Newark Vice Mayor Mike Bucci sat behind a wood-paneled council dais, a sinking feeling growing in his gut as he scribbled notes.
The council was discussing Sanctuary West, a nearly three-decade-old plan from Mountain View-based The Sobrato Organization to bring badly needed housing to the city.
Newark — a Bay Area enclave of fewer than 50,000 people — is located on the east side of the Dumbarton Bridge near Fremont in Alameda County, a place that has struggledmightily to build new housing even as costs have skyrocketed.
Sanctuary West could help by adding hundreds of new tract homes, but the project is controversial because they would be built within a federal flood zone along fragile wetlands on the city's western shore. Climate models show this area underwater in just a few decades as warming temperatures push bay water higher.
Bucci supported the project in the past, but at this City Council meeting late in 2019, dozens of residents pressed him to reconsider, saying the land should be preserved.
“I have concerns about houses being out there and what may happen to them thirty, forty or fifty years down the road,” Bucci said in a recent interview with KQED.
Scientists project seas could rise by at least 1 foot by 2030 and as much as 7 feet by 2100 because global emissions are still increasing — the higher level could overwhelm the homes with water.
“You have a unique opportunity here to become a beacon, a shining light to show how local planning can adapt to the new, very real, and very dangerous threat of global warming,” longtime resident Mari Miller said during the standing-room-only winter public meeting.
At the gathering, Bucci urged the city to further examine the new climate projections (his fellow council members argued the issue had already been reviewed and litigated, and the city approved the project).
'There's nothing that we could do'
Usually, the state oversees development along the San Francisco Bay shoreline. But Larry Goldzband, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, or BCDC, says the developers found a loophole to avoid these regulations, strategically moving the project outside the agency’s purview: 100 feet from the water’s edge.
“The developer looked at BCDC and said, ‘I'm going to move the project out of your jurisdiction.’ There's nothing that [we] can do with regard to that development project,” he said.
After the city approved the project, the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge and other environmentalists sued, arguing the sea level rise protections weren't strong enough; the lawsuit created the latest wrinkle in the circuitous planning process.
“You build here now, and I’m not sure you'll have a house to leave to your kids,” said Jana Sokale, a committee member. “I'm not sure you'll be able to get flood insurance because it's going to be the frontline property at risk.”
California’s 1st District Court of Appeal heard arguments on Dec. 7 and will make a determination within the next 90 days.
If built, Sanctuary West will add 469 single-family market-rate homes on four elevated peninsulas adjacent to a wetland near the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Each house would range between 3,600 to 5,000 square feet.
Developers plan to drive in around 100,000 truckloads of dirt to raise the homes above potential stormwaters. Then line the banks with rocks to protect houses from waves, said TimSteele, senior vice president for real estate for The Sobrato Organization.
Sanctuary West will be "higher than a lot of homes that are currently built in the city" and "not be the first ones that will be impacted by any kind of sea level rise," he said.
The city declined an interview on the proposal because of the active lawsuit. In an emailed statement, Newark Mayor Alan L. Nagy said the city is committed to protecting its shoreline from sea level rise. Their planning documents consider a 50-year life for Sanctuary West, and say it will have “sufficient protection from 100-year flood events” within that time frame.
Sanctuary West “will not be adversely impacted by predicted global climate change and sea level rise,” Nagy said.
City staff examined the project several times. A 2014 draft environmental review shows the entire development flooding with a foot of water in high sea level rise scenarios that assume global emissions continue increasing. Another review in 2015 mined multiple state and global climate modeling surveys.
In 2019, the city reexamined the project again, running it through a state checklist to considered flooding and a range of sea level rise projections.
After all that, the city settled on what its documents describe as a "low risk aversion" and "adaptive" strategy to protect the homes from rising tides. Newark assumes emissions will continue climbing and the bay will rise up to 1.9 feet by the year 2070 and plans to elevate the homes above this level.
The city will wait and see how to protect the homes beyond then, or if bay waters rise higher, faster — while statistically less likely, model scenarios show sea level rise could be more than twice as much by then.
Its documents do suggest punting the protective work onto the region, noting that an “earthen levee or structural floodwall” could be “more appropriate” as part of a “area-wide” solution, although it doesn't say who'd pay for this.
Steele, with the developer, says he’s confident in a plan that raises the homes up — protecting them for now — and that leaves a door open to future engineering work.
“I'm not suggesting sea level rise is not going to happen, or it's not going to impact the way we live,” he said.
Studies warn of extreme flooding and the danger of poor planning
Use your mouse to move different directions on the map. Use the + and - signs to zoom in and out. Click on the magnifying glass at the bottom to search for a specific address. Click on the down arrow top right of the legend to remove it. Sources: USGS, OCOF, Pacific Institute
California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office’s 2020 analysis of sea level rise studies explained that cities like Newark need to consider storms, king tides, or El Niño events pushing water levels even higher than rising tides alone.
In the most recent United Nations climate report published last summer, scientists noted that low-lying cities like Newark will see "more frequent and severe flooding.” Plus, bad storms that used to occur occasionally could happen every year.
Model studies show a more extreme scenario: ice sheets collapsing at the poles. That could mean “the California coast could experience over 10 feet of SLR by 2100,” according to the state’s analysis. These extreme scenarios are uncertain, but scientists say they are possible.
“This goes beyond the scope of what we've thought about in planning horizons in terms of the magnitude of change that we'd be facing as a region,” said Mark Stacey, a UC Berkeley environmental engineer. He says such a large increase would require a “complete rethinking” of life along the San Francisco Bay.
Sanctuary West could help fill in the gap for much-needed housing in the Bay Area, but scientists like Mark Lubell, who studies sea level rise and governance at UC Davis, say the proposed site “is a terrible place to put a development.”
“I think we should definitely be looking at alternative locations for regional economic development that are not in hazard areas, wetland areas or watersheds,” he said.
Marshes aren’t static
Sanctuary West could harm one of the only natural flood protections left in the Bay Area: wetlands.
Only about 10% of the original marsh area remains in San Francisco Bay. Laura Feinstein, sustainability and resilience policy director for the urban think tank SPUR, says upland areas are even more rare. That’s because cities like Newark have built right up to the border of sensitive marsh ecosystems.
Feinstein says cities should preserve upland areas because these spaces will become the wetlands of the future.
“If we let marshes do their thing, and they have the right conditions and enough sediment available, as sea level rises, they will gradually move uphill,” she said.
In a recent study, her group concluded that by maximizing infill, converting homes into duplexes, triplexes and adding accessory dwelling units, the Bay Area could address the housing crisis without building in areas vulnerable to flooding.
“There is room in Newark and other adjacent cities to add new housing, it's just that it should be put in the existing urban footprint,” she said.
A regulatory marsh
The first avenue for people who have reservations about projects like Sanctuary West is to contest projects publicly at City Council meetings and public hearings. Since public outreach by environmental groups hasn't had the desired effect in Newark, residents and advocates can sue.
But if lawsuits prove futile in preventing Sanctuary West from becoming a reality, advocates against the housing development will have to trust the permitting process.
In a letter to the developer from May 2020, the board said the 1.6 million cubic yards of dirt needed to raise the potential homes out of the floodplain will impact the wetlands and “alter the existing wetland hydrology.”
The board is also concerned over “repeated claims the project does not have the potential to impact water quality or to result in discharges” of everything from fill to heavy metals to oil, and says the city used “out of date or inadequate information to minimize” Sanctuary West’s environmental impact. In the letter to the developer, board officials said the project would have direct and indirect water impacts. They said the project would disrupt endangered species, recreation and wildlife habitat.
Even though the agency has significant concerns over how the project will alter the ecosystem, it can't altogether reject it, said Xavier Fernandez, planning manager for the board. He says the agency can make permitting very costly from a developer’s point of view.
“What we would like them to do is to move it back as far as possible or not build it at all, and coordinate with adjacent communities in order to collectively come up with a plan for protecting that region,” he said.
Grappling with climate change in real time
Michelle Hummel, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies the impact of sea level rise on the bay extensively, says cities, agencies, and developers are paying mind to the outcome of the Newark debate.
“There needs to be clear guidelines about how we want to move forward locally and regionally,” she said, especially for development in vulnerable coastal margins between the bay and existing development.
“There's not really a clear understanding of whether or not this project can go through, and people are kind of just stalling right now,” she added.
Hummel says if the region’s piecemeal approach to addressing sea level rise continues on a development by development basis, eventually, the bay could see cumulative impacts as water floods neighborhoods, businesses and infrastructure.
She says what happens in Newark could “set the stage for how these types of projects are visualized and approved in the future."
The state wants to close regulatory gaps, like the one Sanctuary West exposed. BCDC’s new regional sea level rise adaptation plan, Bay Adapt, includes a potential fix and is a road map for agencies and cities to create new policies to interpret the effects of climate change better. This could include expanding BCDC’s jurisdiction beyond 100 feet from the shoreline. But that requires regional collaboration and legislation, which could take years.
“It's part of a bigger conversation; it's assessing sort of the whole web of regulation and then seeing what the solutions are for filling that in,” said Dana Brechwald, BCDC’s Adapting to Rising Tides Program manager.
And among all the regulatory confusion is a question: Should the Bay Area further develop its shoreline when climate models show the water will continually rise?
For Newark’s youngest City Council member, the answer is simple.
“It's no,” Bucci said.
He is apprehensive a catastrophic flood could happen in Newark because he lived through a flood in the ’90s.
“My entire street flooded up to the lawns,” he remembered. “What happens when those events come around again, and how bad is it going to be? It's scary to think that a small town like ours is on the frontline of that battle.”
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