The City of Alameda recently disclosed that it is not going to proceed with the preparation of an environmental impact report on the Veterans Affairs (VA) outpatient and columbarium project at Alameda Point, as previously announced in February.
The City hopes to instead rely on its 2014 Alameda Point Environmental Impact Report that contemplated the VA’s storm water drains. “The City of Alameda has no jurisdiction over this project approval,” said Andrew Thomas, Assistant Community Development Director. “Since it is not approving or denying the project, it does not need to do CEQA.”
A California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) impact report is required for the City to legally issue easements for the VA to lay new storm water drains across City property leading to the Oakland Estuary.
While this will ease the burden on the City, it will leave the VA without a state-certified impact report necessary for the Regional Water Board to approve the VA’s wetland mitigation plan, or for other state agencies to issue discretionary permit approvals. The VA is now looking for another California agency to become the lead agency for the impact report, which will be a duplication of its 2013 federal report.
This may explain why the VA authorized spending another $190,000 for “Added Services for Environmental Documentation and Permitting” on September 9, 2019, according to the website GovTribe.com that tracks all federal contracts.
The VA Project will also face renewed scrutiny from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) before work begins. In January of 2014, BCDC issued its Consistency Determination, which certifies that the project is consistent with State of California policies. But the certification came with a number of special conditions. One of the conditions was that the VA start construction within three years. The approval became void in January 2017.
Another BCDC condition was that the VA have its wetland mitigation plan approved by relevant agencies before any construction permits can be issued.
The VA caused delay in the project when it initially sought to avoid doing wetland mitigation on its property at Alameda Point and instead buy credits in a wetland mitigation bank. Buying credits to offset wetland impacts is generally only allowed when no on-site opportunities for mitigation exist. Pushback from agencies and environmental groups led to the VA dropping the credit purchasing scheme.
The VA has hired H.T. Harvey & Associates Ecological Consultants to prepare an on-site mitigation plan. A detailed plan, 60 percent complete, calling for enlargement and enhancement of an existing wetland on VA property was submitted to the Water Board for review in January 2018, after the agency agreed in principle to the design. The accompanying cover letter stated, “It is anticipated that 90% submittal would occur by summer 2018.”
The Water Board has still not received the finalized plan, despite the fact that two months later, on March 6, 2018, the VA authorized spending $97,000 “to provide for wetlands permitting services,” according to GovTribe.
When VA representatives appeared before the City Council on December 18, 2018, to reassure the City and community that the facilities would be built, the VA said that wetland work was to begin in October 2019.
Congress delayed the project in 2015 after learning of massive cost overruns on VA projects. It stipulated that the VA could no longer manage any projects over $100 million and would have to turn over management to another agency. The VA turned over the $200 million Alameda Point project to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in October 2017. Ironically, on November 1, 2017, just days after turning over the project to the Corps, the VA authorized an increase in the estimated construction contract in the amount of $35 million, according to GovTribe.
As the City prepares its environmental documentation for the above-mentioned storm water easements, the VA is getting ready to prepare engineering documents. On May 5, 2019, the VA authorized spending $265,000 to “Update Storm Drain Management System Design,” and on July 9, 2019, authorized $28,500 for a “Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan.”
The VA’s “Updated Project Milestone Schedule” presented to the City Council in December 2018 lists Phase 1 projects as raising the elevation of the development site by up to five feet, along with wetland mitigation and the first phase of the columbarium cemetery that would be completed in August 2022. The outpatient clinic and conservation management office are slated for Phase 2 after the elevated site has stabilized, with opening scheduled for June 2026.