Show of opposition to Cargill plans for development


A clutch of politicians, journalists, photographers and television crews congregated on a patch of dirt and scrub just inside the entrance to Bedwell Bayfront Park on a precipitation-free day Thursday, Feb. 25, partaking in the cordial if somewhat stiff ritual of the press conference.

The gathering had been organized by environmental advocacy group Save the Bay, which used the occasion to announce that it had culled signatures from 50 current and 42 former Bay Area elected officials on a letter asking Redwood City to actively oppose a mega-development planned within its borders by agribusiness giant Cargill, on salt ponds that served as the event's backdrop.

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, stood in front of three of the letter's signatories next to a channel that borders the park, a family of ducks swimming in its lazy tides. The three officials spoke after him in turn, staring into several digital video cameras marked with the logos of local television stations, and a couple of others of indeterminate affiliation.

Their words were occasionally lost in the galumphing of passing cars, but their central message was unmistakable: We Don't Build on the Bay. Period. Mr. Lewis hove close to that mantra while fielding questions from print journalists, using it to rebut the question that has become something of a refrain for the developer and project proponents: Why Won't You Let the Process Play Out?

Redwood City resident Barb Valley harangued Mr. Lewis with a series of variations on that question the minute the TV cameras turned off, as Mr. Lewis tried to make his way toward a semi-circle of print journalists.

After a brief huddle with Mr. Lewis, the journalists wandered off in search of quotes from other members of the assemblage to balance their accounts. Some introduced themselves to Lou Covey, who argued that Save the Bay was stepping on Redwood City's toes. Mr. Covey in 2008 founded a group called Sustainable Redwood City to support Cargill's proposal.

Of course, the real drama and ostensible occasion for the gathering stretched out behind the participants in the press conference: 1,400 acres of salt ponds, about two-thirds of which Cargill wants to fill and top with houses, offices, schools, sports fields and parks supporting a tidy, mostly self-sufficient civilization of some 25,000 inhabitants.

Save the Bay representatives tried to delimit the boundaries of the territory, which on this day looked more pond than salt.

But even the land in question was a point of contention.

"It's interesting that they chose to do it at Bayfront Park," said Cargill spokesman Pete Hillan in a phone interview after returning from the event. "It's not in Redwood City. ... The backdrop is part of the Bay, it's not the salt ponds. They need to be honest about what's being represented."

Isn't the park as close as Mr. Lewis and company could have gotten to the salt ponds without being on them? Would Cargill have allowed Save the Bay to hold a press conference on land it owns? (Would the event have required a boat?)

"They could have done it on Seaport Boulevard," Mr. Hillan suggested, referring to a road that shoots along a spit of land beside the proposed development area.

Letter signers

Save the Bay's letter to Redwood City's council in opposition to the project is heavy with local names: the entire Menlo Park City Council and a majority of Portola Valley Town Council members, along with four former Menlo Park council members, six former Portola Valley council members, and recently retired Woodside council member Carroll Ann Hodges.

It includes Pete McCloskey, a celebrated environmental advocate who represented parts of The Almanac's circulation area in the U.S. House of Representatives' 11th District from 1968 to 1982. Mr. McCloskey, said to be the first congressman to call for the impeachment of President Nixon, is no stranger to voicing his opinion early and often.

There are 10 current county supervisors, including the chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors and the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, along with three former presidents of that board. There are eight Bay Area mayors, including the mayor of Oakland.

Most striking, perhaps, the list includes the names of eight of the 27 people who sit on the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which may have the authority to deny Cargill permits for the project.

Mr. Lewis said his group pulled the signatures together over just two or three weeks, relying mostly on early signers to spread the word.

Mr. Hillan pointed out that, while the list may appear impressive, there are several hundred Bay Area officials who didn't sign it. And very few of those who did have spoken with Cargill or visited the site, he said: "We would really like to see a more informed approach by a body that is being suggested as august."

He exchanged greetings with Mr. Covey as they walked to their cars after the press conference, though Mr. Hillan maintained that Mr. Covey and Ms. Valley came on their own. The unmarked digital video cameras did not belong to his employer, as far as he knew, Mr. Hillan said.

He suggested that Save the Bay's announcement wasn't all that momentous, but didn't take issue with the fact that they staged a press conference to deliver it.

"That's how it's done," he said.

Redwood City's council several weeks ago opted to proceed with an environmental review of the project, a process that could take several years.

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