Opponents spar over land swap

Kyle Szymanski, The Brentwood Press, October 10, 2019

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In the weeks leading up to Brentwood’s Measure L election on Nov. 5, The Press will explore various elements of the initiative, beginning this week with open space.


The measure — spearheaded by a group of local developers, including longtime Brentwood farmer and developer Ron Nunn — would move the mark at which urban development must stop, clearing the way for a proposed 815-acre project of up to 2,400 residential units (at least 80% age-restricted, active-adult-specific), along with other elements, situated north of Balfour Road, east of Deer Valley Road and west of the Shadow Lakes and Brentwood Hills neighborhoods.


A deal struck between the development group and Save Mount Diablo — a nonprofit land trust and conservation organization — guarantees that 225 of the 815 onsite acres will be protected as open space, trails and vineyards. Wetlands on or near the property will also be preserved, along with heritage-sized oaks on the northeast corner of the subject property.


Another 200 acres near the property, west of Deer Valley Road — described by Save Mount Diablo as a rocky area of large oaks, separating Antioch and the Lone Tree Valley/Sand Creek area from Brentwood and Horse Valley — will also be protected from development. Save Mount Diablo will gain another 1,360 acres of open space and recreational trails up Marsh Creek, on the slopes of Mount Diablo — an estimated 20-minute drive from the Measure L property.
 All land parcels involved in the deal are owned by the Ginochio family.

Seth Adams, Save Mount Diablo’s land conservation director, regards this deal as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: giving up about 590 acres of fragmented property surrounded by roads, squarely in the path of development, already bordered on three sides by development, and with minimal wildlife value, in exchange for preserving almost three times as much property (1,785 acres) of visually appealing, resource- and wildlife-rich lands in the Marsh Creek Watershed.

The agency has thus far preserved 50,000 acres in East County, from Black Diamond Mines to Los Vaqueros, since Adams was hired in 1988.


“From the very beginning, what was clear was that this land was more important than (the Measure L development property),” Adams said. “Everything else they own is more important than this. Properties on Mt. Diablo, properties on the Walnut Creek side, properties along Marsh Creek Road, etc.”


The centerpiece of the deal is 1,360 acres of eventually publicly accessible lands on the sides of Curry Canyon — 720 acres that include Rhine Canyon and rise onto Mount Diablo’s main peaks and Prospectors Gap, and 640 acres that encompass Sulphur Springs and Windy Point. These lands have been eyed by the land trust and conservation organization since 1971, and are considered two of the group’s most coveted land pieces in the county, Adams said.
 They serve as the last pieces needed to fill in Curry Canyon — the major unprotected canyon on the side of Mount Diablo — in which about 800 species of plants and animals were found in a 24-hour period during a recent bio blitz conducted by around 40 scientists, Adams said.


“It’s world-class spectacular,” he said of the property. “It’s the most important wildlife habitat in the county that is not already protected.”


The 200 acres west of Deer Valley Road, already inside the Antioch urban limit line and zoned for up to 400 homes, will be blocked from development if the measure is approved, becoming part of the eventual 3,000-acre Deer Valley Regional Preserve, while also serving as a visual separator and an open space corridor preventing Antioch from expanding south.

“We made sure there was land protected higher in the watershed and right next to Brentwood to strengthen the urban limit line in a green wall of protected land along the west and south of the city,” Adams said.

While the total conversation deal is on the table, it could slip away soon if not finalized, Adams said. 


John Ginochio, owner of the properties at the center of the deal, Bob Nunn, a member of the development group, and Adams have a relationship dating back decades — an association that certainly helped pave the way for the proposed conservation deal, Adams said.
 But the Ginochio family is large and will continue to expand, suggesting an uncertain future for the properties if they aren’t preserved now, Adams said.


“John Ginochio has been holding back the dam of more and more family members who want to sell everything, subdivide,” Adams said. “What happens over time is if someone isn’t doing that, properties get broken into smaller pieces and fragmented.”


OPPOSITION GROUP RESPONDS

Measure L opponents, including a grassroots group of Brentwood residents, the nonprofit land-conservation and urban-planning organization Greenbelt Alliance, and environmental organization the Sierra Club, take issue with the open-space elements of the plan.


Kathy Griffin, who has spearheaded a community action group opposing the proposal, said Save Mount Diablo has no right bargaining on behalf of Brentwood residents who stand to lose if the measure is approved, adding up to 2,400 units the city doesn’t need.


Opponents also dispute the notion that the 225 acres preserved on the property will truly be open space, feel that the proposed housing project will overwhelm nearby infrastructure and would be inappropriately situated right across the street from the future Deer Valley Regional Preserve.

They also take exception to the fact that the centerpiece of the trade — 1,360 acres of eventually publicly accessible lands on the sides of Curry Canyon — isn’t even in Brentwood.


“(Adams) can’t be bargaining on our behalf, because we feel the trade-off has negative repercussions for building out the entire parcel,” Griffin said.


Opponents believe that onsite land preservation, possibly featuring vineyards and olive groves, won’t actually be open to the public, and will be maintained and harvested using homeowners association fees.


“A: it’s not open space; it’s going to be planted,” Griffin said. “And B: the homeowners association fees are going to have to be paid to maintain and harvest it, so when you think about it, the developer is getting off scot-free. And it’s not open space, because it’s not open to the general community.”


Worse yet, the opposition points out, if the measure is approved, it clears the way for the large housing project to be across the street from the future Deer Valley Regional Preserve, using nearby roads and infrastructure unfit to handle the additional traffic.


“Our own General Plan has a plan in it: 583 ranchette estates and very low-density housing,” Griffin said. “It has circulation plans that are way better than this plan.”

Greenbelt Alliance Deputy Director Matt Vander Sluis agrees. He declined to comment on Save Mount Diablo’s potential acquisition, but indicated the project’s impacts extend well beyond the loss of land. If approved, the measure could negatively pave over rich agricultural land, straining water supplies, exacerbating traffic impacts and increasing air pollution, he said.

“The 193-page measure is written by sprawl developers for their own profit, leaving Brentwood residents to suffer the impacts,” he said.

Vander Sluis pointed out there are 40 growth boundaries around the Bay Area — clear lines in the sand in which major developments are not allowed — and if the measure is approved, it will stand to be the largest expansion of a voter-approved growth boundary in Bay Area history.

“I am not going to comment on their decision,” he said, alluding to Save Mount Diablo. “Again, we know this is a lousy deal for Brentwood, a lousy deal for the community, a lousy deal for the environment, the local economy and our agricultural heritage.”

For more information on the measure, visit www. bit.ly/2AWbwp1. For more information on the grassroots organization opposing the measure, visit www.allianceforabetterbrentwood.org. For more information on Measure L, visit www.brentwoodca.gov/gov/admin/clerk/measure_l.asp and www. yesonlforbrentwood.org/links.