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Endangered species in East Palo Alto may slow construction of Cooley Landing park

By Joshua Adam Hicks | 28 Feb 2011

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East Palo Alto will begin turning vacant Cooley Landing into a park, but protected wildlife may slow construction. (Photo: Joshua Adam Hicks)

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Imagine a tiny mouse with the power to stop burly construction workers dead in their tracks, just by stepping out of its burrow.

Such is the clout of the salt marsh harvest mouse, an endangered rodent that makes its home near a deserted nine-acre peninsula in East Palo Alto known as Cooley Landing – once home to a regional dump, and later a boat-repair facility.

The city plans to convert that land into a park for hiking, picnicking and educational tours. But it can’t do that without mitigating potential problems for the harvest mouse during construction.

That means hiring biological monitors to observe and temporarily halt work every time one of the rodents rears its tiny head. Work can’t resume until the critter leaves of its own will. No shooing allowed.

The California clapper rail wields equal – if not greater – power at Cooley Landing, located just north of the world’s highest concentration of that endangered bird. Crews would have to stop work whenever a clapper rail flies in, and they would be barred from the site during the bird’s breeding months.

Those rules come by way of federal and state endangered-species acts, which protect animals and other wildlife in danger of extinction. The measures draw praise from environmentalists. But they also test the patience of builders and planners, who have to contend with lengthy permitting processes and project restrictions. Some of them say the rules go too far.

“In the past 10 years, there’s been a proliferation of species listings,” said Michael Winn, president of the California Building Industry Association. “I know there are some cases where cynics wonder if a species is in fact endangered. An area is designated for growth, and suddenly it pops up on a list.”

Winn claims mitigation efforts can easily increase project costs by 10 percent, and they also tend to slow progress.

“With any project, we kind of assume that we have to play a role in compensating for the loss of natural habitat along the way,” he said. “To the extent you can factor that in, both in terms of time and dollars, we do so.”

The building industry has a history of fighting the regulations intended to protect endangered species, especially when it comes to private projects. But developers believe the odds are generally stacked them.

The salt marsh harvest mouse and the California clapper rail are both endangered species living in the Cooley Landing area. (Photo: Joshua Adam Hicks)

“The law usually leans toward the public agency in most cases, not toward the property owner,” Winn said. “It’s a difficult fight. If someone’s trying to de-list a species or make a serious challenge, the law is usually against you before you get going.”

But East Palo Alto Mayor Carlos Romero said he doesn’t mind the extra effort, time and money it takes to protect critical habitats.

“We have a responsibility, if we somehow damage or scar the world that we’re in, we need to replenish it and fix it,” he said. “We should be able to spend money to bring this asset back to the community.”

East Palo Alto has proposed turning Cooley Landing into a passive-use park that would include walking trails, an outdoor classroom and picnic areas. The city also wants to convert the abandoned 3,200-square-foot boatworks building into a visitor center – one intended to teach visitors about the area’s history and ecology. That facility could double as a community center.

The project’s estimated cost is $10 million. The city has already raised $3 million in grants and in-kind assistance for the first phase of work, which includes clean up to allow safe public entry. Planning officials expect to pick up the remaining $7 million in the form of additional grants.

The city council voted unanimously on Feb. 15 to approve mitigation measures intended to avoid harming the harvest mouse and clapper rail, as well as other ecological elements at Cooley Landing. The city must still apply for a list of permits before starting construction.

East Palo Alto is short on parks. In fact, it has the lowest per-capita ratio of recreational area in San Mateo County, with half an acre of parkland per 1,000 residents. California’s recommended standard is three times that much.

The Cooley Landing project would increase the city’s parkland by more than 50 percent. It would also provide public access to the waterfront, something many in the community feel is long overdue.

“East Palo Alto is a city by the bay,” Romero said. “What an incredible contradiction that we have no direct connection to the bay.”

One goal of the Cooley Landing project is to make the area more hospitable for harvest mice and clapper rails, mainly by removing invasive plants and piles of concrete debris that provide perches for predators. The project would also include clean-up of contaminated soil, the city’s Cooley Landing project manager, Lily Lee, said.

Just south of Cooley Landing is a 115-acre restored salt pond known as the Ravenswood Open Space Preserve, as well as the 230-acre Baylands Nature Preserve. Those areas would compliment the new park, Lee said.

Romero touts the proposed project as a way to help the community – especially kids – “commune with nature.” But he also said it would also provide an added attraction to the proposed retail, office and residential developments that are proposed for Bay Road as part of the city’s downtown renovation plans.

“Employees can actually come out here during lunch and walk around,” Romero said. “It really is an economic attractor, we think.”

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