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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But project critics regards those concessions as insufficient. Hanna called the parcel "a totally inappropriate site for housing" due to the hazards posed by Chevron and other nearby industrial uses. Alliance cofounder Helvarg referred to the proposal as "subsidizing people to live in harm's way." Meanwhile, Councilmember Martinez said, "Putting a large community at Point Molate exponentially increases the chances for a major disaster."

"The road will need to be expanded to a minimum width of 26 feet to allow fire trucks to enter while traffic is exiting," Martinez said. "Traffic will be coming to and from I-580, which is congested at commuter time. And, as we saw from the NuStar/Phillips 66 fire, an accident can happen any time, especially in our earthquake zone."

Comparisons to what happened to Paradise residents during the 2018 Camp Fire are inevitable. Trapped and unable to get out on a congested, fire-engulfed road, more than 80 people died and the town was destroyed. Point Molate's Stenmark Drive, which ends in a cul-de-sac at the San Pablo Harbor, remains the only way in and out of the area. What might be described as red-flag warnings went up on Oct. 26, 2019, when eight fires sprang up in 18 hours in Contra Costa County. Martinez, along with many others, believes planning needs to take into account this new climate normal.

Facing all these issues, could homes built on Point Molate even obtain insurance? Butt said, "If they can't get insurance, they can't build them — but that's never happened." Hanna, however, provided a letter written to Richmond's Director of Planning and Building Services, Lina Velasco, by Sarmad Naqvi, a personal insurance consultant, calling the area "almost uninsurable," and noting that the Paradise fire cost the industry $12 billion.

"We now look at road access and proximity to hazardous vegetation more than ever. The proposed property will only have one road in and out. The road could easily be blocked and not allow a fire truck to access the property. Also, the refinery located within close proximity is a concern," Naqvi wrote.

For many project opponents, the region's environmental delicacy is perhaps the biggest issue of all. "This is a regional issue," Helvarg said. "Point Molate is the last unprotected public habitat on the bay."

Its shoreline hosts 180 acres of eelgrass, one of the last thriving habitats on the San Francisco Bay, and vital to the health of the whole bay. Helvarg called the eelgrass beds a "natural nursery," home to Dungeness crab, sea hares, and leopard sharks, among many other species. Eelgrass blades slow the motion of the tides, allowing sediment to settle and combating sea level rise, while their photosynthesis ability sucks in carbon. On Nov. 5, the same day as the city council meeting, a report compiled by more than 11,000 global researchers stated: "Climate change mitigation efforts should focus on protecting and restoring ecosystems such as forests, coral reefs, savannas and wetlands, which naturally absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."

Runoff from construction and residences could seriously damage the watershed and eelgrass beds, Alliance members contend. Native plants and wildlife habitat would be destroyed or heavily impacted, they said. Helvarg and Stello also pointed to the city's foot-dragging on requesting a new environmental impact report to replace the one created for the failed casino development. Soyka, however, wrote that a new environmental impact report being prepared by the city will build upon the work and analyses done in the previous report.

Yet another possible outcome was suggested in late October, when Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia sent a letter to the federal judge who will preside over a settlement conference joining together two lawsuits involving the property. Gioia threw his support behind a proposal to pay off Levine and the Guidiville Rancheria to withdraw their claims against the city. He also supported the idea of the city deeding all Point Molate property outside of the Winehaven site to the East Bay Regional Park District for ultimate use as a regional shoreline park. He noted that some funds were potentially already available through Measure WW, the Regional Open Space, Wildlife, Shoreline and Park Bonds, approved by voters in 2008 — including 75.1 percent of the voters in Richmond.

During the Richmond council's Nov. 5 meeting, approximately 20 speakers asked that body to reconsider the current plan. Comments included questions about the community-input process, which some described as being slanted by the city toward housing.

"The city will be on the hook after the next Chevron fire," said one, referring to the 2012 disaster that sent 15,000 people to the emergency room. "It's putting lipstick on a pig," said another, referring to the proposed amendments. "This settlement does not protect the city of Richmond," said former Richmond Planning Commissioner Jeff Kilbreth. Speaking for the Save Point Molate Alliance, Stello stated, "This is a perfect example of powerful interests trying to transfer public wealth to private interests."

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