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Why Are We Still Allowing Coastal Development?

Does new waterside growth makes sense when sea levels are rising? The debate is heating up in the San Francisco Bay area.
 
 
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REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – A 1,400-acre swath of salt flats along the western edge of San Francisco Bay has become the latest site for a development dispute that promises to become increasingly common in coastal U.S. cities: Whether new waterside growth makes sense when sea levels are rising.

Agribusiness giant Cargill, which owns the Redwood City site, has made salt in San Francisco Bay for decades. Cargill has downsized in recent years, selling 16,500 acres of salt ponds in the area -- 60 percent of its local operations -- to the state and federal government in 2002 for $243 million in cash and tax credits. But it held on to the 1,400-acre site near Redwood City that the company believes is suitable for building. 

Several years ago Cargill hired Arizona development company DMB to identify future uses for the site, which is separated from downtown Redwood City by busy Highway 101. DMB has proposed Redwood City Saltworks, a planned community with 8,000 to 12,000 low-rise housing units. It includes new schools and retail stores, sports parks and open space along the bay and mass transit links connecting the development with regional bus, train and ferry lines. "This project is the poster child for an integrated, walkable community" said DMB vice president David Smith. 

Opponents have other priorities. A long list of conservation groups, neighboring cities, and local government agencies has endorsed restoring the salt flats to their original state: tidal marshes, which filter bay water, provide habitat for fish and birds, and buffer shoreline communities against flooding by soaking up storm surges.

Redwood City is proceeding with a state-mandated environmental impact review, which could produce a decision sometime in 2011. The study will tackle issues including impacts on traffic, air quality, and water supplies. But a longer-term question that will be unavoidable in the official review is whether building the project would reduce climate change impacts or make them worse. 

These choices aren't unique to San Francisco. Officials in New York, Boston, Seattle, and other coastal cities are brainstorming ideas for flood-proofing urban areas, from raising roads to building giant sea gates. So far, however, Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, sees little action to limit new waterside growth. 

"Historically coastal states haven't been serious about limiting shoreline development," said Pilkey, a longtime critic of building in flood-prone areas. Given current projections for sea-level rise, he supports barring construction of high-rise buildings and major infrastructure in vulnerable areas. 

"Why increase the cost of preserving cities in the future when we know what's going to happen in less than a century? Our barrier islands [in North Carolina] are going to be un-developable within 40 to 60 years, dikes or no dikes," Pilkey argued.

Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia's School of Architecture and author of Planning for Coastal Resilience (Island Press, 2009), has identified a few small cities and counties across the country that are actively steering growth out of flood plains, but says that larger cities are just starting to consider that idea. 

In San Francisco the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, known as BCDC, regulates dredging and filling in the Bay and all development within 100 feet of the shoreline; BCDC has proposed identifying low-lying areas where abandoning new development may be more cost-effective than protecting it, but doesn't have jurisdiction to enforce such a policy now.

"Building in vulnerable locations will involve significant public costs in the not-too distant future," Beatley said. "It may make sense to protect some places, but we're going to have to gracefully retreat from others."