Development projects in California are not simple feats. In some cases, it can take years before ground on a project is even broken. Jay Reed knows this all too well. He’s the director of communications and strategic planning for DMB Associates, a developer that specializes in message development and information dissemination for mixed-use projects.
Currently, Reed is working on the Redwood City Saltworks project, a joint venture between Cargill, the largest privately held corporation in the United States, and DMB. The Saltworks project would develop a 1,400-plus acre parcel of land, owned by Cargill, which borders the San Francisco Bay in Redwood City.
“Development projects in California are tough,” Reed explained. “Development projects in Northern California are even tougher, projects in the Bay Area are even tougher, and projects that touch the Bay are really, really tough.”
Many attribute this to Californians’ environmental awareness, and in particular, Bay Area residents’ awareness.
“You have to win the hearts and minds of people,” Reed said. This includes clarifying information, answering questions, taking residents on tours of the proposed development site, as well as advertising and media and government relations, including the sponsorship of local youth sports teams, and participation in important community events.
Josh Sonnenfeld, who is a campaign manager at Save the Bay (the oldest regional organization working to restore the bay, with thousands of members in Redwood City), asserted that that DMB is “the latest of a long string of very deep pocketed companies that have come into the Bay Area and run away with their billions of dollars. They want to treat the bay like real estate instead of the treasure that it is.”
However, Cargill has legally owned the land since 1979, and operates it as an industrial salt producing facility. Nevertheless, the company still needs to get approval from Redwood City to develop the property.
One of the reasons that developments in California are measurably more difficult to get approved than those in other places is the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, said David Smith, a vice president at DMB. He is a lawyer who specializes in the federal natural-resource laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act.
“I am not opposed to CEQA, but it is misused and abused far too often,” Smith said. Before a city council can vote, a project has to go through an environmental review process, which identifies all the project’s potential environmental effects and explains how they will be mitigated. The Saltworks project is now in this stage.
Although other states do have laws similar to CEQA, Smith maintains that none are quite as demanding as California’s. “I think it has to do with the natural attributes of the state,” Smith said. “There’s some of highest valued real estate in the country, with some of the most eco-rich biodiversity in the nation.”
This could explain why communities, landowners, and environmentalists all have such strong and often-differing opinions on how to utilize land. However, the ways in which each side attempts to achieve their desired results are actually quite similar.
For example, Save the Bay is involved in many of the same activities as DMB, including advocating for their side, working to get community members to attend city council and planning commission meetings, educating the community about how the Saltworks project could affect residents’ quality of life, and making sure Redwood City leaders know what the organization’s concerns are.
Developers and environmentalists alike are engaging in grassroots activities within the local community; the only differences are their bottom lines. In fact, these methods have worked in the past for both DMB and Save the Bay.
In the 1980s, Save the Bay and Friends of Redwood City fought Mobil, the multinational oil company, over Bair Island, a 3000-acre site owned by Mobil on which they proposed to build 20,000 homes, Sonnenfeld said.
In 1984, Redwood City took the development proposal to the ballot box “and beat it by 42 votes,” he recalled. Today Bair Island is part of Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.
Meanwhile, DMB also has a track record of success by marrying their development projects with conservation.
Tejon Ranch, which at 270,000 acres is the largest continuous expanse of private land in the state of California, partnered with DMB in 2006 to develop a 28,000-acre parcel as a mountain resort community. DMB’s plans call for a destination resort and the preservation of 21,335 of the 28,000 acres as natural habitats, trails, and open space.
“The development on the remainder will produce revenues in perpetuity that will go to a conservancy that can be used to buy additional land for habitat restoration,” Smith said.
In December 2009, the Kern County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved DMB’s proposal for the Tejon Mountain Village project, and work is now underway.
The contentious issue of not only the Saltworks project, but also the development of land in California in general, can be summed up as trying to resolve conflicting environmental interests. One side wants to have the site restored as bay wetlands, and the other side wants to build a smart growth community in an area with far more jobs than housing.
In the end, though, it will almost certainly be up to the voters to decide who has made the more convincing case for the Saltworks Project. Redwood City residents have already voted down one ballot initiative that could have put many of the decisions regarding the project directly in the hands of voters rather than the city council. That could have caused big problems for Cargill and DMB.
The initiative was a joint effort of three local environmental groups, including Save the Bay.
“It didn’t get us the yes we need” to break ground, Smith said. “But they were unsuccessful in getting a no.” Despite the back and forth inherent in contentions developments like the Saltworks, in the end it will be voters who decide the project’s ultimate fate.
Correction: Bair Island was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.