Tuesday, February 15, 2011

City in a Salt Pond

Future Salt Pond Residents Left Holding the (Sand) Bag

As an attorney who has defended Redwood Shores homeowners and who has represented homeowner associations battling over responsibility for flood protection and the resulting damages when that protection fails, I have watched Cargill’s proposed new city-in-a-salt-pond moving forward in Redwood City’s approval process with growing alarm.

Proponents of this development contend that it will be good for the economy, touting the potential shopping and new restaurants from Burlingame to Palo Alto. But from my experience, future salt pond residents will instead be left with massive, unrecoverable costs. This is particularly true given Cargill’s plan to build a levee that will not only have to be maintained, but raised significantly even to meet their optimistic estimate of sea level rise. All of this at homeowners’ expense after Cargill has taken its profits and left town.

It is peculiar that the developer’s recent economic study omits even the obvious costs to all Redwood City taxpayers – for fire and police, streets and parks, etc. But preventing flooding is in another ballpark altogether. The San Jose Mercury News recently reported: “From Antioch to North Richmond to Redwood City, a slowly rising Bay could endanger the properties of as many as 270,000 Bay Area residents and cause some $56.5 billion in damage by the end of the century unless measures are taken to protect them, scientists warn.”

Flooding around San Francisco Bay has happened many times, and the riskiest areas are locations where the bay margin was filled to create housing and commercial developments. San Mateo County already is the top county in the entire state for numbers of people and the amount of existing infrastructure threatened by sea level rise.

But what is different today from developments built three or more decades ago is that many are built as community associations which are given responsibility for the expensive engineered facilities. Levees, berms, pumps, riprap, and retaining walls will have to be maintained and repaired by the homeowners in those associations and not by the cities and counties benefiting from all of the new property taxes.

Developers avoid long-term responsibility and deflect opposition from existing cities with the claim that the huge tax burden for this expensive new infrastructure will not fall on them. Unsurprisingly, among Cargill’s many “commitments” is this one: “Presenting a plan … with NO new costs to Redwood City taxpayers.” Property owners within these new developments are obviously on their own.

Maintenance and repair obligations start immediately, and as Cargill’s own engineers have pointed out, the facilities may eventually prove inadequate to forestall the inevitable rise in sea level. Cargill’s levee plan is explicit in leaving homeowners on the hook for a lot more expense. Eventually, the costs to these new Redwood City residents will be enormous. The costs of inaction are even worse. Failure of  private associations to keep pace with the growing cost of maintaining landscaping or chuckholes in the parking lot is one thing – but imagine the consequences of neglecting  critical levees and retaining walls essential to keeping the waters of San Francisco Bay from flooding thousands of homes, mobile home parks and Highway 101.

This same issue is present in the plans to develop Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. According to one article:

The development team ...has proposed geotechnical fixes to firm up the island. More than a million cubic yards of fill would be crushed into the ground. The height of the island and a berm ringing the outer edge would be raised to guard against a rise in sea level. The infrastructure improvements would cost $1.5 billion, two-thirds of which would be paid for by the developers and by taxing the future residents. The final third was to be paid for with redevelopment money, but Gov. Jerry Brown intends to cut that. Now, that part would be paid for through infrastructure financing districts, a less powerful financing mechanism used to capture property taxes for street improvement and other projects.

Obviously the intent is for the future residents to bear 100% of the cost of maintaining the infrastructure.
There is lots of land in the Bay Area available for the necessary higher-density infill, away from the shoreline on ground not threatened by tides and sea level. And the eventual owners would not inherit the potential for both fiscal and physical disaster.

Anyone concerned with the Cargill salt pond development proposal should ask the city one simple question: “Who will be responsible for keeping these massive flood control improvements working in the years to come?” Don't be surprised at the answer.

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