Turning Today's Foreclosures Into Tomorrow's Wetlands 

A Berkeley nonprofit has been buying cheap foreclosed properties so it can turn them into wetlands when the sea levels rise.

It's no secret that global warming is expected to raise sea levels by at least five feet this century, leaving much of the Bay Area underwater. But even though this near-certain catastrophe is only decades away, no one has taken bold steps to prepare for it. Except, that is, for a relatively unknown environmental group that has found an unusual, and some say "ingenious," solution.

The shadowy Berkeley-based group calls itself Sustainable California Acquisition Management and it has been quietly taking advantage of two seemingly intractable problems — global warming and the foreclosure crisis — in an effort to ensure that the East Bay's coastal environment is protected in the future. The group has been buying cheap foreclosed properties throughout the East Bay in anticipation of rising sea levels. The group plans to then turn the inland properties into wetlands of the future.

When contacted for this story, members of the group were obviously frustrated that someone had uncovered their plans. "Shit. How did you find out about us?" asked the group's spokeswoman Bailey Mudd, who then pleaded with Future Watch to not write about them. "If you do, it will ruin everything. When people realize what we're doing, it'll drive up the price of land. And then speculators will outbid us for property and turn it all into beachfront resorts and condos."

Future Watch found out about the group after receiving tips from concerned neighbors who wanted to know who was snatching up so many foreclosed properties. A search of county property records revealed that it was Sustainable California Acquisition Management. The group has purchased at least four dozen foreclosures throughout the East Bay during the past two years. The newspaper then fed the addresses of the properties into mapping software and discovered that they extended from Richmond to Fremont in areas that could be expected to be future coastline once the sea levels rise. In Emeryville, for example, the group purchased foreclosures upland from the Amtrak station, apparently because property west of the station likely will be underwater in the coming decades.

It's not clear exactly how the group determined which specific properties to target. The group refused to divulge that information. But a map of the properties closely resembles the line of demarcation on liquefaction maps developed by earthquake experts. Liquefaction occurs when waterfront land essentially turns into soup during an earthquake. Most of the East Bay's coastline is expected to liquefy when the next Big One hits. It turns out that the environmental group is buying property uphill from the liquefaction zone, apparently assuming that most of the land inside the zone will be underwater in the next fifty to seventy years. "It's actually an ingenious idea," said Craig Rolle of the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park. "The areas of expected extreme liquefaction likely will be covered in water by 2079."

But the Berkeley group's actions have sparked resentment among property owners closer to today's waterfront. For example, owners of the Bay Street Emeryville shopping center are worried that the environmental group is driving down the value of their investment at a time when property values are already plummeting. "I know that they're trying to protect the future health of the bay and all, but once people realize that our property is going to be two feet underwater, it'll destroy our equity," said Bay Street spokesman Taylor Barnes.

On the other hand, the Berkeley group's buying spree may have a positive effect on the Bay Area housing crisis. When developers and speculators figure out what the group has been up to, they could create a frenzy for future coastline property, thereby significantly alleviating the area housing slump. In fact, Dallas-based condo-building giant General Real Estate Enterprise Development is already getting in on the act. Property records show that it has been gobbling up foreclosures on the west side of the bay, from San Francisco to Mountain View. "We know it may look like a gamble now," said spokesman Arnold Barrow. "But we're confident it will pay off someday."

At this point, the Berkeley environmental group hasn't purchased enough East Bay property to create one continuous wetland of the future. But if the current foreclosure crisis deepens, more and more cheap homes will come on the market, thereby helping the group achieve its goals. On the other hand, if a buying frenzy ensues, as the group fears, then any hope of protecting the health of the bay in the next century could be lost. This newspaper had an extensive internal discussion as to whether to publish this article. But in the end, we felt that the public's right to know was paramount.

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