The environmental group that sued to stop the development of a casino at Point Molate is looking to settle. But the deal may be dead in the water if other environmental organizations don’t drop their opposition, the plaintiff admitted to Richmond Confidential.
“There will probably be some consequences if the project doesn’t go forward,” said Bob Cheasty, the president of Citizens for East Shore Parks, which filed the lawsuit. The group is a coalition of local environmental organizations, any one of which could still try to derail the project even if a settlement is reached.
Citizens for East Shore Parks filed its first lawsuit against the City of Richmond in May 2005, less than one year after the city signed a deal that would turn over the nearly 400-acre property on the shores of the San Francisco Bay to developer Upstream Point Molate for $50 million. The lawsuit argued that the city should have completed a full environmental review before it signed the land disposition agreement with the developer. The city said that such a review was unnecessary, but in Jan. 2006 it agreed to a settlement that required an environmental impact statement be conducted under the California Environmental Quality Act before the city could approve the project.
But when the city made an additional agreement in 2008 that put the developer in charge of cleaning up hazardous materials on the former Navy fuel depot, Citizens for East Shore Parks struck back with another lawsuit. The suit, filed in January of this year, sought to invalidate this new agreement claiming it broke the terms of the original settlement. The suit argues that the proposed casino would violate the city’s general plan and state law.
Any waterfront property a city owns can be sold only to the state for the purposes of creating a public park under California Government Code 37351. The law does allow a city to sell shorefront land if the property can’t be used for a beach or public park, but the lawsuit claims the city did not determine Point Molate couldn’t be transformed into a park before the council agreed to sell it to Upstream.
When Citizens for East Shore Parks started talking to the Guidiville Band it discovered the tribe was willing to work with the group to resolve its concerns, said Cheasty.
“The Guidivilles turned out to have a commitment on their own to environmental stewardship,” said Cheasty. “They found our agenda and our interests to be something that they were very comfortable with.”
Cheasty would not disclose the terms of the tentative settlement, citing confidentiality agreements, but he did say that the talks are continuing.
“We’ve asked for what would be considered extraordinary mitigations,” said Cheasty. “We want to see an open shoreline from Crocket to San Jose, a pearl necklace of parks around the Bay.”
The city council is scheduled to meet Tuesday behind closed doors to discuss a possible settlement. Council member Jeff Ritterman told Richmond Confidential that Upstream intends to settle the suit by giving Citizens for East Shore Parks money to buy the North Richmond shoreline for an open space preserve.
While it appears that Citizens for East Shore Parks may be headed for a settlement, a spokeswoman for one of its member organizations said her group isn’t ready to throw in the towel.
“Of course we don’t agree with them, … lining up to get money from this casino project is taking a huge gamble,” said Laura Baker, the conservation committee chair for the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. “There are many unknowns, there are a lot of moving parts to this deal that may or may not work. … There’s all kinds of ways this deal could go south,”
Baker said while she hasn’t been privy to the terms of the proposed settlement, she believes the agreement would involve a cash payout and the creation of a new board — with members from both the tribe and the environmental organization — that would decide how the money is spent.
“What has been lost in all of this is a real understanding of the unique value of Point Molate,” she said. “It has plants that are found no place else. It’s unique in terms of its climate (because) it sits in the rain shadow of Mount Tamalpais. This is an area that’s a treasure. It’s the crown jewel of the Richmond shoreline.”
Baker said she isn’t completely opposed to developing Point Molate, but that the scale of the casino proposal is environmentally unsound.
She said the developer’s plan to ferry gamblers between the casino and San Francisco could damage a delicate ecosystem off the Point Molate shore. The largest eel grass bed in the San Francisco Bay, which serves as a nursery for fish and shellfish, could be disrupted by the boat traffic, said Baker.
Even if Citizens for East Shore Parks agrees to settle, Baker said she’s been told by the group that there is a clause in the proposed agreement that would kill the deal if any “major environmental organization” continues to oppose the project.
“What was unusual was to put that provision — what I would call a poison pill — so that it would essentially dissolve if there were opposition,” said Baker. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. … You are taking a huge huge gamble (in) that you can’t control what another organization would do.”
She said its unclear if her chapter of the California Native Plant Society would qualify as a “major environmental organization,” but the board has decided it can’t go along with the deal in order to preserve a settlement.
Cheasty wouldn’t confirm that this “poison pill” is part of the tentative agreement, but he did say that the tribes might not be willing to commit to the concessions they’ve made if this settlement doesn’t placate the environmental opposition.
“A concern that the tribes have had is that they are willing to do a certain number of things based on their hope to be able to get their project done,” said Cheasty, who indicated that some of the organizations that make up his group support the settlement.
“We’re not going to be able to stop other environmental organizations if they choose not to do this,” he said.