Enviros Battle Developers Over Richmond Hills Open Space

Property owners who want to build homes on wild lands are heading to court in January to overturn a city-approved initiative.

A 40-year fight has been raging in the hills below Wildcat Canyon Regional Park in Richmond. Developers have repeatedly proposed to build hundreds of homes on the open space. And each time, local residents of Richmond and El Sobrante, concerned about environmental and infrastructure impacts, have banded together to defeat the proposals. The most recent plan by developers was to build 120 homes on 80 acres of the property and another 180 houses on an adjoining 144 acres. 

But then, last Jan. 24, the Richmond City Council voted 6-0 to officially protect the 430-acre parcel of oak forests, savannas, and wetlands, adopting an open-space initiative drafted by the Friends of the Richmond Hills/Sierra Club. The protected parcel is east of Wildcat Canyon Park and north of El Sobrante Valley.

The land consists of rolling hills, dotted with coast live oak forests, smoothed out in some parts into savannas covered with chaparral and thistles. Stream beds bisect the terrain, in some places forming deep gullies, and wetlands are home to multiple species of plants, including native wildflowers. Coyotes, skunks, opossums, red-tail hawks, and deer can often be seen, and lucky visitors might spot a bobcat.

But, it turns out, the war over the open space isn’t over. Several area property owners and their representatives — Honrick Properties Ltd., Moilan L. Manning, and Denham LLC/Nikta LLC — filed a lawsuit in April 2017 to overturn the city’s council’s decision. The property owners contend that the council’s vote violated state housing law. The case is scheduled to be heard in Contra Costa County Superior Court on Jan. 3.

Representatives of the property owners and their attorneys declined to comment for this report, but according to their court filings, they argue that Richmond’s adoption of the open space initiative also violated the city’s general plan and “the State Subdivision Map Act.” The filings, also declare, in part, “The initiative is not about protecting rural land or providing a beautiful backdrop to urban development, but instead about other existing residents who want to prevent development adjacent to them.”

Sierra Club volunteer Dick Schneider, who is also a member of Friends of the Richmond Hills, said the idea behind the initiative was to provide lasting protection for the area rather than fighting each proposal for development.

Jim Hogan of the Friends of the Richmond Hills also argued that “there are geological and seismic reasons why this area is highly unsuitable to development.” He also contended that a housing project on the site would result in “massive grading and terraforming” of the property.

Peter Simcich, also of the Friends of the Richmond Hills, noted that a large housing development on the site could create “infrastructure impacts on the El Sobrante Valley. Traffic is already jammed and the area couldn’t handle it.”

Hogan added, “Our objective is not to prevent all development in Richmond, but to protect this site individually.”

The city’s initiative “designates the land for appropriate open space uses such as agriculture and grazing; rearing, boarding and care of animals such as horses; and low-intensity outdoor recreation such as hiking, horseback riding, nature study and enjoyment, outdoor summer camps, agricultural and nature education centers, photography studios and the like. Strong protections are provided for wetlands, stream corridors, wildlife, steep slopes, and scenic resources,” according to the Sierra Club.

Richmond City Councilmember Jael Myrick said the backers of the initiative did a good job in providing the council with detailed information about the open space plan far in advance of the council’s vote. “By the time it came to the council, I’d seen every aspect of it,” he said. “It clearly addressed the issues, and is also clearly within our [the city council’s] zoning powers.” Myrick said he believes that if the council had decided to put the initiative on the ballot, voters “would have passed it” as well.

Councilmember Eduardo Martinez pointed out the city’s potential liability in allowing development in a geologically unstable area. “By OK’ing [the proposed development], we would be setting ourselves up for damages. The environmental reports, and what was happening because of the development already there, showed what could happen.

“My primary concern is the health and safety of the community,” he added. “If I see a project that does not take that into consideration, then I oppose it.”

The Friends of the Richmond Hills group has been raising money to pay legal fees for the upcoming court fight. As Schneider explained, the Jan. 3 hearing may not resolve the issue. He said that if the property owners lose, he expects them to keep fighting.

In fact, both sides seem fully prepared to battle on. Friends of the Richmond Hills recently staged what Hogan described as a “highly successful” fundraiser to help defray legal costs. But the developers’ deep pockets likely ensure that they can, if they choose, continue to wage war against the initiative in court.


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