It’s been a long and winding road, but after fourteen years, two designs, and countless public meetings, it seems the Oakland Zoo is now able to break ground on its proposed expansion into upper Knowland Park. Last night, Oakland’s city council denied an appeal filed by Friends of Knowland Park and two partnering environmental groups against the City Planning Commission’s approval of the zoo’s amended expansion plan back in April. Barring a lawsuit, the East Bay Zoological Society, which oversees the zoo, is cleared to move forward.
City council heard from nearly fifty speakers over the course of an hour and a half last night, who chimed in on both sides of the issues. City planner Darren Ranelletti opened with a preemptive attack against what he knew would be the crux of the opponents’ argument — namely, that the significance of the changes between the original plan, outlined in 1998, and the amended plan, first introduced four years ago, demanded the completion of a environmental impact report. Ranelletti said that the existing environmental analysis is sufficient, and that the zoo’s proposed Habitat Enhancement Plan would successfully mitigate any environmental impacts of the expansion.
Next up was a lawyer representing Friends of Knowland Park, California Native Plant Society, and California Native Grasslands Association. As expected, she maintained that according to the California Environmental Quality Act, “piggybacking on a mitigated negative declaration from 1997 is unlawful,” and that an addendum is only appropriate in the case of minor technical changes with no new significant impacts. The zoo’s proposed changes between 1997 and today include replacing a diesel truck transport system with an all-electric tram, moving the location of one exhibit, replacing one exhibit with a vet hospital, and relocating and increasing the size of a new interpretive center.
Ruth Malone of Friends of Knowland Park and zoo Executive Director Joel Parrott then spoke in turn, and were both met with rousing applause from their respective backers. Finally, after all public comments had been heard, the council weighed in. Ignacio De La Fuente moved to deny the appeal, saying, “I don’t believe it’s a tough question for me.” Then Nancy Nadel briefly consulted with the city attorney’s office; Mark Wald attested that the city didn’t believe the plan had changed enough to warrant an EIR, and that denying the appeal would be legally defensible. The dominoes fell from there, with the council voting unanimously to deny the appeal and approve the zoo’s amended expansion plan.