The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is aiming for the delivery of a new dock for harbor seals at Alameda Point as early as April, ahead of the start of construction of its new ferry maintenance facility this summer.
Because the maintenance facility’s new berthing dock would displace the seals’ current resting spot, a provision was approved for a new harbor seal dock as a condition for permitting the new facility. WETA, the city council, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) approved the provision at the urging of community activists.
WETA issued design specifications for its 12-berth maintenance facility and administrative offices to prospective contractors in December. It expects to award the contract on March 31, with work commencing as soon as May 6. The estimated cost is pegged at $45 million, $9 million of which is for design work and the remaining $36 million going for construction, according to Chad Mason, senior planner at WETA. Funding for the project is coming from federal, state, and regional funds.
The facility will include a 70-foot-tall four-story building and is expected to be complete in 2018.
The project will also fund other benefits, among them, a new water line from Main Street, park enhancements, and sand for the least tern nesting area on the airfield.
WETA will construct a shoreline viewing terrace, bicycle parking, interpretive signage, improved lighting and landscaping, and seating on an adjacent half-acre of parkland on West Hornet Avenue.
WETA will also be providing some assistance for the California least terns, an endangered bird species that nests at Alameda Point and dives for fish in surrounding waters. As a mitigation for the impacts of the new ferry traffic on the terns’ foraging waters, WETA will be delivering enough truckloads of sand to the terns’ nesting area on the airfield in February to add a few inches of depth. Erosion of the 9.6-acre beach-like nesting landscape necessitates periodic replenishment.
The replacement harbor seal dock, also referred to as a haul-out, will be the first time such a structure has been built on San Francisco Bay specifically to retain or attract harbor seals. It will be located a short distance to the east of the old dock. Time will tell whether this experimental effort is successful.
“Meeting the permitting requirements for the new harbor seal haul-out is underway,” said Mason. BCDC is the state permitting agency for all Bay shoreline and in-water projects. It requires assurances from other agencies that the harbor seal dock does not introduce any unwanted environmental impacts before granting approval.
“With the help of the environmental consulting firm Dudek, the harbor seal haul-out is on a fast-track approval timeline,” said Mason. “The only regulatory delay is due to the herring spawning season. Regulations require that the pilings for the new haul-out be installed after the end of the herring spawning season in late March of 2016.”
“We are currently reviewing two options for providing the new harbor seal haul-out: Build a new one from scratch, or modify an existing mobile dock if we can find one that meets our needs,” said Mason. “We hope to issue the contract for the haul-out in January.” WETA will be responsible for constructing, maintaining and replacing the harbor seal dock when necessary for the 60-year term of its lease.
WETA has been working with a citizen advisory group of local harbor seal advocates who spearheaded the effort for the new haul-out. The group gained the support of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. The location for the new seal dock was chosen with the help of marine mammal expert Dr. Jim Harvey, Director of California State Universities’ Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.
This winter, the seals favor the afternoon for getting out of the water. Their numbers can vary from a dozen to a recent high of over three dozen. It is the only haul-out site in the East Bay between Yerba Buena Island and the marshlands of Fremont and Newark near the Dumbarton Bridge, both of which require watercraft for public viewing access. The seals at Alameda Point can be viewed from the Bay Trail.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.