.Final Rounds in Point Molate Fight?: Regional park may finally KO housing development

Aug. 18, 2022: “Plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction is denied.The temporary restraining order, issued on June 9, 2022 is hereby dissolved.”

With those words, the opening to an extraordinarily detailed, seven-page judgment rendered in the Superior Court of California, County of Contra Costa, decades-long efforts to create a regional park at the East Bay’s Point Molate may finally, if slowly, be heading to success.

Developer Winehaven Legacy LLC, an affiliate of Southern California developer SunCal Inc., was asking that the City of Richmond’s decision to cancel its contract to build 2,000 housing units on the property, and, under a previous settlement, sell it to Guidiville Rancheria/Upstream for $400, be placed under injunction. 

They lost. 

Although the ruling will almost certainly be appealed, and although there are still multiple lawsuits over Point Molate in both state and federal court, it was a definitive defeat both for SunCal and the forces in Richmond who pushed for the housing development. It comes years after Richmond residents voted overwhelmingly against a project proposed by Upstream Point Molate LLC, to build a casino and hotel on the property, based on the contention that the Mendocino Guidiville Rancheria Pomo Indians once had fishing rights there.

According to attorney Robert Cheasty, executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks and former mayor of Albany, Judge Clare M. Maier’s ruling was rendered because “the city’s evidence [is] far more persuasive than plaintiff’s,” and “the court denied the injunction requested by the plaintiff developer on both procedural grounds and substantive grounds.”

In her ruling, the judge severely criticized Winehaven/SunCal’s reliance on a declaration submitted by Richmond Mayor Tom Butt. Long a vocal supporter of housing development at Point Molate, Butt provided a statement which included claims of a widespread “conspiracy” that included Contra Costa supervisor John Gioia, East Bay Regional Parks director Elizabeth Echols, the RPA (Richmond Progressive Alliance), the Sierra Club and others, to allow the city to breach its agreements with the developer. 

However, the judge found this declaration to have “startling defects,” and sustained the city’s objection, which called it “entirely devoid of foundational facts, and…comprised of speculation, hearsay and political mudslinging.” Commenting further, she wrote, “the declaration does not set forth a single competent allegation.”  

The status of a current federal case, said Cheasty, was also a factor. “There is already a case in federal court governing the status of the property at Point Molate, thereby establishing that federal court’s prior jurisdiction over the property,” he wrote in a prepared statement.

Reached by phone, Butt stated, “I’ve said consistently that the city breached its contract.” However, he acknowledged, “Things are changing daily in the litigation area, but it looks as though we are headed to a sale to Upstream/Guidiville. Once they have it, they decide who to sell it to.” Under the terms of the previous settlement/amended judgment, they will have up to five years to find a development partner agreeable to the city. Park proponents want this to be the East Bay Regional Parks District.

Butt went on to affirm that he has accumulated documents that prove a conspiracy to “derail” the Winehaven/SunCal plan to develop Point Molate, and, as for the judge’s ruling, “She is wrong.”

Cheasty disagrees. “[The developers] consistently failed to adhere to their agreement, and the city council finally refused to let it go forward,” he said.

 $36 million from the state for a regional park

The injunction’s denial comes on the heels of another major announcement affecting the future of Point Molate. On July 18, 2022, Gioia issued a press release confirming that Gov. Gavin Newsom had signed off on $36 million in the recently approved state budget for the acquisition and cleanup of Point Molate.

According to the release, “Both the [East Bay Regional Park District’s] 1996 Master Plan and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s San Francisco Bay Plan have called for a regional park at Point Molate for many years. This significant funding will leverage additional monies and bring us closer to this long-standing vision for a regional park for all Richmond and Bay Area residents.” The release also referenced East Bay voters’ approval in 2008 of Measure WW by more than 71%, which included funding for a shoreline park at Point Molate.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, Berkeley, chair of the Senate Budget Committee, provided support which played a major part in the approval’s success. Reached by email, she said, “Ensuring that the East Bay shoreline is preserved as open space for all to enjoy has long been one of my top priorities—since my time on the Berkeley City Council, and later on the East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors.”

She continued,“That is a vision shared by East Bay residents, and ballot measures to purchase bayshore lands, including Point Molate, have passed overwhelmingly. So, I’m heartened that the legislature and governor agreed this year to allocate funding to the East Bay Regional Park District in support of a regional park at Point Molate.” 

On Aug. 21, Butt published a lengthy statement in his “e-forum,” titled “Bad Judgement and Political Betrayal,” including the comment: “Whether you call it a ‘coalition,’ as Cheasty did, a collaboration, a conspiracy or a plot is just semantics. While [Citizens for East Shore Parks] and SPRAWLDEF [Sustainability, Parks, Recycling, and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund] litigated, and the Richmond City Council resisted from inside, Cheasty’s ‘coalition’ would seek funds to try to buy out some party of interest in Point Molate. Point Molate Working group meetings were occurring regularly, and Gioia, Echols, [EBRPD Board member Colin] Coffey and the EBRPD staff were all in. Later, Sen. Skinner and her staff became a key part of the coalition, ultimately delivering $36 million.”

Regional park proponents see recent developments differently.

The state’s decision “aligns with the 30×30 initiatives,” said David Helvarg, co-founder of the Point Molate Alliance. 30×30 reflects Gov. Newsom’s October 2020 executive order and President Joe Biden’s May 2021 directive to conserve 30% of California’s and America’s land and coastal waters by 2030. “There are few opportunities left to create significant parkland in the Bay Area, especially in underparked Richmond.” He added, “This is a reflection of the new face of environmentalism, born in urban communities of color.”

Shirley Dean, former mayor of Berkeley and president of the Board of Directors for Citizens for East Shore Parks, said, “[Point Molate] needs to be protected, not only to protect the ecology of the Bay, but provide access to those deprived of access.” Asked about the role of money in Point Molate controversies, she said, “The needs of the community have been superseded by people who want to make money off Point Molate.”

East Bay Regional Parks District Board of Directors member Elizabeth Echols agreed that the state’s allocation of funds is a game-changer. Although even $36 million is far from enough to acquire, clean-up and establish the infrastructure for a regional park, “it will go a long way towards that vision.” The park, she said, would preserve an area of cultural and ecological importance, and would become a regional, state and global attraction. 

How did we get here?

The following background information is condensed from the authors 2019 ‘East Bay Express’ cover story, https://eastbayexpress.com/the-clock-is-ticking-at-point-molate-1/

Despite decades of lawsuits and controversy, many in the East Bay have never visited or even heard of Point Molate, the 413-acre headland facing north towards the bay and Mount Tamalpais, accessed through the last exit from I-580 before entering the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge. To the east rise the Potrero Hills and a 400-foot ridge, masking the enormous Chevron Richmond refinery. The small Point Molate Beach Park attracts dog owners, kayakers and osprey watchers. Point Molate is also home to Winehaven, formerly the world’s largest winery. Its giant red “castle,” complete with parapet and turrets, is now on the National Registry of Historic Places. 

The total area includes 180 shoreline acres of eelgrass, one of the last thriving habitats on the San Francisco Bay, and vital to the health of the whole bay. This natural nursery is home to Dungeness crab, sea hares and leopard sharks, among many other species. More than 160 species of birds are found on the shoreline and surrounding prairie.  

Originally home to Native American tribes Ohlone and Miwok, the area witnessed the arrival of padres from Mission Dolores in the early 1800s. In 1871, Chinese immigrants established a shrimp-fishing camp there. Standard Oil (now Chevron) had already established itself by 1902, then as now using wharves to unload crude oil and reload refinery products for shipment on tankers.

From 1942 until 1995, the U.S. Navy used Point Molate as a fuel and storage facility, building houses for its officers there. In 1995, Navy operations ceased. The Navy sold 218 acres of the land to the city of Richmond for $1 in 2003. The rest of the land was transferred to the city in March 2010.

In 2004, developer Jim Levine and the city reached a deal for Levine and his company, Upstream Point Molate LLC, to build a casino and hotel on the property, based on the contention that the Mendocino Guidiville Rancheria Pomo Indians had once had fishing rights there. This was canceled when Richmond citizens voted it down in 2010. Thus began the current fight over Point Molate’s future.

What’s next?

“What is next is to decide the merits of the rest of the lawsuit filed by the developer,” asked Robert Cheasty. A September hearing called a “demurrer” will determine whether the plaintiff developer has any viable claim to go forward.   

“Even if the plaintiff’s case survives past the demurrer, the future of the case looks bleak for the developer,” said Cheasty, “as the court has already reviewed the evidence submitted and found it fails to prove the plaintiff’s case.” The court also included in its Aug. 18 ruling that it “expected the city to proceed promptly to transfer title to the required parcels at Point Molate to a third party, presumably the Guidiville Rancheria and Upstream Inc.,” he said.

In November, Richmond voters will elect a new mayor and several city council members, which could potentially affect future moves. “A new mayor and city council may not have the same motivations as the current ones do,” said Butt. 

However, on the issue of a housing development at Point Molate, “That train may have left the station,” said Point Molate Alliance co-chair Andres Soto. “No new developer is waiting in the wings.”

A revised community plan would need to be developed for a regional park, said Echols, one that would be approved by the new city council. “The EBRPD would work with the city to create one,” she said.

That would “smooth the way,” said Soto, “so that the people’s plan to create a world-class regional park could proceed unimpeded.” 

Meanwhile, park advocates had suggestions for East Bay residents. “They can encourage the park district to move forward and acquire the land,” said Cheasty.

“Number one is go to see Point Molate, and number two is reaching out to public officials supporting what can become a world-class park,” said Helvarg

Will it take another five years for a park plan to move forward? “It’s been part of [the EBRPD] Master Plan for 20 years,” said Echols. “We would like to move forward as quickly as possible.”

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