After five years of wasting scarce city resources: Vallejo Marine Terminal / Orcem postmortem

By Jeff Carlson, Vallejo Times-Herald, LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
May 28, 2019 at 2:57 pm
[Editor: Jeff Carlson provides an excellent summary here of the VMT/Orcem debacle.  As Steve Young wrote on a Facebook thread, “Benicia had Crude By Rail, Vallejo had Orcem/VMT, and with enough committed people, sometimes the little guys win.”  – R.S.]
The site of the Vallejo Marine Terminal/Orcem Americas project proposed for south Vallejo is shown. (Times-Herald file photo)
The site of the Vallejo Marine Terminal/Orcem Americas project proposed for south Vallejo is shown. (Times-Herald file photo)

After five years of wasting scarce city resources on a half-baked project proposal that ultimately fell apart under examination, we need to pause and take a look at what happened. What went wrong and how do we pick up the pieces? How do we stop this from happening again?

This dysfunctional expensive mess can be laid squarely at the feet of the old political crony network that extends up through the county level, and is now suffering its own lingering death in terms of influence in Vallejo.

The applicants apparently thought this was a done deal, and never bothered with ordinary due diligence to develop a realistic project proposal. That very quickly became obvious in 2015 when the Bay Conservation and Development Commission got a look at the draft environmental report. They informed VMT that not only did their proposed break bulk cargo port activity fail to fit the Bay Plan designation for the site, but the BCDC hasn’t even seen any break bulk moving through Bay ports since 2006 and there is no demand for such a project. That fictitious port operation represented well over half of the described project.

In light of the early indications of pre-approval on the part of some former and current city officials, it probably appeared unnecessary to generate a realistic project proposal. A sweetheart lease deal with the city for public trust waterfront property that should have triggered an environmental review was signed anyway, citing a CEQA exemption that clearly did not apply. A majority of the former council colluded in secret with the applicants to leverage the project proposal in a scheme to dupe the Army Corps into dredging the length of the strait for deep draft cargo ships. Small wonder the EIR circulated for public comment presented a project description that amounted to little more than an exercise in storytelling.

Picking up the pieces is pretty straightforward because the alternative has been waiting on a shelf for this day. While the crony committee courted the Army Corps behind the scenes, a public planning process was underway to update the City’s General Plan. This exemplary planning effort lasted three years and spent millions to develop a preferred scenario for future development with broad public input. The final map for the south Vallejo waterfront showed walkable access between the Cal State campus and downtown, and a change in zoning from industrial to light industry for the VMT parcel. That public vision stood in direct conflict with the VMT/Orcem project application, which involved heavy industry and would shut out all public access for the 60-plus-year-term of the lease.

The City Attorney informed commissioners that since the VMT/Orcem project application was still pending, the preferred scenario would have to wait for a final disposition of the appeal. She also expressed concern over a potential lawsuit related to a taking of value from private interests by changing the zoning for the site. If nothing else, the process of reviewing the application has confirmed that the legacy industrial zoning no longer fits with surrounding land uses, and changing to a less impactful use category will not diminish the value of the property. Now it’s time to finally and officially terminate the lease and approve the preferred general plan scenario for south Vallejo’s waterfront.

The review process demonstrated the need for an environmental justice policy for the city, along with an ordinance to prevent local handling or transport of coal or petroleum coke. The city should begin work with the BCDC to develop a special area plan like Benicia has done for its waterfront that was formerly designated for port and industrial use in the Bay Plan, or like Vallejo has done for the White Slough area. The BCDC staff has indicated they would be happy to discuss changing the legacy industrial designation to one in line with current community planning initiatives.

We also need to hold those responsible to account at the ballot box. Politicians who feel free to substitute private agendas for a shared public vision; who feel compelled to serve special interests at the expense of Vallejo residents; who lack the intellectual curiosity to do enough research to at least be conversant with the relevant issues — they need to be voted out. The last election showed that we can’t do that without a better field of candidates. We should be thinking about election reforms to diminish the influence of money in campaigns and encourage some of our younger, less affluent, and better informed residents to run for office. Thanks to the many who stood up early in defense of some of our most vulnerable residents and refused to move.

— Jeff Carlson/Vallejo
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