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Save the Richmond Hills volunteer Dick Schneider visits a privately-owned trailhead near Clark Road, one of the areas protected by the initiative. Photo by Abner Hauge

Initiative to stop further development in landslide prone areas embraced by El Sobrante Valley residents

on October 6, 2016

El Sobrante Valley residents and activists hope to keep residential development out of the historically landslide-prone area with the soon-to-be-submitted Richmond Hills Initiative, which they’re currently working to put on the 2018 ballot.

The initiative’s goal, said campaign advisor and Sierra Club volunteer Dick Schneider, is to keep further housing development off of the hills “once and for all.”

The initiative is sponsored by the Sierra Club, the El Sobrante Valley Legal Defense Fund and the Canyon Park Friends of Open Space, all of which have been involved in previous efforts to stop housing developments in the area. District I Supervisor John Gioia has also endorsed the initiative.

“It’s a thoughtful plan to protect scenic ridgelines and natural habitats where intense development should not be occurring,” Gioia said. “There are plenty of locations in Richmond where more intense development should occur, like in central Richmond.”

The 430-acre area targeted by the initiative sits between Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and San Pablo Dam Road. Residents have been fighting large-scale housing developments in the area for almost three decades, said Janet Kutulas, a local resident and initiative volunteer.

The area consists of 38 parcels, with land holdings ranging in size from roughly 7 to 144 acres. One parcel is a residence that Schneider said would be grandfathered in by the initiative. A few are owned by the City of Richmond and East Bay Municipal Utility District. The rest are owned by property developers, real estate agencies and real estate holding companies. One of the largest landowners, Honrick Properties Ltd. of San Rafael, is interested in pursuing residential development in the area, according to Yazheng Song, a realtor and agent with the company.

The initiative states that it would limit development of the area to mainly agricultural, equestrian and small nonprofit use. It would also designate protected environments, such as wetlands and stream sources, some of which house endangered and protected species, such as the Pallid Manzanita.

The initiative area and surrounding neighborhoods in the El Sobrante valley have long been vulnerable to sliding mud, especially during heavy rains. Back in 1973, a California Division of Mines and Geology study found that much of El Cerrito, Richmond and El Sobrante are “underlain by relatively unstable material”—meaning the soil was unfit to build on. A 2006 assessment by Seidelman Associates, a geological surveying firm, found the soil so prone to landslides that to build on it would require stabilizing methods “seldom, if ever taken” for new houses.

Despite such findings, developers have been attempting to build in the Richmond Hills for three decades, according Kutulas. One of the most popular sites for proposals has been the 144-acre area adjacent to Clark Road.

Environmental Impact Reports submitted for a plan to build 204 houses on the Clark Road parcel in 1999 brought environmental concerns to light, and the project was scaled back. After a second EIR drew strong objections from the public in 2003, the project’s developers let the proposal expire.

Kutulas said community members have been very supportive of the initiative.

“People that are familiar with the hills and the East Bay Regional Park System and hike want to sign right away,” she said.

Schneider said that the initiative is designed to comply with Richmond’s General Plan, which calls for redevelopment of areas along transportation corridors, as opposed to new development far from highways and public transportation.

The initiative’s language also gives landowners “development credits,” an idea borrowed from the General Plan’s “transfer of development rights.” Under such a plan, the landowners could use those credits to participate in development elsewhere in the city, Schneider said.

Song said Honrick hopes to build “some houses on some parcels of the land and keep most of the land as-is.”

“They’re going to work with the communities on the plan and maybe build facilities for the community as well,” said Song. “They will protect the environment as much as they can.”

Advocates for the initiative are aiming to collect enough signatures by November 14, after which they will submit it to the City Council for placement on the 2018 ballot.

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