RICHMOND — A coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club is suing the city of Richmond over its approval of a controversial housing project that would put about 1,450 homes and more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space on the Point Molate peninsula, the site of a former military base.

The plaintiffs, which include groups like the Golden Gate Audubon Society, California Native Plant Society, Ocean Awareness Project and a coalition of people opposed to the project, the Point Molate Alliance, say the city’s environmental impact report failed to properly address the project’s impacts on the environment and that it did not sufficiently evaluate alternatives to the development or respond to comments from the public.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in superior court in Contra Costa County, goes on to say that the project as proposed by Winehaven Legacy, LLC and approved by the City Council is inconsistent with the city’s general plan, rendering it “invalid.”

“The project’s Environmental Impact Report was completely inadequate, ignoring significant impacts to rare ecosystems and failing to respond to serious concerns raised by many members of the Richmond community and responsible agencies,” said Norman La Force, an attorney representing the petitioners in this case and a member of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter Executive Committee, in a written statement.

Mayor Tom Butt said he was not surprised at the news of the lawsuit, and he’s confident that the city staff and contractors tasked with developing the impact report and analyzing the project were “highly competent.”

“I believe we did everything right,” he said. “All of these issues have been examined, argued, picked over, fought about for 20 years.”

The proposal approved last month by a majority of the council calls for reserving about 70 percent of the Point Molate site — 193 acres — for public parks and open space. But along with housing and commercial space, the plan includes building a fire and police station and rehabilitating existing historical buildings into a “live-work” village.

The plaintiffs argue that residents and opponents of the project were not given sufficient time or in some cases, advanced notice, to comment at various meetings and hearings about the project. They contend that the city also did not properly consider the impacts of climate change and the threat of wildfire to the area.

Butt said that the council and city officials discussed the threat of wildfire and were assured by experts that the risk would not be as high as opponents of the project say.

A letter from East Bay Regional Parks District Manager Robert Doyle that was submitted to the city in September has echoed concerns by the environmental groups. In it, Doyle rejects previous requests that the park district potentially manage the hillside open space at Point Molate, citing the risk posed by having homes in the area.

“It is our opinion that the design of Suncal’s development areas between the Shoreline and the slope of Ridgeline poses an extreme fire danger which cannot be mitigated by having a fire station nearby,” Doyle writes.

It’s one of many concerns brought by residents and activists who say the project’s environmental impact report disregards impacts that could be significant, such as losing eelgrass beds from any ferry service or water taxi, as well as pollution from the construction run-off. Two rare ecosystems — coastal prairie and northern coastal bluff scrub — that exist at Point Molate could be significantly damaged, some environmentalists say.

They have also expressed concern about the future development over sites sacred to indigenous people. Courtney Cummings, a Richmond spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan (commonly known as the Ohlone people) on Point Molate issues, said it is “heartbreaking” to desecrate the remains of people buried at the site centuries ago.

“To have their burial sites be turned into a housing project or a parking lot or sewage treatment facility shows the ultimate disrespect to indigenous Americans, the First People of this land,” Cummings said.

The plaintiffs and their allies in opposing the project had suggested an alternative: building some commercial space, including a hotel, to promote jobs at Point Molate while keeping most of it open as accessible land and moving housing to downtown.

They have also criticized the project as one of luxury — the agreement commits the developers to only 67 units of affordable housing at the site. While city law would require additional affordable housing based on the actual number of units and affordability levels, the developer can meet that obligation by paying in lieu fees instead of actually building affordable units.

Butt, in an interview Tuesday, argued that the city needs more housing of all kinds — both market rate and units that are earmarked as affordable, and that city leaders have “been actively recruiting developers in the downtown.”

Of the future of the site and the lawsuit, he said, “we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”


By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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