Council zones federal property for park

Council zones federal property for park

Michele Ellson
Jean Sweeney Open Space Park

The City Council okayed plans for the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park on Tuesday. Image courtesy of the City of Alameda.

UPDATED at 10:57 a.m. Tuesday, July 22 in BOLD

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to rezone federal property near Crab Cove for park use – and to remove contested language from a companion measure council members said was designed to spell out what the council will do if the city is sued over the zoning change.

The companion measure was approved as it was originally written on a 3-2 vote, after a nearly two-hour hearing that saw frustrated city leaders questioning supporters of a proposed ballot measure to rezone the property for a park about their opposition to the city’s measure.

Since the council opted to approve the zoning change as an ordinance, it won’t be on the November 4 ballot. It will instead go into effect on August 14.

It’s not yet clear what if any impact the decision will have on the lawsuits that are piling up around proposed development of the site – or whether new ones may be filed as a result of the change. A representative with the East Bay Regional Park District, which is suing the city to reverse the council's original decision to permit homes, said officials there are pleased with the council's decision and that they are monitoring the situation closely but that the district won't drop its suit until the possibility the new zoning can be challenged in court expires.

"Until the time to challenge the Initiative passes, it is premature to consider dismissal of the Park District’s lawsuit," spokeswoman Carol Johnson said.

The city-drafted companion measure lays out a pair of options the council will consider – new taxes or sale of the Neptune Pointe property – to cover the city’s costs in the event the zoning change prompts a lawsuit from the federal government or Tim Lewis Communities, the developer that is in contract to purchase the 3.9-acre property, or a judgment against the city.

Either party could claim the city reduced the value of the property by changing the zoning to only allow a park there. They have 120 days after the new zoning goes into effect to sue.

The zoning measure’s backers threatened to sue the city after staffers added language to the companion measure hours into the July 1 meeting allowing the council to reverse its decision if the city is successfully sued over it or put it on hold pending a decision in Alameda’s favor.

The measure’s proponents have said to do so would violate state election law, which requires any decision to amend or repeal a citizen-sponsored ordinance to be made by the voters. But City Attorney Janet Kern disagreed.

“I do not believe that the fiscal responsibility measure is a repeal or modification of the open space ordinance,” Kern said.

At the July 1 meeting, Kern had characterized the “stay or suspend” language in the companion measure as a new power the council doesn’t currently have. But when pressed by council members on Tuesday, she said that council members can stay or suspend the zoning change, even if it’s not spelled out in the ordinance.

Some park expansion supporters questioned whether the language would invite a lawsuit that could lead to the zoning change sought by the initiative being quashed, one of several contentions that touched off heated exchanges between city leaders and expansion backers.

The council – which billed the companion measure as an accountability effort that detailed the council’s options for covering the costs of a suit or judgment, since most of the powers it outlined are ones the council already possesses – nixed an amendment from Councilman Tony Daysog that would have listed cutting services and shifting funds from the city’s budget as an option, leading Daysog to vote against the companion measure. Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft also voted against the measure.

Daysog said he felt people had made it clear they want a park on the federal property, regardless of the fiscal impacts, and he wanted people to know that using existing funds could be considered. But Mayor Marie Gilmore said she didn’t know if people who signed petitions to put the zoning change on the ballot were also signaling their assent for programs to potentially be cut.

Councilwoman Lena Tam said she wanted citizens to know the council doesn’t want to use existing funds to be used for a lawsuit or judgment resulting from the zoning change.

The council voted in 2012 to zone the Neptune Pointe property to allow homes as part of a state-mandated housing blueprint that requires the city to show how its policies and programs will support housing development. But the East Bay Regional Park District, which has long sought the land to expand Crab Cove but was unsuccessful in its quest to obtain it from the federal government, sued in an attempt to undo the zoning.

Park district representatives didn’t speak at Tuesday’s meeting; expansion backers have said they signaled an intent to settle the lawsuit in a June 30 letter, though a park district spokeswoman didn’t return an e-mail seeking comment for an earlier story.

Representatives for the federal government and Tim Lewis Communities have also not publicly said what their next move will be. So far, two lawsuits have been filed in connection with the development plans and a third is pending.

Emotions run high at City Hall over the park district’s suit, which city leaders have repeatedly said they were surprised by and which City Manager John Russo has said the city is not close to settling. Those emotions were on display Tuesday night as Mayor Marie Gilmore and Russo challenged park expansion backers who have blamed the city for the fallout that followed the council’s decision to allow homes on the Neptune Pointe parcel; council and city staff members typically don’t debate speakers from the dais.

Gilmore and other council members have said the companion ordinance was drafted to show Alamedans that the city will protect its finances in the event of a new suit; expansion backers said they think it’s unnecessary and that they fear it’s a ploy to provide the council a way to quash their measure, a charge council members and Russo denied.

And council members said they feel like there’s a lot they can’t say due to the park district suit; litigation strategy is typically discussed behind closed doors.

In other news, the council approved a new housing blueprint without including a plan to create a task force to look into the impacts of rising rents. The council will instead consider creating a task force independent of the housing blueprint; city staff will gather feedback about what it should look like from interest groups and bring it back to the council in September.

Tam, who abstained from the 4-0 vote, said she thought the task force was needed. Gilmore said she feared doing so could draw the intervention of the state, which approves the plans and monitors their effectiveness. The Planning Board recommended putting it in the housing blueprint on a split vote, but City Planner Andrew Thomas said it should be removed, saying work on that would disrupt his department’s other projects.

The Alameda Association of Realtors strongly opposed the task force, with dozens of members and clients sending letters to the city. But housing advocates, who pointed out that more than half the city’s residents rent, said rising rents are a growing crisis that could tear at the fabric of the community.

Members of Renewed Hope presented an informal rent survey they have conducted over the past several months, while renters offered the council their own stories detailing their struggles to find and keep housing here.

Catherine Relucio said her family was recently forced to move, and that her new rental home costs 30 percent more than her last one.

“One more rent increase, and my girls and I will be forced to move out of town,” she said.

Milo Garcia said he was recently notified he has 60 days to leave his rental home; the middle school janitor, who is part of the Alameda Police Department’s citizen policing program and is a member of the committee overseeing Measure A school parcel tax spending, said some of his fellow custodians and that they have been forced out of Alameda as a result.

“My life in Alameda has suddenly become frozen. I’m trying to catch up, but I cannot,” Garcia said.

The council also approved a master plan for the new Jean Sweeney Open Space Park. Parks chief Amy Wooldridge said she’s seeking out grants to help cover the estimated $8 million cost of the 22-acre park, which will include a nature playground and bicycle skills track, butterfly and community gardens and educational space.

Park booster Dorothy Freeman said a friends group has been set up to raise money for the park.


Submitted by Sally C. (not verified) on Wed, Jul 16, 2014

Subsidized housing advocates petition for rent stabilization due to an imbalance of supply and demand. Too many renters, too few rooms. New and young renters, future improvements, well...shrug.

The city of Alameda has been seeking to permit housing developments on various properties throughout the city, including the newly (re)acquired Point. Further attempts, further lawsuits. At least the Islander looks great.

The number of obstacles to solving the housing issue in Alameda seem to flourish exponentially; kinda like Walgreens. I don't blame the city, I don't blame the developers (jk, yeah I do; so sue me...gulp), I don't blame the (majority of) landlords, I don't blame the subsidizers, I don't blame the park district, and I don't blame the feds.

As a homeowner, I agreeably pay my taxes, joke with my neighbors (yup, mostly renters), and get coffee at Jay's. And, yeah, an oatmeal cookie; feels good.

But, together they have all created an intractable, hydra-headed beast that knows no boundary and consumes ever greater quantities of time, frustration, and money. Each responsible (or not) to varying degrees and varying blame.

And now we have a school bond whose bullet points number a single dot, maybe powered by $20 million Yingli solar panels but soon with no cell signals for our kids to instagram selfies. Oh, and our crumbling schools will apparently continue to crumble anyway.

Amazing, in that glassy-eyed, mouth agape, fuzzy-headed way.

The park looks awesome, at any rate. Eternal thanks to Jean for everything she did to make it happen.

Submitted by Cynthia (not verified) on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

"New and young renters, future improvements, well...shrug." Might want to add new and young home buyers to that as well... the homes about to go up at the Point start at 500k. We need more affordable houses.

Though I agree that the park looks great. Smiley face.

Submitted by Tom (not verified) on Fri, Jul 18, 2014

Just a few comments on the performance of the City Manager and Mayor on July 15, 2014 City Council meeting:

Russo just can not keep his mouth shut especially when he is exposed for errors of decision.
His behavior as prosecutor at this meeting, along with the mayor’s interrogations from the dias, shows the level of pain they both are feeling in addressing their errors on this issue. The mayor is a bit perplexed by most items discussed on the Friend of Crown Beach initiative companion ordinance at this meeting. And seems to be unable or unaware of the need to control the aggressive behavior of the city manager.

Russo is a smart warrior attorney and it seems he will never shut up or admit error, its likely not in his psychic programing. wonder how he will view life when he is 85?

Hopefully the next Council meeting and vote on the companion ordinance to the Friends of Crown Beach ordinance will put the “Russo Death Pill” down.

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Thu, Jul 24, 2014

Michele, thanks for the good news and as always extremely detailed. Excellent.