Two weeks ago, the Oakland City Council voted to let a Dublin developer build 477 housing units on the site of the unstable Leona Quarry. In approving this long-controversial project for the well-connected DeSilva Group, critics say the council either ignored or failed to seek the advice of three state and county agencies and even some outside experts that the city itself hired to evaluate the project.
People who live nearby say the development plans are a recipe for disaster. They worry aloud that the city is exposing itself to substantial legal risks, claiming that it is speeding along a poorly planned project that could expose future quarry residents and their downhill neighbors to floods and landslides. Supporters of the project dismiss the persistent criticism as typical not-in-my-backyard politics. But for hundreds of Oakland residents, Leona Quarry looms as an unusually large and potentially hazardous backyard. After all, they know from experience what damage a hard rain can do.
Neighbors remember when a holding pond at the quarry broke during a 1996 rainstorm, creating a four-foot-deep pond of mud and debris that covered a quarter mile of Interstate 580 and swamped passing vehicles. They imagine with horror what will happen to the new development, as well as their own homes, if the single 39-inch pipe planned to drain water from the quarry should overload, or if rain waterlogs an improperly stabilized slope, sending parts of the hillside crashing down.
The quarry, which has been mined since 1904 for the rocky material used to line roadbeds, sits smack above Interstate 580 as well as several housing tracts. But neighbors have never really been happy about the idea of building at Leona Quarry, although its location and size makes its highly desirable as a site for potential development. In 1998, when the quarry's previous owners applied to build a Home Depot there, residents put up a massive fight.
This time, critics of the development will begin collecting signatures this week for a referendum challenging the zoning change necessary to allow the development to go forward.
But city officials defend their approval process. Claudia Cappio, Oakland's deputy director of planning, says the city has listened and responded to a deluge of advice, even taking the unusual step of hiring independent evaluators to study drainage, geologic, and traffic issues. She notes that there are many additional conditions attached to the approval, including a long list of fixes that must be done to ensure the development's safety.
However, the city did approve the Leona Quarry development without the input of several key government agencies.
Under state law, before a mine can be converted to another use, the developer must file a reclamation plan explaining how it will stabilize the site, and the DeSilva Group has not yet submitted one to the state's Mining and Geology Board. Department of Conservation spokesman Mark Oldfield says it's unusual for a city to permit a project before a reclamation plan has been approved, and that the Leona Quarry site needs a considerable amount of rehabilitation before it can be approved for housing construction. "They're going to have to address the slope stability by benching or grading back the slope, doing something engineering-wise to stop that slope from sliding in the event of too much rain or a seismic event," he says.
The developer also must prove to the state that all housing will be built at least fifty feet back from any part of the Hayward Fault that runs near the quarry, Oldfield says. Oakland's dominant fault line runs through the Oakland Hills near the quarry and may extend tendrils beneath the quarry itself.
Oldfield points out that the state has the authority to shut down the entire development if its rules are not followed. "We will tell them what those standards are," he says of the developers, "and if they can't meet them they won't be allowed to move forward with the project."
City officials say their decision was just a matter of expediency, not an attempt to skirt scrutiny. When dealing with large projects, Cappio says, a city may approve the development even though certain permits must be obtained later. "It provides the developer certainty that they have an approved plan and there is a framework for those further permits to be reviewed within," says Cappio. "We are fully aware that this reclamation plan needs to be completed."
But neighbors are worried by this turn of events. They're afraid that, without a state-approved plan in place, Oakland has approved a project with some very basic safety flaws. "It hasn't been scrutinized enough by people who would look at it from our interests, and not the developer's interests," says neighborhood activist Sparky Carranza.
Another persistent worry for neighbors is how well the development will stand up to heavy rains. County standards require that any new development not generate more runoff than previously existed at the site. Everyone concedes that a detention pond is needed to store the excess water at Leona Quarry, although no one agrees on how big it should be. DeSilva's original proposal called for a basin that could hold 12.6 acre-feet of water. Last July, the Alameda County Flood Control District warned the city about the inadequacy of that proposal, and suggested a basin with total capacity of 50 acre-feet. County officials subsequently conceded that their estimate was excessive, and the city also noted that the county itself has no jurisdiction over development on the site.
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