VA wetland study censored

The planned U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Alameda Point healthcare facility and columbarium will eliminate about 12 acres of existing wetland on the former Navy aircraft runway area.  The federal Clean Water Act requires that the VA compensate, or mitigate, for the adverse effects of their project.  But the proceedings have been cloaked in secrecy. 

“(b)5” is Exemption 5 in the Freedom of Information Act.

In February 2017, five months after submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to wetlands, the VA provided a copy of a consultant’s study on the feasibility of expanding and enhancing a different wetland on VA property.  But the document arrived with over half of the study either blacked out or stamped “Page withheld in its entirety.”

Continue reading “VA wetland study censored”

VA project adds to legacy of letdowns on airfield

A legacy of disappointment continues on the aircraft runway area at Alameda Point.  In the nearly 20 years since the Navy ended operations there, the community has lost 74 acres of open space that was once slated to become city property.  The community has also lost the possibility for a 550-acre national wildlife refuge and a state-of-the-art community hospital to be run jointly with Alameda Healthcare District to serve veterans and non-veterans. 

There is still no groundbreaking scheduled for the veterans’ clinic and columbarium.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for outpatient clinic, medical and benefits offices, and a national cemetery at Alameda Point. San Francisco in background.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for outpatient clinic, medical and benefits offices, and a national cemetery at Alameda Point. San Francisco in background.

The only recent expenditures on the 624 acres of federal property, now owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), have been to fund landscaping over an underground dump and the management of the endangered least terns that nest on 10 acres, which includes the widespread application of herbicides and vegetation removal on 300 acres of pavement at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Mitigating the loss of wetlands appears to be the only planning underway. Continue reading “VA project adds to legacy of letdowns on airfield”

Veterans clinic, columbarium stalled in Congress

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has still not received its 2016 budget allocation of $70 million to build new facilities at Alameda Point, nine months after the federal budget was signed into law on December 18, 2015. Efforts in the House and Senate to authorize getting the VA’s money released were hindered in July when Senate Republicans attached a bill to fund stopping the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus to the VA construction bill.

The Zika bill included restrictions that do not allow the use of Zika funds at Planned Parenthood clinics and a waiver on following Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines for pesticide spraying to kill mosquitoes. Senate Democrats prevented passage of the Zika/VA bill by voting against it, due to the Planned Parenthood and EPA clauses. Both parties are pointing fingers.

Alameda Point Veterans Affairs facility. Oakland Estuary in background. Columbarium will be to the left.
Alameda Point Veterans Affairs facility. Oakland Estuary in background. Columbarium will be to the left.

Continue reading “Veterans clinic, columbarium stalled in Congress”

Endangered Alameda least terns get a secure home

Alameda’s nesting colony of endangered California Least Terns has a new government landlord – and a secure home for the future.  After years of negotiations, the U.S. Navy transferred 624 acres of its former airfield at Alameda Point to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on Monday, November 3.

Least Tern chick, adult with fish, and resting adult, next to tile used for shelter, June 2014.
Least Tern chick, adult with fish, and resting adult, next to tile used for shelter, June 2014.

The transfer includes the former airstrip that was adopted by Least Terns for nesting in the 1970s and that has become the most productive breeding site in California for that species. More than 500 acres – including the area used by the terns – will be preserved as a wildlife reserve. Continue reading “Endangered Alameda least terns get a secure home”

Shoreline public access plan approved for Veterans Affairs property

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) gave its approval for the shoreline access provisions of the Veterans Affairs’ (VA) project at Alameda Point at its January 16, 2014 meeting.  The VA submitted plans that include a public road with sidewalk and bike lane leading to the western shoreline, a one-acre parking and observation area at the shoreline, restrooms, drinking fountains, long term maintenance, and a shoreline easement for the city to construct the Bay Trail.  The VA’s plan reflects collaboration with BCDC staff and the City of Alameda. 

Some of the BCDC commissioners were concerned about the size of the undeveloped buffer area for the California Least Terns that nest on the former airfield, and the lack of public access on the proposed Bay Trail from April 1 to mid-August while the terns are present.  Other commissioners were concerned that the VA and the Army Corps of Engineers had not finalized a plan to mitigate wetlands that the VA project will cover up. 

Part of the 511 acres that will be owned by the VA and remain undeveloped.  Current restrictions call for prohibiting Bay Trail access to this area from April 1 to mid-August because of potential threats to least terns that nest about a half-mile to the east.
Part of the 511 acres that will be owned by the VA and remain undeveloped. Current restrictions call for prohibiting Bay Trail access to this area from April 1 to mid-August because of potential threats to least terns that nest about a half-mile to the east.

The following excerpts from the 18,000-word meeting minutes for this agenda item offer insight into the long and sometimes contentious effort to construct a VA outpatient clinic, offices, and a new national cemetery at Alameda Point.

West Beach Wetland area  (partially shown in photo above) is on the lower left portion of this map.
West Beach Wetland area (partially shown in photo above) is on the lower left portion of this map. Click on map to enlarge.

Commissioner Geoffrey Gibbs enquired, “I would like to know from the city of Alameda how these plans are consistent with the city’s hope for a mixed-use development on or near the site.”  Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott responded,  “We’ve been working with the VA for several years and they are consistent with our plans,” Ott said, “and the city has planned over 150 acres of additional park space, passive, open space that by building that road will actually help us bring down the cost of our development of that space to the north.  It is a huge help to us to be able to implement additional significant regional open space facilities.”

Commissioner Jim McGrath questioned the VA about the need to prohibit access to the shoreline during the Least Tern breeding season from April 1 to mid-August.  McGrath said, “I’m excited that something has been found to work in the long term to manage and preserve the wildlife area.  I would love to see it expanded.  When I began looking at the maps I said, boy, that Least Tern colony is a long way from the shoreline, over a mile.

“While I absolutely support science-based information that protects nesting areas for endangered species as warranting the highest level of protection, I don’t necessarily see the analytical gap bridged here between the potential for impact, the need for management and the need for, on a long term, restrictions of this nature.

“Some of the research that I’ve seen for the development of habitat areas within the restoration of the South Bay Salt Ponds, the research established that predation from avian species, particularly Western Gull, were the main threats to the Least Tern successful breeding.

“I know from my own experience that there has been successful breeding at fenced sites in southern California at Playa Del Rey and in Orange County; smaller sites on beaches with much less robust buffers.

“It raises in my mind the question of, would we not be better off with some active management of the Least Tern area that is science-based looking at the sources of predation, looks at the actual colony.  I don’t want to pick on this project so much as say, if under the consistency review authority which is our single shot at trying to balance wildlife protection and provision of public access, we don’t ask those questions at this stage, we may miss the opportunity to try to achieve a better balance.

“I am a little bit troubled with a mile buffer.”

Mr. Richard Crowe from the VA responded:  “We spent several years negotiating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  From our research, there is no science or an adequate buffer from a development to a colony.  There is science on adequate buffer between colony nests.  There is a paucity of research in that area.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was adamant and we’ve negotiated in good faith and they felt that that quarter mile, 1674 linear feet, was the necessary buffer for the human impacts potential on the Least Tern.

“We’ve negotiated as much as we could and in order to get a favorable biological opinion that those were the final buffers.”

Commissioner McGrath continued the dialogue:  “I understand and sympathize with your dilemma but adamancy does not constitute peer-reviewed science.  And while we don’t have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here, I guess to some degree I do think of that as the independent analytical role of the staff and the Commission.

“I have no trouble with the provisions and the burden with the VA with the exception of, that may end up being de facto management of this system on a hands-off basis when that, in fact, is not the best thing for either habitat or public access.

“I don’t know what to do with that concern.  It certainly bothers me.”

Mr. Crowe responded:  “The biological opinion is subject to negotiated modification should any other new science come up or new position by the current managers.  The development was going to be below that little bulge but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service felt that that was going to jeopardize the Least Tern and they were going to issue a jeopardy opinion, which would kill the project.  We negotiated very well and successfully with the city of Alameda to move that development up and that satisfied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and all parties agreed to that and I think that was our way forward.”

Part of the area zoned Nature Reserve by city of Alameda.  Bay Trail will pass through this area.  Least Tern nesting site is nearby to the right.  The adult terns roost near where this photo was taken, which is outside the fenced nesting area.  Pedestrians and cyclists this close to roosting terns would cause them to flush and likely be considered an unacceptable disturbance.
This photo shows part of the area on the VA property that was recently zoned Nature Reserve by the city of Alameda. The Bay Trail will pass through this area. The fenced-in 10-acre Least Tern nesting site is nearby to the right. The adult terns roost on pavement near where this photo was taken, which is outside the fenced nesting area. Pedestrians and cyclists coming this close to roosting terns would cause them to flush, which is the reason for the trail closure during the nesting season. How close is too close has yet to be scientifically determined.

Jennifer Ott added, “From the City’s perspective we would have much rather have had a year-round trail.  I can imagine the City approaching the VA at a future time, once things have settled, bringing this up again as an issue.”

Wetland Mitigation

The VA’s project will entail filling in about 11 acres of wetland.  The VA will be required to mitigate the loss of wetland, but those plans have not yet been agreed to and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Some commissioners wanted to postpone the vote to approve the VA plans until they could see the wetland plans, even though the wetlands are outside BCDC’s jurisdiction. 

Runway Wetland in foreground is the best area in which to add additional wetland as mitigation for losses in the VA developed area to the far right on the airfield.
Runway Wetland in foreground is the best area in which to add additional wetland as mitigation for losses in the VA developed area to the far right on the airfield (outside of view).

Commissioner Kathrin Sears said, “We look at the Least Tern in a different way because the birds fly.  Wetlands can become connected to the Bay and have a broader impact on areas in our jurisdiction as sea level rises.  I think there are different issues there that might make it appropriate for us to look at the wetlands.

Commission Chair R. Zachary Wasserman said, “Coming back to the issue of the wetlands that are outside of our jurisdiction, that are within the Corps’ jurisdiction; the issue being raised is, will the Least Terns – we are legitimately taking that into consideration because they’re migratory, they use the Bay, they use our jurisdiction.  The question that has been posed is for the wetland that is outside our jurisdiction, which theoretically is used by shore birds; is that sufficient then to bring it within our consideration just as the Least Tern issue is?”

The VA’s Doug Roaldson commented:  “We appreciate the [U.S. Army] Corps [of Engineers] and we have had numerous talks with you.  We are clearly interested in those wetlands.  We’ve had numerous discussions about a strategy.  We’re still evaluating that strategy.  We don’t know what’s happening and this is outside of your jurisdictional discussion right now.  What’s the VA going to do?  We’re going to take care of those wetlands.  We’re either going to move them and we’ve got two very high quality wetlands on the property and they are very easy to mitigate into.  We’ve had these discussions with the Corps.

“We’ve had a discussion, if we mitigate do we mitigate by phase or do we mitigate the entire site?”

The last comment offers insight into why the VA and Corps of Engineers have not yet agreed on a plan.  The Corps wants the entire 11 acres of wetland mitigated at the beginning of the project, even though some of those acres won’t be impacted for decades when more of the columbarium is built out.  The VA, on the other hand, wants to pay for the mitigation when the wetlands are actually filled in.

Whether the wetlands are mitigated in phases or all at once, the plan will have to be agreed upon when the VA begins their project.  BCDC’s approval contains special conditions that require Corps of Engineers approval of a wetland plan at the project’s commencement.

BCDC staff member Jaime Michaels said, “I just want to point out given the conversation we’ve been having [about wetland mitigation], there is also a condition and it’s Special Condition II.C that talks about the need for the VA to get other local, federal and state approvals before they begin their work.  That would include the Corps of Engineers’ approval.”

A motion was made and seconded to approve the VA’s project as being consistent with state law, in this case the San Francisco Bay Plan, as required under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act.  On a roll call vote, the motion passed with 13-Yes, 2-No, and 4-Abstain.

The property is slated to be transferred from the Navy to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014.

Further reading:  “Alameda Point VA Project – Final Environmental Assessment Released.”

Alameda Point western shoreline where one-acre public access site with parking will be constructed on VA property.  Looking south.
Alameda Point western shoreline where one-acre public access site with parking will be constructed on VA property. Looking south.
Shoreline public access site on VA property.  San Francisco Bay to the left.
Shoreline public access site on VA property. San Francisco Bay to the left.

Alameda Point VA Project – Final Environmental Assessment Released

VA Alameda Point aerial view toward SF

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Navy jointly issued their final Environmental Assessment on November 18, 2013 for the VA’s proposed Alameda Point outpatient clinic, offices, and columbarium cemetery.  The report found that the 112-acre project on the northern part of the former Naval Air Station airfield would cause no significant impacts to the environment.  The environmental review culminates years of debate over the project’s potential impacts on the endangered California Least Terns that nest on the nearby runway, and paves the way for the Navy to transfer 624 acres of the airfield to the VA in 2014.

Background

The VA began looking at the Alameda site in 2004 for expansion and consolidation of services from undersized and scattered facilities, which are currently leased by the VA until 2018.  More than 9,000 veterans are enrolled in clinical services in the Oakland/Alameda area, with patient visits up 50% in the last five years.  Approximately 543 veterans will be seen at the Alameda Point outpatient clinic each weekday and 70 on Saturday and Sunday.  The VA anticipates employing a staff of 250, including 26 physicians and 34 nurses.

VA Lobby, looking toward San Francisco.
VA Lobby, looking toward San Francisco.

The VA will also establish a new national cemetery at Alameda Point.  The two closest national cemeteries in San Bruno and San Francisco’s Presidio no longer accept new interments.  Currently the closest burial options for Bay Area veterans are San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella and Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon.  The new columbarium cemetery will initially be 20 acres, with the remaining 60 acres built out in increments until completion in 2116.  Approximately six services will take place Monday through Friday. 

Columbarium in foreground, clinic/office building in background.  Looking east, with Oakland Estuary on left.
Columbarium in foreground, clinic/office building in background. Looking east, with Oakland Estuary on left.

Traffic and Transportation

The VA and Navy evaluated seven intersections in Oakland and four in Alameda, as well as the Posey/Webster Tube and segments of I-880, for traffic impacts.  The report noted that two Oakland intersections and the Atlantic/Webster intersection would be performing at unacceptable levels regardless of the VA project because of other Alameda Point development.  The assessment states, “The minimal additional traffic resulting from the Proposed Action would not, cumulatively, make the already unacceptable intersections significantly worse.”  

The VA plans to operate a 24-person shuttle bus service between Alameda Point and the 12th Street Oakland City Center BART station every half hour, seven days a week.  Extending AC Transit bus line 31 to the clinic would provide additional service if the transit agency decides to add service.

Wetland Mitigation

Several acres of seasonal wetland will be impacted by the VA’s project and will need mitigation, either through on-site replacement or paying into a wetland mitigation bank.  The VA has not reached agreement yet with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a mitigation plan.  However, the VA has stated that their preference is to “enhance and expand existing conditions” at the Runway Wetland on the southeast corner of the runway area.  Plans will be finalized before issuance of any permits for the VA’s project.

Alameda Point Runway Wetland in foreground, suitable for wetland enhancement as mitigation for wetland loss on VA developed area.
Alameda Point Runway Wetland in foreground, suitable for wetland enhancement as mitigation for wetland loss on VA developed area.

Nature Reserve, Least Tern Management

Most of the VA’s runway area will remain undeveloped.  Initial plans allowed for periodic emergency preparedness training on the undeveloped area.  The new plans allow training exercises only in the VA’s developed area about every 14 months between mid-August and April 1 when the terns are gone.

The influence of years of lobbying by the Golden Gate Audubon Society and open space advocates for wildlife stewardship in the undeveloped area is reflected in the VA’s final report.  The VA states, “The remainder of the 512 acres of the Transfer Parcel will remain as a preserve for the California Least Tern or open space, with no plan for development, and will be available to wildlife for future generations.” 

The VA will construct a 2,500-square-foot Conservation Management Office (CMO) near the entrance to their property.  The CMO will provide office space for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, meeting space for educational programs and volunteers, and public restrooms.  The VA will fund the management of the Least Tern colony and the undeveloped area.

The winglike roof lines on the CMO and the main clinic/office building were inspired by the Least Tern colony and the site’s history as part of the Alameda Naval Air Station.

Conservation Management Office, with meeting room for nature education and Least Tern volunteer activities, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office.
Conservation Management Office, with meeting room for nature education and Least Tern volunteer activities, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office.

Public Access

As part of their project, the VA will construct a pedestrian/bicycle/vehicle roadway along the northern border of their property all the way to a public viewpoint on the western shoreline.  The roadway will include power, water, and sewer utilities that will be available for the city or a region-serving public park operator on the Northwest Territories to make connections to.  The city will be granted a shoreline easement for constructing the Bay Trail.  The VA will also be constructing a new north entryway to Alameda Point and laying oversized infrastructure, which the city can use, along Redline Avenue out to their site.

Raising Elevation

The VA plans to bring in over 400,000 cubic yards of clean fill material to raise the elevation of their site by as much as three feet, bringing the highest elevation to 13.5 feet above Mean Sea Level.  Plans are based on a 2009 Bay Conservation and Development Commission sea level rise prediction of 16 inches by 2050 and 55 inches by 2099.  The 18-month construction project is expected to begin by 2016 and be completed in 2017.

The VA is made up of three administrations:  Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and National Cemetery Administration.  All three will have offices at the Alameda Point VA.

The complete Environmental Assessment is on the VA website.  A 30-day final public comment period began on November 18, 2013.

Looking southeast.
Looking southeast.

VA Alameda Point landscaping #2

VA exterior

VA Alameda Point landscaping

Conservation Management Office

Phase 1 Plan VA Alameda Point

Cemetery Main Entry

Columbarium courtyard
Columbarium courtyard

Cemetery Entrance

Memorial Wall at Columbarium.
Memorial Wall at Columbarium.

VA Project Site - Alameda Point

Bird life on the Nature Reserve at Alameda Point

The Alameda City Council, on March 19, 2013, unanimously approved a resolution affirming support for a nature reserve at Alameda Point.  The resolution calls for a zoning designation of “Nature Reserve” for the runway area formerly proposed for a national wildlife refuge.

Alameda Point Proposed Zoning MapAfter an impasse was reached in negotiations between the Navy and the US Fish & Wildlife Service for creation of a national wildlife refuge in 2004, the property was offered to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The VA plans to build an outpatient clinic and columbarium on 112 acres of its land, but the remaining 511 acres of VA land will remain undeveloped.  The undeveloped area is where the endangered California Least Terns come to nest from early April to mid-August every year.  

The city’s nature reserve zoning designation will not have any mandatory impact on the VA, but rather is intended to convey the continuing value that the community places on wildlife conservation at Alameda Point.

March and April 2013 bird sightings on the Nature Reserve at Alameda Point.

Black-bellied Plover.  Summer breeding range is the north coast of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic.
Black-bellied Plover. Summer breeding range is the north coast of Alaska and the Canadian Arctic.  Seen here on the margins of seasonal wetland that the VA project will impact.
American Avocets on seasonal wetland that will be covered by VA clinic/columbarium project.  Can be replaced elsewhere on Nature Reserve.
American Avocets on seasonal wetland that will be covered by VA clinic/columbarium project. Can be replaced elsewhere on Nature Reserve.
Caspian Terns next to seasonal wetland that will be impacted by VA project.
Caspian Terns next to seasonal wetland that will be impacted by VA project.
Killdeer mating next to least tern nesting site.  Killdeer often nest inside the least tern area.  Killdeer are attracted to the Nature Reserve in abundance.
Killdeer mating next to least tern nesting site. Killdeer often nest inside the least tern area. Killdeer are attracted to the Nature Reserve in abundance.
Great Blue Heron nesting in a cypress tree in the Runway Wetland.
Great Blue Heron nesting in a cypress tree in the Runway Wetland.
Horned Lark on foraging on grassland, with mate nearby.
Horned Lark foraging on grassland, with mate nearby.
Turkey Vulture soaring over the reserve.  Turkey Vultures feed on animal carcasses, such as rabbits that have been taken by hawks.
Turkey Vulture soaring over the reserve. Turkey Vultures feed on animal carcasses, such as rabbits that have been taken by hawks.