The Clock is Ticking at Point Molate 

Should Richmond really build a waterfront community along the historic cul-de-sac directly adjacent to Chevron’s refinery?

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The new plan also went nowhere. And on April 12, 2018, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that no casino would be built and that the city did not have to pay damages to Levine's company, Upstream Point Molate.

But in August 2018, four private citizens; the group Citizens for East Shore Parks; and a coalition known as the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) filed a new lawsuit contending that a deal cut between the city, Upstream Point Molate, and the Guidiville Rancheria violated the Brown Act, the state's open meeting law. The suit alleged that discussions about the settlement agreement, calling for a minimum of 670 housing units to be built on the site, should have been made in open session since they involved non-government parties and resolved a land-use decision. As part of the settlement agreement, the city was required to approve a plan by April 2020 or sell the land back to Guidiville Rancheria and Upstream Point Molate LLC for $300.

On Sept. 14, 2018, Judge Rogers permitted the lawsuit to proceed, stating that she was concerned by parts of the agreement's language. "You cannot do an end run around the Brown Act by entering into settlement agreements and negotiations in order to get property variances or accommodations outside of the public process," Rogers was quoted in press coverage.

Bates and Butt vehemently disagree. "The law permits execution of contracts behind closed doors," Bates said.

Attempting to move forward to meet the original settlement's 2020 deadline, on April 23, 2019, the city council voted to sell the Point Molate acreage to Winehaven LLC, a subsidiary of Irvine-based SunCal, for $45 million, while negotiating specifics during the following six months.

SunCal's proposal was chosen from among the four presented. Other contenders included Point Molate Partners, Sanuelson Schafer, and Orton Development. Butt told the San Francisco Business Times that SunCal was selected because the company "had more experience, a better financial position, and just seemed better suited," to the project, this despite the company not presenting a complete proposal at the meeting. The council voted 5-1-1 to select SunCal, with Martinez voting "no" and Melvin Willis not present.

SunCal submitted a proposal in September 2018 that mostly depicted projects elsewhere. Local real estate agent and member of the Save Point Molate Alliance Toni Hanna called the proposed housing an anachronism. "With their proposal as described, SunCal seems to be applying a suburban Southern California subdivision template to the urban Bay Area, which is a very different market," Hanna said. She noted that a 3,000-4,000 square-foot lot is "a massive size for a townhome," and would sell for starting prices in "the low $1 millions."

"People might have been looking for this in the '70s and '80s, but now they want homes that have high walk scores, are near urban amenities and good schools," she said. Hanna said a similar development in Point Richmond, Waterline, was not selling. "Too much house for that location, which will probably be under water in a decade or so," Hanna said. "They've been trying to sell those for at least three years and have been slashing the prices."

Other major questions confronting the plan are who would pay for the huge infrastructure improvements needed, and the safety and insurability of the proposed homes due to poor vehicle access to Point Molate.

SunCal's Soyka said all project development costs would be borne solely by residents of the development. "The residents of Richmond outside of Point Molate will not be paying for the infrastructure or development of this new community," he wrote. "The developer will be funding the required onsite and offsite infrastructure improvements, and a community facilities district will be created within Point Molate to finance these costs solely from onsite property values."

However, Stello of the alliance said a report created for project opponents by the business and engineering consulting firm Hatch found that the proposed sale of public land for a "luxury housing tract" could end up costing the city $2.4 to $3.5 million a year in services and other expenses. "This would mean today's residents of Richmond, with average incomes of $55,000, would end up subsidizing thousands of new residents with incomes of over $200,000," Stello said.

Councilmember Martinez, the lone "no" vote on the April 23 SunCal proposal, agreed with that assessment. "Richmond taxpayers may not pay for the infrastructure," he said, "but they will pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure and operation of wastewater, police and fire." Meanwhile, Martinez added, the tax scheme necessary to pay for the infrastructure would make the homes so expensive that only the wealthy could afford them. "This translates to the poor paying for the wealthy to live in Richmond," he said.

The opposing sides also have differing takes on the safety of building any type of housing on the inaccessible peninsula. Central to all of these discussions is Point Molate's proximity to Chevron's Richmond refinery and tank farm. Asked to comment on the safety issue, a refinery spokesperson responded with a pro forma statement: "We respect the City's desire to develop Point Molate and understand the City's interest in economic development of the property. The Richmond Refinery will continue to work constructively with city officials and local residents, including those that live in close proximity to the Refinery, regarding issues of importance to the community."

Soyka said SunCal has been quite attentive to the safety issues posed by the property's configuration, and its proximity to Chevron. "Police and fire facilities will be constructed onsite, and the community design includes the widening of Stenmark Drive [the one road in and out of the area] to allow for increased vehicular capacity," he said. The development will add additional emergency vehicle access to the property, he said, done in cooperation with the fire department as part of the planning and approval process. Fire Department-approved safe refuge areas will be provided in conformance with city code requirements.

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