backgrounds would rise together, and held up solar panels to voice their support of solar energy.

Art alone won’t solve all of our biggest challenges, but there are a lot of ways it can be used and a lot we can learn from it. People act when they feel moved to do so, and art specializes in moving people. The art critic Peter Schjeldahl said in a speech that “[g]reat artworks are lawyers for our humanity in the court of existence.” Now more than ever, it’s time to make room in the court for art.

— Aya Kusch

A Priority Development Area with plenty of problems in Newark

In the last issue of the Yodeler, Matt Williams, chair of the Bay Chapter’s Transportation and Compact Growth Committee, wrote about a sustainable development success story in El Cerrito (read the story here). In this issue, Matt writes about a Priority Development Area that doesn’t look as promising.

This photo of the development area shows the PDA won’t be fulfilling the requirement to be “infill”. Photo by Matt Williams.

This photo of the development area shows the PDA won’t be fulfilling the requirement to be “infill”. Photo by Matt Williams.

There is a Priority Development Area in Newark, near the Dumbarton Bridge, where the number of households is expected to grow from 138 in 2010 to 2,498 by 2040. This PDA is alternately known as the Dumbarton Rail Station Priority Development Area and the Dumbarton Transit Oriented Development Specific Plan. The centerpiece of the PDA is a not-yet-built railroad station for passengers headed to southern San Mateo County.

Initially, the plan was to make track and station improvements and to acquire passenger cars to connect Union City with Caltrain across the Bay, via the rail station planned for the Dumbarton PDA. Since then, the transit situation has deteriorated due to defunding by both by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Alameda County Transportation Commission.

The only other transit service in the area is one AC Transit bus line with a 45-minute headway (the time between buses), inadequate to the requirements of a PDA. There is no plan as yet to run the bus line with a 15-minute frequency during peak times, a requirement of the Regional Transportation Plan, Plan Bay Area.

The environmental documents prepared by the City over the past several years provide a wealth of troubling information about the area. A flock of concerned regional, state, and federal agencies have submitted comments about the proposed PDA on a host of issues including contaminated soil and groundwater, flooding and sea-level rise, and impacts on wildlife.

The California Regional Water Quality Control Board, in a comment made before the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was prepared, warned about contaminated soil and groundwater within the PDA, citing “high concentrations of chlorinated solvents, metals, flammable materials… phenols… [and] dioxins.” Many of these contaminants are left over from when the area was home to several industrial facilities. The Water Board comments go on to note that remediation, where residential development will occur, would have to be thorough. Newark was advised to have the EIR address the “potential threat to human health, water quality, and the environment from residual soil and groundwater pollution during…occupancy and use, based on a changed land use [to residential areas].”

The Water Board also recommended that the hazardous soil be removed to a depth of ten feet below grade at one site in the PDA. Hauling the soil out of the PDA would require about 19,000 truck shipments through populated sections of Newark.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency noted that the PDA is located in a flood hazard area and that all buildings must be raised on pilings and columns that are anchored to resist “flotation, collapse and lateral movement due to the effects of wind and water loads acting simultaneously on all building components.” Newark’s response was to propose raising the entire area with between 500,000 and 1,000,000 cubic yards of fill. Bringing in that much fill would require more than 50,000 truck trips, generating traffic and a large volume of greenhouse gases (which a PDA shouldn’t do).

The US Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service noted that the proposed development area is located near the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and that some bird species and the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse would be adversely affected. The City’s response regarding the endangered mouse is that a “protective cat-proof fence would be established separating the developed project site from any suitable salt marsh harvest mouse habitat.” One Service recommendation is that the City “consider building farther away from the baylands or analyze the potential need for additional flood protection from sea level rise scenarios.”

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) commented on sea-level rise and the safety of fills, noting that “local governments… should assure that new structures and uses attracting people are not approved in flood prone areas or in areas that will become flood prone in the future….” BCDC noted that, by the end of the century, the sea-level rise may be 55 inches. The mapping service of Our Coast Our Future makes it looks very much like projected end-of-century rise will flood a part of the PDA.

Earlier this year, Newark released a Final Environmental Impact Report on a proposed residential development within a section of the PDA. Curiously, if built, the housing would be 244 detached single-family residential units arranged in a street pattern that looks like it would generate more automobile trips, not curb them.

One other thing that stands out about the Dumbarton PDA is that it does not fit within the definition of a PDAs as envisioned by Plan Bay Area, That guiding document described PDAs as “transit-oriented, infill development opportunities areas within existing communities.” Besides the lack of transit, the Newark PDA is not “infill development” and there is no existing nearby community.

Newark’s Dumbarton PDA has enough troublesome issues that perhaps the best thing would be to cancel plans to develop the area altogether and follow the advice of the Fish and Wildlife Service by putting the housing and transit in another place. Regional grant funds would be better spent on other Bay Area PDAs, rather than on the inauspicious Dumbarton Rail Station PDA.

Want more? Follow @abetterbayarea on Twitter for the latest on sustainable communities in the Bay Area.

— Matt Williams, chair, Transportation and Compact Growth Committee

Feds prevail on taking street in Alameda — Fight to expand park at Crab Cove continues in the courts

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

McKay Avenue, the street leading to the popular Crab Cove Visitors’ Center at Alameda’s Crown Memorial State Beach, used to house a roller coaster before it became a street.  It is living up to its legacy.  In recent years the battle over the street, and what will become of the surplus federal property at the end of it, has had its ups, downs, twists and turns.

The roller coaster ride began when the federal General Services Administration (GSA) held a public auction to obtain the highest price for the vacant surplus land at the end of McKay Avenue. Next the city zoned the parcel residential, which led to a lawsuit against the city by the East Bay Regional Park District. A citizens’ initiative then rezoned the parcel as open space, and the park district dropped its suit.

GSA meanwhile used eminent domain to seize the street from the state to gain utility access rights for its surplus property. The state and the park district cried foul and tried to reverse the taking in federal court.

The Sierra Club supported the successful citizens’ initiative and has voiced its opposition to the eminent domain action by lobbying federal officials for assistance.

In order to take the state-owned street, which is owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, GSA had to prove that the taking qualifies as a “public use.” Gaining unfettered access to the utilities under the street would allow GSA to transfer that access to a nongovernmental entity in a possible future real estate sale.

The state Attorney General and the East Bay Regional Park District argue, among other things, that GSA should not be permitted to take property when no plan exists that lets the courts measure if the taking is related to a public purpose.

The district court judge suggested, and the parties agreed, to have him summarily decide the matter so that a panel of judges at the federal court of appeals could review it. The facts of this case are unprecedented.
On June 12, the judge issued his ruling, saying GSA has the right to take the street.

Making the federal land adjacent to McKay Avenue more valuable for sale serves a public purpose, according to District Court Judge William Alsup. “GSA’s authority to dispose of surplus property includes condemnation of property necessary or proper to secure marketable title in the property to be disposed,” he wrote. GSA has the right to “clear up the problem of access” before it seeks a buyer, his order said.

Upon learning at a court hearing that it would take a vote of the people to overturn the open space zoning, Judge Alsup inquired whether the entire issue was a “moot exercise.” He said it was the state’s best argument and noted that open-space zoning reduces the likelihood that a developer would ever want to purchase the property. He nonetheless ruled that GSA “is entitled to clear up this thicket of problems one at a time.”

Court documents, however, reveal that the taking of the street may be more than just a hypothetical exercise. While the taking was premised on the “continuing operation” of the remainder of the federal buildings located on McKay Avenue, the future of those buildings, and the lots on which they sit, is uncertain.

The current lessee on the remaining three acres of federal property along McKay Avenue — the U.S. Department of Agriculture — plans to move out of its offices in 2016 to property it owns in Albany. GSA has spent about $3 million to consolidate and upgrade the McKay Avenue offices and does not know if all the federal property on McKay will be sold, court documents show.

The East Bay Regional Park District has repeatedly expressed interest in buying the vacant surplus property to expand the park at Crab Cove. It is unclear when, if ever, GSA will sell the open space parcel to the park district.

“We are disappointed that the United States [GSA] continues to prosecute this action in spite of the desire of the citizens of Alameda that this property be dedicated as parklands,” said Robert E. Doyle, the park district’s general manager. “We believe the taking of public parklands for private development is bad public policy.” The board of directors “is evaluating the court’s ruling,” said Doyle.

Hang tight. The roller coaster ride isn’t over. The state Attorney General and the regional park district have 60 days to file an appeal.

The issue of fair compensation for the taking of the street is scheduled to go to trial in the fall of this year. GSA has previously said McKay Avenue was worth $1.

— Irene Dieter

Update on efforts to limit parking and congestion in popular Muir Woods

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

On June 30, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Park Service to deal with parking and congestion problems at Muir Woods National Monument. The MOU provides that the County will limit parking along Muir Woods Road adjacent to the Monument to 80 spaces by June 1, 2016. The Park Service will implement a reservation system to limit visitors to the Park within two years, partner with Marin Public Transit to increase public transit to the Park, and provide additional parking enforcement. In addition, there will be interim storm-water-management measures to reduce potential impacts from roadside parking along Redwood Creek, which contains endangered salmonids.

The Sierra Club has expressed support for both the reduced parking and reservation system. It has also urged that a “carrying capacity” study should be undertaken for the Monument.

The Muir Woods MOU was drafted by the National Park Service and County Supervisors, along with a stakeholders group chaired by Congressman Jared Huffman. The County approved a categorical exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for its parking project. The National Park Service will still be subject to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.

On June 26, the Mount Tam Task Force (MTTF) sent Marin County a “notice of intent to sue” letter for violating the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to protect local coho and steelhead populations.  MTTF asks that mitigation be brought in line with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife recovery guidelines.

Muir Woods issues are being closely watched by the San Francisco Bay Chapter Federal Parks Committee. For further information on the Committee, contact Alan Carlton, Chair, at

— Alan Carlton

Member responses on Air District refinery emission regulations

We asked Sierra Club members to share their thoughts on the pressing issue of the regulation of refinery emissions at the local level by responding to the following prompt:

What would you tell Bay Area air regulators about why putting a cap on pollution coming from refineries is vital both for protecting our climate and maintaining the well-being of our communities?

Here are some of your replies:

Amy Robinson, member since 2012

“As a science educator for the West Contra Costa district for the last two years I have noticed a much larger group of my students suffer from respiratory difficulties than in other places I have taught. My students live in the shadow of the refinery and I smell fumes from the refinery as I drive to work… the large number of students with respiratory problems is not a coincidence.”

Mary Ellen (Mel) Harte, Ph. D., member since 1975

“Capping local refinery greenhouse gas emissions improves air quality, community health, shows how communities can address climate change effectively, and translates into economic boosts. Better air, health, climate and economy: 4 wins for the Bay Area!”

Sylvia Augustiniok, member since 1997

“I do not want to end up moaning ‘I can’t breathe.’”

Maureen Lahiff, member since 1985

“As a lecturer in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, I have seen an overwhelming amount of data about the adverse health effects for both young and old from power plant emissions.”

Thomas Tereszkiewicz, member since 1994

“Bottom line is that they need to continue refining oil but need to do it as cleanly as possible for the health of all of us.”

— Reader responses compiled by Aya Kusch

Will the Air District fulfill its mandate and regulate greenhouse gas emissions?

11023439_10152704280007723_3911258114042743777_nLast October, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) adopted a resolution that seeks to “further protect Bay Area communities by committing the agency to develop a strategy to achieve further emission reductions from oil refineries.” While this resolution was certainly a step in the right direction, the Sierra Club, along with other environmental activists and community allies, have been working hard to ensure that the BAAQMD Board of Directors implements effective, meaningful rules to achieve the goals of this resolution.

Me TemplateBAAQMD is the regional government agency that regulates sources of air pollution within the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties. It is governed by a Board of Directors composed of 22 elected officials from each of those nine Bay Area counties. The Board is tasked with the duty of adopting air pollution regulations for the district. Their overarching mission statement is “to protect and improve public health, air quality and the global climate”; their vision is “a healthy breathing environment for every Bay Area resident.” BAAQMD has the authority to regulate emissions from stationary sources within the district, including industrial plants and oil refineries.

Having committed itself to real change with its October resolution, BAAQMD has an opportunity to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases (including methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide) that the five Bay Area oil refineries currently emit. While emissions of greenhouse gases have steadily gone down at the state level, greenhouse gas levels in the Bay Area continue to rise, in no small part due to our local refineries. However, the BAAQMD rules as drafted currently only address the emissions of the six commonly found “criteria” pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. Although both the BAAQMD Board of Directors and the staff have acknowledged they have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from refineries, the proposed rules nevertheless fail to address them.

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet and causing global climate disruption. By failing to address greenhouse gases in its proposed emissions regulations, BAAQMD is condemning the Bay Area to longer and more severe droughts and wildfire seasons, sea-level rise that displaces shoreline communities and ecosystems, and greater respiratory health risks for sensitive populations. BAAQMD has a duty to adopt air quality regulations that protect public health and the global climate — but so far it’s falling far short of fulfilling that responsibility.

Not surprisingly, a big part of the reason greenhouse gas emissions have been omitted from these rules stems from fierce lobbying by the oil industry. The fossil fuel industry takes the stance that greenhouse gases should be exclusively regulated at the state level — not the local level. The problem with relying exclusively on state regulation of greenhouse gases is a result of the cap-and-trade program established in California by AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Stated simply, without stricter local rules on greenhouse gas emissions, Bay Area oil refineries will be allowed to pollute a limitless amount of greenhouse gases, because they are able to pay other firms in different parts of the state to cut back on their emissions. As a result, AB 32’s cap-and-trade program does nothing to alleviate the ever-increasing amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area.

In order for its October 2014 resolution to have real meaning, BAAQMD needs to step up and set numerical limits on greenhouse gas emissions for refineries. BAAQMD’s Southern California counterpart, SCAQMD, has already adopted similar rules that have proven effective at reducing greenhouse gas pollution in industrial communities.


BAAQMD’s next board meeting will be on Wednesday, July 29th, at 9 am at 939 Ellis Street in San Francisco. We encourage you to voice your opinion by making a public comment at that meeting. RSVP here. Please check the event page before the event to make sure there have been no changes to the schedule. With questions or to volunteer, email

— Hilliary Powell