Psst! Wanna Buy a Bay Ecosystem? 

Company's plan to sell "wetland credits" to East Bay developers pits open-space advocates against federal agencies.

You can probably already predict how this story is going to play out, right? A developer buys a large parcel of bayside land along Richmond's waterfront, just south of Point Pinole Regional Shoreline. It announces plans to construct an office-and-technology park on one corner of the land and restore the rest as wetlands. Neighbors and environmentalists are certain to oppose the buildings, while welcoming any restoration and addition of open space, particularly if it means new habitat for endangered species like the California clapper rail and the salt-marsh harvest mouse.

This case, however, isn't your typical NIMBY-versus-developer scenario. The developer, Bay Area Wetlands, seems to be spending more time defending its habitat restoration plans than its 550,000-square-foot technology park. The company is caught, its principals say, between trail advocates, community activists, and the East Bay Regional Park District on one side and powerful state and federal agencies on the other.

A little history: Three years ago the company, headed by commercial developer Stan Davis and environmental consultants David Guthridge and Jeff Olberding, bought the 238-acre Breuner Marsh property, named after the Western retail-furniture dynasty that previously owned the land. At the time of the sale, says Guthridge, the property's main feature was a group of dilapidated buildings occupied by longtime squatters. Someone's horses grazed in the weeds, and a number of wrecked automobiles were scattered about. Broken concrete and other detritus had been dumped on the site over the years, and there were even rumors -- probably unfounded -- of bodies being buried somewhere on the property.

Davis and his colleagues had had been looking for development opportunities, but when Olberding saw the real estate listing, "I said to myself, there's a little more to this property than commercial development," he recalls. He suggested to the developer that the trio create a mitigation bank; Davis liked the idea.

Mitigation banks have existed since the mid-1990s, but the Breuner site would be the East Bay's first. Here's the concept: A company buys a piece of property and builds or preserves wetlands on it. In exchange, the company gets to sell wetland "credits" to other developers planning projects that will destroy wetlands or pose a threat to rare plants and animals. The Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the program, says the banks allow for the creation of large habitat areas that are much easier to monitor than dozens of individual projects would be. Bay Area Wetlands, Guthridge says, may be interested in building other mitigation banks, possibly in the South Bay, and would like to use this one as a showcase project.

Had it planned an office park to fill a large portion of the site, the company would have faced serious bureaucratic obstacles from local, state, and federal agencies, not to mention environmentalists. (The proposed construction is not technically sited on wetlands, so it doesn't fall under the same stringent regulations.) But by creating a mitigation bank, the developers hoped to be seen as environmental good guys and make a decent profit on the land to boot.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. The land isn't much different now than it was in '99, except that the old buildings have been knocked down, the squatters (and horses) evicted, and the cars towed away. Stands of native pickleweed and saltgrass intermingle with exotic grasses and brush, and chunks of broken concrete and asphalt form low hillocks that occasionally break through the surface. The eastern side of the site is bordered by a high railroad embankment, while just off shore is a series of half-rotted pilings, remnants of a forgotten pier.

Things might have gone more smoothly for the company were it not for a narrow, unpaved road down the middle of the property that leads to a small spit of land jutting out about a quarter-mile into the bay.

Although connected to the Breuner site, the spit is actually part of Point Pinole park, and it commands a beautiful vista of San Pablo Bay. The road has been sketched in as a spur of the Bay Trail, which, when completed, will form a 400-mile ring all around San Francisco Bay. City planners have also included it in the Richmond General Plan and the North Richmond Specific Plan.

But the road isn't on any of the maps Bay Area Wetlands has drawn up. The company wants to remove it in order to restore tidal flows across the property and provide more wildlife habitat. As an alternative, it proposes building a trail along the southern edge of the property, skirting the wetlands and leading to a 400-foot recreation pier the company would like to build.

Although the dirt road is not officially a public right-of-way, it's one of the few paths by which a determined neighbor could reach the bay at all. Whitney Dotson, head of the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council, points out that most of Richmond's waterfront has long been industrialized: "I grew up right across the railroad tracks. I could only look at [the shoreline], I couldn't go down there." Even Point Pinole doesn't have the broad expanse of shoreline that the Breuner property does.

Nor do Dotson and other local activists like the location of the proposed pier, which would be just over the property line from the Richmond Rod and Gun Club. The sounds of target practice -- and, in the winter, hunters popping shells at ducks out on the water -- aren't conducive to a relaxed day at the shore, they say. "Being next to a firing range isn't like being in the solitude and beauty of the spit extending out into the Bay," remarks Bruce Beyaert, who chairs the Trails for Richmond Action Committee.

"The trail alignment has been planned for a long time," Beyaert adds. The alternative pathway is much shorter, and wouldn't provide anything comparable to the views from the promontory, he says.

Guthridge and Olberding sympathize with the neighbors, but claim there's nothing they can do: To gain approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies for their mitigation bank, the road will have to go. A letter from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, filed along with the project's draft environmental impact report (EIR), notes that this trail would disrupt the hydrology of the marsh and allow predators such as red foxes, rats, and feral cats into the sensitive wildlife areas. Even worse, people and their dogs would be able to get too close to birds' nests and areas used by the harvest mice. A mitigation bank with such a trail "is unlikely to be approved by the Service," the letter continues, concluding that the company's alternative is acceptable.

Some folks have proposed replacing the road with an elevated boardwalk. Ed Wylie, the region's Army Corps section chief, says that won't work. "That just becomes a launching platform for predatory birds to scope out the marsh."

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