Council considers Zoo expansion

At tonight’s Oakland City Council meeting, the big issue will be, of course, the budget. The public will have another opportunity to make the case to save their preferred services, and Councilmembers may ask questions of staff, but it looks like a vote on the budget will have to wait for next week.

But before they get to the budget, meeting attendees will be treated to fireworks on a different item — the Oakland Zoo’s California exhibit.

You may recall a post I wrote about the zoo expansion controversy back in 2010, or the posts I wrote this spring about the proposed California project and the objections to the proposal from neighbors and some environmental advocacy groups. For all the details, go back and read those posts. Here, I’m just going to do a quick summary.

The California exhibit

In 1998, the Oakland Zoo received permission from the City to expand into Knowland Park, where they would build an exhibit showcasing native California animals. The approval was for the Zoo’s Master Plan, which included a number of projects to improve the zoo, including renovations of existing exhibits.

Oakland Zoo California Exhibit Map

Since 1998, the Zoo been busy implementing other parts of the Master Plan, and refining the plans for the California exhibit. They’re now ready to move forward on the expansion portion of the plan, but want to make some changes to the California project — it’s smaller, the orientation on the site has changed somewhat, they want to have an aerial gondola take people up to the exhibit instead of having people ride a shuttle bus around, stuff like that. So they have to come back to the City and get approval for an amendment to their Master Plan.

Oakland Zoo expansion plans, 1998 and 2010

The approval of the Master Plan amendment gives opponents of the Zoo expansion another opportunity to object to the project, and they have embraced it with gusto. They don’t want open space in Knowland Park fenced off, the project endangers native grasses and wildlife, the new visitors to the zoo will bring too much traffic, and so on.

Planning Commission says yes

The Planning Commission had their final hearing on the proposal on April 27th of this year, where they approved the expansion 3-1. I know I got the DVD of that meeting, but for whatever reason, I can’t seem to locate it at the moment. So I can’t give you video right now. But here are my tweets from that night, which should give you a decent sense of how it went.

V Smoothe: Big Planning Commission meeting starting. Zoo expansion on agenda. Read abt it at & watch live at #oakmtg

V Smoothe: I’d be at #oakmtg, but got a little tipsy celebrating my LWV award. I wore leopard print today to show my support for the zoo.

dto510: @Vsmoothe It’s important to advocate in every medium possible – including personal style! Loved your trash-print dress at the TCUP hearing.

V Smoothe: Dude speaking now is 90!! “I have gone past old age.” I hope I am still speaking at meetings in 60 years. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Zoo now starting at #oakmtg. Staff is now introducing an 11 point outline of the presentation they are about to give.

V Smoothe: Staff now explaining their responses to all CEQA related anti-zoo comments in excruciating detail. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Staff: Question tonight is not whether the zoo can expand. The question has been answered. The answer is YES. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Staff recommends Zoo’s proposed amendments to already approved expansion should be approved. “We believe this project is better.” #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Friend in room exclaims: “The Zoo is SO right!”Staff & zoo presentations completely obliterate case made by zoo opponents. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Anti-zoo woman says “everyone” knows there are huge piles of animal waste from the zoo on site of proposed interpretive center. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: I was standing right on that exact spot like two weeks ago. I didn’t see any manure. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Friends of Knowland Park woman complains about terrible huge PDFs Planning Commission uses. Something we can agree on! #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Commissioner Gálvez to people waiting to speak on zoo: “Please have mercy on us. We have received so many emails!” #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Maybe I missed something, but I think this woman just said that instead of a condor exhibit, kids shld dress up in condor costumes. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Zoo woman now reading letter of support for zoo from OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Comm. Huntsman: I wonder if they had these same issues in San Diego when they built their zoo. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Comm. Colbruno goes on and on about how he has the highest standards of anyone for the zoo. Then says how great it is. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Commissioner Zayas-Mart: I can’t respect 1998 approval because we know so much more about climate change since then. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Commissioner Zayas-Mart: I would have liked the zoo turn their parking lot back into restored open space as one of the mitigations. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Commissioner Galvez: I am not a zoo person. But supporting this is the best thing for Oakland. #oakmtg

V Smoothe: Planning Commission supports zoo expansion proposal 3-1. Commissioner Zayas-Mart says no. #oakmtg

So of course, to the surprise of exactly no one, the zoo opponents appealed.

Zoo opponents appeal

The appeal (PDF) was filed by the Friends of Knowland Park, the California Native Plant Society, and the California Native Grasslands Association.

The rationale for the appeal is, well, pretty much all the same complaints that zoo opponents made at the Planning Commission. The argument rests on the idea that an Environmental Impact Report is required for the project. Staff says that CEQA does not require an Environmental Impact Report, and that the Subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration/Addendum is sufficient.

As I’ve said before, I’m with staff on this one. I have spent a ridiculous number of hours watching testimony on the subject and reading the hundreds of letters submitted on the item. Over and over again, I’ve read and heard project opponents say that an Environmental Impact Report should be required, but never once have I seen any of them make even a remotely credible case for how any of the proposed changes to the previously approved project or any impact identified in the SMND/A rises to a CEQA threshold of significance.

They talk frequently about how the changes to the project are “substantial,” but that’s the thing about CEQA. It doesn’t matter what seems like a substantial or significant impact to you. It only matters if the changes meet these predetermined thresholds. And the changes to the Zoo’s California exhibit between the original 1998 approval and what they want do to now just don’t.

So the Council will hear the appeal at their meeting tonight. It’s Item 9.2 on the agenda, and if you want to read more, feel free to click on that link and view the voluminous attachments.