City leads tour across airfield to SF Bay shoreline

Around 50 people took part in the first city-sponsored tour across the old naval airfield to the western shoreline of San Francisco Bay on Monday, Oct. 26.

The convoy of automobiles stopped near the future site of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clinic and at the shoreline next to a restored 30-acre wetland site. The wetlands are located within the Navy’s 100-acre cleanup site known as Site 2.  

Tour group at the western shoreline listening to Dr. Peter Russell explaining environmental cleanup work the Navy has completed at Site 2.
Tour group at the western shoreline listening to Dr. Peter Russell explaining environmental cleanup work the Navy has completed at Site 2.

While Site 2 has been known for the past 18 years as a mysterious off-limits environmental cleanup site, most of the visitors on Monday’s tour seemed more interested in the area as a scenic viewing site.

Despite the sparse showing of birds on the wetland during the visit, the group appeared awed by the vast expanse of land, water and sky that surrounded them as they stood on the embankment overlooking the wetland and the Bay.

View of the trail on embankment, with tour group and Port of Oakland in the background. Wetlands are to the right. San Francisco Bay is to the left.
View of the trail on embankment, with tour group and Port of Oakland in the background. Wetlands are to the right. San Francisco Bay is to the left.

A future leg of the San Francisco Bay Trail will eventually pass between the wetland and the shoreline, with views all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day. The state’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission requires the VA, via its shoreline authority, to grant an easement to the city for construction and operation of the trail. No date has been set for when this process will begin.

During the stop near to the future VA clinic site, Jennifer Ott, the city’s chief operating officer for Alameda Point, informed the group about the public roadway, including underground utilities, that the VA is going construct leading to the western shoreline. The roadway will provide public access and utility hook-ups for city-owned open space property along the Oakland Estuary. The group parked at the western shoreline where the future observation point and trail access parking lot will be located at the end of the road.

Tour group listening to Jennifer Ott explaining plans of the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs while stopped next to future clinic site. San Francisco skyline in the background.
Tour group listening to Jennifer Ott explaining plans of the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs while stopped next to future clinic site. San Francisco skyline in the background.

The tour was arranged at the urging of Vice-Mayor Frank Matarrese. Also in attendance was Mayor Trish Spencer.

“The VA’s future home and the wetlands restoration area at Site 2 are key features of the old airfield surrounding the least tern nesting area,” said Matarrese.  “It is absolutely important that people get a chance to see how these three assets work together in this huge tract of land.”

Another view from the stop next to the future VA clinic site. Small wetland in between runways can be seen in the background. VA is expected to enhance the wetland, which remains covered with water in the middle of the airfield despite a drought.
Another view from the stop next to the future VA clinic site. Small wetland in between runways can be seen in the background. VA is expected to enhance the wetland, which remains covered with water in the middle of the airfield despite a drought.

The Navy still retains some responsibilities at Site 2 — namely, for ensuring that the grassland vegetation on the landfill soil cover is successful.

Jennifer Ott answering questions at the western shoreline. This location is where the VA's future road will end, with a small parking lot, benches, and access to the Bay Trail.
Jennifer Ott answering questions at the western shoreline. This location is where the VA’s future road will end, with a small parking lot, benches, and access to the Bay Trail.

“Seeing the wetlands makes me want to accelerate our wetlands efforts on city property,” said Matarrese.

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.