Originally published by East Bay Express Dec 18, 2002
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Gravel, Grit, and Gravy
After Leona Quarry developers win a key round, the Oakland mine's neighbors brace for the next one.

Carranza and other quarry activists start collecting signatures this week in hope of stopping the planned housing tract.  


News Category: Environment
Two weeks ago, the Oakland City Council voted to let a Dublin developer build 477 housing units on the site of the unstable Leona Quarry. In approving this long-controversial project for the well-connected DeSilva Group, critics say the council either ignored or failed to seek the advice of three state and county agencies and even some outside experts that the city itself hired to evaluate the project.

People who live nearby say the development plans are a recipe for disaster. They worry aloud that the city is exposing itself to substantial legal risks, claiming that it is speeding along a poorly planned project that could expose future quarry residents and their downhill neighbors to floods and landslides. Supporters of the project dismiss the persistent criticism as typical not-in-my-backyard politics. But for hundreds of Oakland residents, Leona Quarry looms as an unusually large and potentially hazardous backyard. After all, they know from experience what damage a hard rain can do.

Neighbors remember when a holding pond at the quarry broke during a 1996 rainstorm, creating a four-foot-deep pond of mud and debris that covered a quarter mile of Interstate 580 and swamped passing vehicles. They imagine with horror what will happen to the new development, as well as their own homes, if the single 39-inch pipe planned to drain water from the quarry should overload, or if rain waterlogs an improperly stabilized slope, sending parts of the hillside crashing down.

The quarry, which has been mined since 1904 for the rocky material used to line roadbeds, sits smack above Interstate 580 as well as several housing tracts. But neighbors have never really been happy about the idea of building at Leona Quarry, although its location and size makes its highly desirable as a site for potential development. In 1998, when the quarry's previous owners applied to build a Home Depot there, residents put up a massive fight.

This time, critics of the development will begin collecting signatures this week for a referendum challenging the zoning change necessary to allow the development to go forward.

But city officials defend their approval process. Claudia Cappio, Oakland's deputy director of planning, says the city has listened and responded to a deluge of advice, even taking the unusual step of hiring independent evaluators to study drainage, geologic, and traffic issues. She notes that there are many additional conditions attached to the approval, including a long list of fixes that must be done to ensure the development's safety.

However, the city did approve the Leona Quarry development without the input of several key government agencies.

Under state law, before a mine can be converted to another use, the developer must file a reclamation plan explaining how it will stabilize the site, and the DeSilva Group has not yet submitted one to the state's Mining and Geology Board. Department of Conservation spokesman Mark Oldfield says it's unusual for a city to permit a project before a reclamation plan has been approved, and that the Leona Quarry site needs a considerable amount of rehabilitation before it can be approved for housing construction. "They're going to have to address the slope stability by benching or grading back the slope, doing something engineering-wise to stop that slope from sliding in the event of too much rain or a seismic event," he says.

The developer also must prove to the state that all housing will be built at least fifty feet back from any part of the Hayward Fault that runs near the quarry, Oldfield says. Oakland's dominant fault line runs through the Oakland Hills near the quarry and may extend tendrils beneath the quarry itself.

Oldfield points out that the state has the authority to shut down the entire development if its rules are not followed. "We will tell them what those standards are," he says of the developers, "and if they can't meet them they won't be allowed to move forward with the project."

City officials say their decision was just a matter of expediency, not an attempt to skirt scrutiny. When dealing with large projects, Cappio says, a city may approve the development even though certain permits must be obtained later. "It provides the developer certainty that they have an approved plan and there is a framework for those further permits to be reviewed within," says Cappio. "We are fully aware that this reclamation plan needs to be completed."

But neighbors are worried by this turn of events. They're afraid that, without a state-approved plan in place, Oakland has approved a project with some very basic safety flaws. "It hasn't been scrutinized enough by people who would look at it from our interests, and not the developer's interests," says neighborhood activist Sparky Carranza.

Another persistent worry for neighbors is how well the development will stand up to heavy rains. County standards require that any new development not generate more runoff than previously existed at the site. Everyone concedes that a detention pond is needed to store the excess water at Leona Quarry, although no one agrees on how big it should be. DeSilva's original proposal called for a basin that could hold 12.6 acre-feet of water. Last July, the Alameda County Flood Control District warned the city about the inadequacy of that proposal, and suggested a basin with total capacity of 50 acre-feet. County officials subsequently conceded that their estimate was excessive, and the city also noted that the county itself has no jurisdiction over development on the site.

After the developer submitted a revised proposal calling for a pond that could hold 14.5 acre-feet, the city hired an independent firm, Philip Williams & Associates, to evaluate the matter. The firm concluded that DeSilva's hydrologist had overestimated the volume of water that currently runs off the site. Williams & Associates recommended a more cautious approach. Although it did not recommend a specific basin size, senior associate Christie Beeman says her firm concluded that DeSilva still had some work to do.

The city eventually made only the slightest of changes, simply establishing a minimum size of 14.5 acre-feet. "From my point of view, the neighborhood won on that issue," says Oakland's Cappio. "We didn't end up using the developer's assumptions; we used a more conservative set, thereby providing a larger margin of safety."

Neighbors aren't satisfied that merely establishing a minimum is a forceful enough move. "If you're working with a developer that's worried about losing its real estate and also doesn't want to put in a lot of money, he's not going to put in more than a fourteen-acre pond," says Carranza.

The final instance in which the city chose to go its own way involved the fabled Alameda whipsnake, a threatened species that has historically made its habitat at the quarry site, but which the city claims no one has spotted there since 1953. John Krause, the East Bay biologist for the state's Department of Fish and Game, says the city has not sufficiently surveyed the site to prove that the snakes are not there. Despite repeated letters from Krause asking to meet with city officials, his telephone calls have gone unreturned since early November, and the city approved its environmental impact report without his input. "Usually I'm sitting at the table with the project proponents well before the draft environmental impact report is out," Krause says. If he ever does manage to meet with city officials, he expects to tell them that he isn't too impressed with the development's current design. "They haven't really avoided the habitat to the degree they may be able to," he says. "They haven't provided any information for why this project has to be built the way it has."

Oakland's Cappio says the city fully intends to consult with the state and plans to take precautions that assume the threatened snakes are present. "We're aligned with Fish and Game," she says. "It's just the timing." Although discovery of whipsnakes could not derail the project, the development will be required to obtain state permits before proceeding.

All these loose ends make critics wonder why the city is in such a hurry. Asked if it's unusual for a city to start the permitting process for a quarry redevelopment before a reclamation plan is approved, Oldfield says, "I don't know that it's something we've seen a lot of." After a pause, he circumspectly asks: "Are there new board members coming in?"

In fact, there are. The council's critics allege that the project was rushed through to get the plan approved before January, when two of the development's proponents on the council -- District 1 representative Dick Spees and District 6's Moses Mayne -- will leave office. They also point out that DeSilva Group owner Ed DeSilva has donated to the campaign funds of several city officials and is a key witness in the city's ongoing suit with the Oakland Raiders.

City staffers say that not only has there been no rush, but the permitting process actually has taken longer than usual. "We spent two years on this project, and rightly so; it required that amount of time," says Cappio. "It's very interesting, because normally I get accused in various ways of moving too slow and now I'm accused of moving too fast."

For their part, city councilmembers took umbrage at the idea that their votes had been swayed by any allegiance to Ed DeSilva. At the December 4 meeting, council president Ignacio De La Fuente told the audience that the DeSilva Group had "gone the extra mile" to address community concerns, and that it was time for the project to move ahead. "We have many examples of what happens when we try to satisfy everyone," he said. "We still have empty sites."

David Chapman, project manager for the DeSilva Group, rarely answers newspapers' queries and did not return phone calls for this story. But before the council's vote he made the company's position clear. "This project stands on its own merits," he told the council. "This hasn't been a fast-track. We spent a heck of a lot of money to hire professionals to look at these key issues. You have a solid, defensible project."

The neighbors are still skeptical. "It's amazing that the council can be so cavalier about the safety of the people who would potentially be living there," complains area resident Maureen Dorsey, who had filed an unsuccessful appeal to prevent the council from approving the project. "These are going to be people coming from Southern California who have no idea that they're going to be living in a former gravel mine. They're not going to call it 'Quarry Acres' or 'Landslide View Homes.' You couldn't pay me enough to buy a house in that area."

Project opponents such as Dorsey have thirty days to collect the 25,000 signatures they'll need to put the referendum on the next ballot. Leila Monscharsh, an attorney who represents several neighborhood groups, also plans to challenge the city's environmental review, arguing that it has not met California Environmental Quality Act standards. If it is successful, a judge could order the city to revoke its approval and reconsider DeSilva's proposal.