Council supports proposal to shift veterans project

Council supports proposal to shift veterans project

Michele Ellson

Alameda’s City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to support the U.S. Navy’s plan to give 74 acres it had promised to the city to the Department of Veterans Affairs instead, in an effort to move its proposed clinic and columbarium at Alameda Point away from a prime nesting spot for the endangered California Least Tern. The land the VA now hopes to occupy had been slated for park use.

In addition to signing off on a letter of support for the change, the council approved a nonbinding term sheet with the VA that city staff said would serve as a “road map” for working together to develop an access road and utilities as both entities redevelop their respective portions of the former naval air station.

Councilman Stewart Chen and Councilwoman Lena Tam voted against moving forward with the letter and term sheet, saying they thought it was too early for the council to sign off on them. Tam said she wanted to wait until after a pair of March 14 hearings on the potential impacts of the proposed VA development have been held, while Chen asked the council to wait until March 19, when they are slated to discuss a resolution he and Councilman Tony Daysog sponsored offering support for a wildlife refuge.

But Daysog and Vice Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said they thought they owed it to local veterans to offer their support for the change; the development is expected to consolidate medical and benefits services for thousands of area veterans. Mayor Marie Gilmore, who noted the land transfer would go through whether the city agrees or not, also supported moving forward.

Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott billed the term sheet as a “road map” that lays out how the city and VA will work together to install a road, power and other infrastructure that will serve the VA primarily but would also benefit the city, which wants to create an open space park and sports complex nearby. Ott said the VA will spend $12.5 million on road and utility improvements the city doesn’t have the money to create, an investment she said would allow the city to develop a park and would make a sports complex “more feasible.”

“We think this is a great start to what will be a long path, and a long relationship with the VA,” Ott said Tuesday.

The city’s three-paragraph letter to the Navy, a draft of which was posted on the city’s website with the rest of the council packet, offers support for the Navy’s decision to keep the 74-acre portion of the site in federal hands.

The 549 acres originally sought by the VA had first been requested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has long managed the least tern colony for the Navy and had hoped to create a wildlife refuge on it. But talks broke down more than a decade ago over future liability for new toxics that could be found there.

The VA asked for the property in 2006 and unveiled plans for the clinic and columbarium in 2008, sparking concerns about the proposed development’s impact on the 9.7-acre tern colony, one of California’s largest. Those concerns prompted the negotiations that led to the proposal to move the VA project north, onto land that the city had been slated to receive.

The Fish and Wildlife Service - which is in talks with the VA to continue managing the tern colony - offered a list of conditions for both the VA’s and the city’s proposed developments intended to protect the terns in a biological opinion issued last August, but refuge proponents have said they are still concerned that those don’t address the needs of dozens of other species that use the Point as a nesting area or migratory stopover – needs that they say would be addressed if a refuge were put in place. VA staffers said Tuesday they have no plans to put a refuge in place when questioned by council members about that possibility, though they said they also don't plan to develop 512 of the 624 acres the Navy wants to give to the VA.

“I think VA has – their job is to take care of veterans, not wildlife. I think they need a more expansive view,” resident and open space advocate Richard Bangert said.

Other local open space advocates and veteran Point watchers asked the council not to move forward with the letter and term sheet, saying neither the city nor the VA have sought out enough public input on plans to move the VA project and that city leaders’ assent would stifle further discussion.

“This is a de facto rezoning of Alameda Point without any public input,” resident Jon Spangler said.

Residents – along with several members of the City Council – also took the VA and the Navy to task for their decision to hold a pair of public hearings on a 1,300-page environmental assessment documenting the potential impacts of the proposed project aboard the USS Hornet, which they said would not be accessible to seniors and disabled people – including many of the veterans they say they intend to serve.

“I have some physical challenges, not as severe as many, but I can tell you, just trying to get up that ramp is a challenge,” said Audrey Lord-Hausman, chair of Alameda’s Commission on Disability Issues. “I hope future meetings will be seriously placed in a location that is much more accessible than the USS Hornet.”

The accessibility issue prompted a series of sometimes testy exchanges between city leaders and VA staff, who said the Hornet was selected in deference to the Point’s Naval history and that it is accessible to disabled people in accordance with federal law.

“Let’s agree to disagree (on this). You feel it’s accessible. Members of this community feel it’s not,” Mayor Marie Gilmore said. “I understand your difficulties, but if you’re adamant that your only meeting will be held on the Hornet, you will not get total buy-in from this community.”

The VA wants to build a 158,000-square-foot outpatient clinic and an 80-acre columbarium at Alameda Point; they’re hoping to have the $210 million project up and running by 2017. The VA and the Navy have completed an assessment of potential environmental and other impacts the project could create; if it is determined the project won’t create any significant impacts, as the draft assessment says, environmental review could be completed in the fall and the Navy could transfer the land to the VA by the end of the year, Larry Janes, the VA’s project manager for the base property transfer, said.

The Navy and the VA are holding a pair of public hearings to take comments on the environmental assessment aboard the Hornet, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 14. Comments will be accepted through March 29.

Related: Comment sought on environmental impacts of clinic, cemetery at Alameda Point