The banks of Arroyo Burro Creek have long attracted speculators. In 1880, Frederick H. Kimball and Joseph H. Thomas founded Veronica Springs Bottled Water Company, exporting the curative water bubbling from a spring named after Saint Veronica by mission padres. In 1918, they sold the business for $1 million. Now, developer Mark Lee wants to build a house on the site of the original spring … along with 24 others.
And so the contentious debate over Measure Y, which would give permission to Lee to build a bridge over Arroyo Burro Creek and provide an entrance to his development. Because the bridge passes over a sliver of public parkland, it activates a 1982 amendment to the City Charter requiring a vote approving the private use of public space.
High-profile politicians, activists, and environmentalists have lined up on both sides of the issue. City councilmembers Randy Rowse, Dale Francisco, and Grant House support the measure while their fellow councilmembers Cathy Murillo and Bendy White oppose it. Former mayor Marty Blum endorses the project; current mayor Helene Schneider condemns it.
Environmentally, minded supporters of the project are celebrating the fact that Lee would pay out of his own pocket to remove invasive species, level and flatten the creek, and plant vegetation along a 1,800-linear-foot swath adjacent to Veronica Meadows at a time when the city budget is not exactly prodigious. “This is an environmental opportunity we cannot miss,” said Grant House at a press conference last week in support of Y.
Attorney Marc Chytilo believes that these erosion-control measures would be reversed once the future upgrades to the creek — such as the removal of dams — are put into place. He is calling for a comprehensive plan to enhance Arroyo Burro Creek.
“The city spent $1.6 million to restore a stretch of the same creek,” said Lee’s attorney Steven Amerikaner, referring to the Arroyo Burro Estuary and Mesa Creek Restoration Project. “Are [opponents] saying that the city wasted all that money?”
On the contrary, Mayor Schneider believes that the city did a great job leveraging Measure B bed-tax funds to restore the estuary, spending a bit over $400,000 of its own money while raising the rest from outside sources. She believes that city staff would put together a better plan to restore the creek than Lee. In fact, she made those comments at a Monday-morning press conference adjacent to the Arroyo Burro Estuary.
At the same conference, Bendy White said, “This project overreaches into the largest open space in our community.” Opponents of Measure Y worry that if the ballot initiative passes, it will set a terrible precedent, opening the door to similar petitions by developers who now or will own lots adjacent to public parkland all over the city.
For his part, Lee — should Measure Y pass — will restore six acres of public park, set aside 50 acres of open space, and install pedestrian and bike paths from his bridge to Hendry’s Beach. The paths would connect Veronica Meadows to the housing subdivision on Alan Road, right across the parking lot from the beach.
Neighbors worry, however, that, without a stoplight, crossing Las Positas Road from Elings Park to the Veronica Meadows Bridge would be quite dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, as would pulling out onto Las Positas from the bridge, where the curvature of the road hides oncoming traffic.
Should a stoplight ever be installed, Lee would pay for it. However, for that to happen, many dominoes need to fall into place. Either Caltrans — which currently maintains the road as part of Highway 225 — would have to approve a light, a position it currently opposes, or the city would have to take control of the road — and all the attendant costs of maintenance and liability — before initiating the legal process for approving a new light. But then, neighbors argue, traffic would be backed up from Cliff Drive all the way to the 101.
“Traffic safety was not identified as a significant effect in the EIR,” countered Amerikaner.
The EIR does single out immitigable impacts on wildlife from the bridge’s abutments and a dead zone under the bridge. The two most affected species would be western pond turtles and dusky-footed wood rats.
“I think any true environmentalist would support this project,” Mark Lee said after the Yes on Y press conference. At the competing No on Y conference, Cathy Murillo proclaimed, “We are true environmentalists.”