Oakland Destroys Endangered Species that Inconvenience Development

Presidio clarkia

Presidio clarkia (Clarkia franciscana) is a diminutive plant with a small pink flower, endemic to serpentine soils, that exists in two areas on the planet: the Presidio in San Francisco, and the Crestmont area in the Oakland Hills including the East Bay Regional Park District’s Skyline Serpentine Prairie. At present, the species occurs on five to ten acres of the planet. Due to its limited distribution, California listed the species as endangered in 1978 and the federal listing occurred in 1995.

In 1956, at the time Presidio clarkia was first collected at the Presidio in San Francisco, the City of Oakland was approving the Crestmont Development leading to the destruction of at least half of the habitat for the species in the East Bay. Oakland’s approval of the Crestmont Development pre-dated both the endangered species acts and environmental regulations that  could have protected the species. As a result what remains in Oakland are fragmented remnant populations that the City has failed to protect. The East Bay Regional Park District maintains the largest remaining part of the East Bay population at the Serpentine Prairie in Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park adjacent to Crestmont.

Until Katherine Culligan discovered Presidio clarkia at the Serpentine Prairie in 1980, it was believed the species was only native to San Francisco. Then in 1988 more plants were discovered at the Oakland Hills Tennis Club during environmental review for the expansion of the Club. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) (then known as the Department of Fish and Game) mandated that the footprint of the building be pushed back to protect the plants on the site. Part of the approval for the project included requiring the Club to develop a long-term management plan for Presidio clarkia on the site.

While the Crestmont Development destroyed much of the habitat for Presidio clarkia, there was a 3 acre remainder parcel that was supposed to become a park which happened to contain a significant remnant population. In 1956 the steep serpentine slopes of the remainder parcel were difficult to develop, so the developer passed it off as a park that was an “amenity” of sorts. The City never accepted the property as a park, and I suspect the homeowners had little interest in a steep rocky parcel that was not really good for recreational activity. The park parcel changed hands a couple of times over the years and then in 1984 the City was sued by the then owner challenging the designation of the parcel as a park. The City settled the suit in 1988 with the City removing any claim to keeping the parcel as a park, and granting a tentative parcel map to subdivide the property.

In 1991 Brad Olson documented Presidio clarkia along Old Redwood Road near the Oakland Hills Tennis Club, and at the “park ” parcel in the Crestmont Development. Over the years the “park” parcel continued to be developed lot by lot with little to no environmental review and no mitigation for the impacts to Presidio clarkia and the other special status species in the area despite the City knowing an endangered species existed on the site.

The Crestmont Project was the final proposal for the “park” parcel and was put forward in the early 2000’s. The City gave final approval in 2007 with promises of a conservation easement. A conservation easement provides for the protection of species on the site in perpetuity with a funding endowment to pay for management. The developer of the Crestmont Project never completed the project, and the management of the species has not taken place because the conservation easement has never been implemented. The City approvals did not require the conservation easement be put in place until construction begins, and the developer who obtained the approvals has attempted to sell the property to another developer, but because of the steep slopes and challenges of the development nobody wants to pursue the project. In the meantime nothing is being done to enhance the Presidio clarkia population on the site.

Along with development Oakland has been impacting special status species with its wildfire prevention programs. Multiple attempts to work with the City to provide both fire safety and protect special status species have failed. The largest population of Presidio clarkia on City property was in the median between Chadbourne Way and Skyline. The vegetation on this site is cut annually for “fire safety,” generally before the Presidio clarkia plants have a chance to set seed. This year I could not find a single clarkia on a site where 14 years ago I counted over 1600 individual plants. And again the City needlessly cleared the site this year before the end of May.

After the approval of the Crestmont Project, no further development of  Presidio clarkia habitat was proposed until 2015, when there was a proposal to build an addition to the house at 5150 Redwood Road, which is part of the Old Redwood Road population. While the project required a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) or Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to analyze it impacts, the City cheated the process and even prepared fraudulent documents to cover their failures. I blogged about this previously and you can read that story here. As a result the population on the site is not protected as it should be with mitigation measures to protect the habitat and plants on the site.

Last  year I learned there was a proposal to tear down a 7,433 square foot house at 5200 Old Redwood Road and replace it with a new 12,481 square foot house. The current house has been vacant and unused for years. Oakland decided to prepare an MND for the project. When special status species, including endangered plants, are impacted by a project state law requires the lead agency for environmental review, in this case the City of Oakland, to consult with the CDFW. Section 21080.3 of the Public Resources Code makes this mandatory stating, “Prior to determining whether a negative declaration or environmental impact report is required for a project, the lead agency shall consult with all responsible agencies and trustee agencies.” The City of Oakland, as lead agency for both 5150 Redwood Road and 5200 Old Redwood Road, was required to contact CDFW for consultation and failed to do so in either case. Because of this the mitigation measures for both projects do not prevent further impacts to Presidio clarka.

Oakland released the MND for 5200 Old Redwood Road on March 25 and provided me with notice. Oakland did not publish the MND on the City website where other interested parties could review the documents until May 6.  The Oakland City Administrator issued an Emergency Order on March 23 suspending all deadlines for the Planning Department. Under state law an MND requires a 20 day comment period. I inquired with the City and finally on April 14, the last day to comment in the notice I received, Ed Manasse emailed,

“Now that the City Administrator order is in effect, the comment period for 5200 Old Redwood Road and all other projects that were out for notice prior to or since the 3/23 order have been extended until such time as this order is amended. Therefore,  the April 14th deadline that was noticed for 5200 Old Redwood Road is no longer applicable, and interested parties like yourself will continue to have the opportunity to review and comment on the record.”

I then asked,

” Will there be noticing for all projects impacted by the Emergency Order so the public is aware of the suspension? Also will there be new noticing of the deadlines to comment for the suspended projects after the suspension is lifted?”

Manasse replied,

” I was just discussing a similar set of issues around this Emergency Order with the Zoning Manager, Robert Merkamp. We will be consulting the city attorney for guidance, and get back to you as soon as a new protocol is established.”

On May 13 the City Administrator signed Emergency Order No. 3 that modified the previous Emergency Order. Emergency Order No. 3 was not posted on the City website until May 25. The new Order  states in part,

“All time-limits and deadlines associated with Planning and Building Department notices and appeals are hereby replaced by the notice and appeal procedures set forth in Attachment A and Attachment B respectively, which are attached hereto and incorporated as if fully set forth herein. The attached notice and appeal procedures shall remain in effect for the duration of this Order. Upon termination of this Order, all former procedures under the Oakland Municipal Code (O.M.C.) shall be reinstated, unless otherwise amended by subsequent orders.”

Attachment A contains the details of the new noticing procedures that apply to 5200 Old Redwood Road. The new procedures were not followed. There was no new noticing as Ed Manasse had promised on April 14 or as required by Emergency Order No. 3.

The next communication I received from the City was the approval of the 5200 Old Redwood Road project on June 5. I asked on June 7 why I had not received the promised new protocol and deadline. The City’s response from Neil Gray, the planner for the project was, ” We believe that the noticing for the project was performed properly.  However, any issues you have regarding the noticing process can be a basis of an appeal of the approval.  The appeal process is described in the decision letter that you received.”.  The cost for an appeal as cited in the letter is $1622.57, money you will never get back despite the City violating the law and cheating endangered species of their existence. The City of Oakland has long used the fees to appeal a planning decision as a way to prevent residents from appealing bad decisions and to penalize those with legitimate concerns about projects and approvals. On June 12 I emailed Neil Gray regarding the public noticing for 5200 Old Redwood Road and asked, “what was the date comments were due for this project?” He did not respond.

Presidio clarkia

Problems with the City not following the law and process for one project impacting Presidio clarkia could be a mistake, but when there are problems with every project impacting Presidio clarkia it is not accidental, it is intentional. And the result of these intentional acts is the extirpation of a species. The California Environmental Quality Act and Endangered Species Act were designed to prevent exactly what is happening in Oakland by mandating mitigations for projects to minimize impacts to special status species. Oakland has never enforced mitigation measures for any project impacting Presidio clarkia including the Oakland Hills Tennis Club, the Sunrise Assisted Living Care Facility next to the Tennis Club, or any of the subdivisions and construction on the “park” parcel in Crestmont. The best remnant habitats have been impacted repeatedly without mitigation because City crews have conducted fire safety management activities annually in occupied Presidio clarkia habitat on City lands without regard to the life cycle of the species. Thus, the City has contributed directly to reducing, and in the case of Chadbourne Way, seemingly extirpating sub-populations of this exceedingly rare plant.

The City of Oakland has prevented me and others from commenting on the last two projects impacting Presidio clarkia. In both case it was done by lying about the status of the case and about deadlines to comment. This is no accident.

Every elected official in Oakland will tell you they are an environmentalist; they fall all over themselves to get the endorsement of the Sierra Club when they run for office. There are City policies in place to prevent the ongoing destruction of special status species in Oakland. But anytime a developer asks for something, the City bends over backwards to accommodate the development, even when it violates policy and the law. Given the little bit of the planet left for Presidio clarkia one would think the City of Oakland would be celebrating this incredible plant and doing everything possible to preserve it in perpetuity. All species contribute to the fabric of life and deserve respect and protection, especially those without a voice.

Let’s see if those same politicians will demand the City notice the project at 5200 Old Redwood Road as the law requires and allow the public to comment.