Mapping Our Future - Public and Private Interests Collide Over Heavy Industry in South Vallejo
A General Plan is the local government’s long-term blueprint for the future growth of the community. According to the state Office of Planning and Research: “The general plan is more than the legal underpinning for land use decisions; it is a vision about how a community will grow reflecting community priorities and values while shaping the future.” Since the general plan affects the welfare of current and future generations, state law requires that the plan take a long-term perspective. That long-term public visioning process for the south Vallejo waterfront has been hijacked by private interests pushing polluting heavy industry with assistance from our own City Attorney’s Office.
The City web site advises: “A comprehensive update of the Vallejo General Plan has not been completed in decades and today the Vallejo General Plan does not reflect the current and future goals, objectives and policies of our community. The General Plan Update process is an opportunity for us to create a vision for the kind of city we want and to take concrete steps toward making it a reality.” The years-long process to create that vision took the name Propel Vallejo, and involved professional planners, city staff, citizen members-at-large, and city commissioners who solicited public input throughout.
Public participation began way back in March of 2013, with more than a hundred community members joining for a potluck visioning and brainstorming event. Between September and October of 2015, the Propel Vallejo general plan update initiative held a variety of outreach activities to gather community input on the three distinct Future Scenarios that had been developed, each describing a different way in which Vallejo could evolve over the next 25 years. The input gathered at these events was used to decide on a Preferred Scenario that will serve as the foundation of the updated General Plan and Land Use Map.
The effort culminated in late 2015 with the selection of the River and Bay City option as the Preferred Scenario by the General Plan Working Group, the Economic Vitality Commission, and the Planning Commission. The map which would go to the City Council for approval displayed the recommended land use designations, including the site of the proposed Vallejo Marine Terminal/Orcem cement mill project. It looked like this:
The draft preferred scenario map shows the site of the proposed VMT/Orcem project zoned for Commercial and Light Industry, with public access along the waterfront that would allow the Bay Trail to extend from the Cal State Maritime campus to downtown. The Commercial/Light Industry zoning would allow commercial uses like retail, service, office, and hotel, including mixed-use buildings. Light industrial uses would include research and development, warehouse and distribution, and light manufacturing, that are generally compatible with more sensitive uses such as residential.
The VMT/Orcem project is considered heavy industry suitable only for sites in the City's intensive use zones. Heavy industries "use hazardous materials and substances and/or produce noise, odor, air pollution, traffic, and/or sewage impacts that are generally incompatible with more sensitive uses such as residential." The scenario overwhelmingly approved by the General Plan Working Group and Commissioners characterizes our waterfront as "Vallejo's distinctive gem: a treasure for locals and tourists." An application to permit polluting heavy industry on that same waterfront and exclude all public access stands fundamentally at odds with the long-term vision that emerged from our public planning efforts.
Rather than defend the right of the City and its citizens to shape the future character of Vallejo, our City Attorney's Office cautioned that the update process for the south Vallejo waterfront could not go forward to completion with the VMT/Orcem application pending. The map approved by the City Council in March of 2016 no longer depicts the draft preferred scenario. Now it looks like this instead:
Over the protests of the General Plan Working Group, our City Attorney dictated that for the proposed VMT project site "the application designation shall remain until the development review process is complete, thereby retaining the integrity and fairness of the application process." How is it fair that the interests of a handful of individuals who saw opportunity in the depths of a financial crisis now be allowed to cripple the ability of our community to plan for its future? The courts do not subscribe to that interpretation of integrity and fairness. A city is well within its rights to update its general plan and zoning codes on its own schedule regardless of pending permit applications. California courts have consistently ruled that only when a permit or vesting map has been approved do applicants retain the right to build a project following a zoning change that would otherwise preclude it.
The VMT applicants have been issued no use permit or vesting tentative map, and certification of a badly flawed final environmental impact report will not stand up to certain legal challenge. The preferred planning vision for a connected southern waterfront with public access would be denied for more than sixty years if this project were approved. The City's current position does not reflect a balanced perspective, and the fear of litigation can't be allowed to outweigh the public interest in retaining the right to plan for our future. Protecting the legal interest of the City should involve more than just trying to avoid lawsuits.
When we examine the application process for the VMT/Orcem major use permits, the integrity and fairness our City Attorney wishes to retain at such high cost is nowhere in evidence. While the planning process for the future of our southern waterfront languishes, the environmental review process has dragged on far beyond what was forecast because the project application was not fully developed and the analysis premature. VMT applied for a City permit for a use that is not even in the City's power to allow. A state agency, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, also has jurisdiction and will not issue such a permit. The applicants have been selling their project to the City Council and the public for years based on a business plan that was never viable to begin with.
The VMT application dated December of 2012 affirms that the purpose of the project is the "construction of a modern deep water terminal, and revitalizing existing trucking and rail connections, primarily servicing the import and export of bulk and break-bulk commodities." Without the general plan update this kind of heavy industry would be permissible under Vallejo's legacy code for the old General Mills site. The BCDC manages the coastal zone for the entire Bay and issues permits for water-related industries that process materials on site, like the former General Mills operation. The BCDC also permits port operations that engage in the transfer of bulk and break-bulk cargo - the use that VMT applied for as the primary purpose of their project. So what's the problem? After all, the site used to have a functioning marine terminal before General Mills walked away in 2004.
General Mills was considered a water-related industry under the Bay Plan. The Orcem cement milling operation would also qualify as an on-site processor. VMT applied for a permit to construct a marine terminal for the primary purpose of moving cargo through a port facility without processing. Those are separate and distinct use classifications. A map on the BCDC web site shows the location of sites designated in the Bay Plan as either port or water-related industry.