Concord awaits Navy's decision on weapons station
By Paul Thissen
Contra Costa Times

February 19, 2010

CONCORD The swath of hills and grassland expands in all directions from the ridge where Michael Wright stands.

He raises his arm toward the horizon, pointing out what could be built at the shuttered Concord Naval Weapons Station townhouses here, a park there, a university campus in that nearly hidden valley.

It's easy to envision while looking at the city's color-coded maps of the plan.

But here, for now, the land has different masters. Squirrels scurry across the sod roofs of hundreds of padlocked munitions bunkers. Birds of prey rest on abandoned power lines. Cattle wander amid the 55 miles of rusting railroad tracks.

The unseen master, though, is the Navy. Nothing new will be built until the Navy sells the land or gives it away or until the arsenic-laden soil is cleaned, or until the bunkers are razed.

Concord can set the rules for what will eventually be developed. But it cannot control who gets the property, when it is transferred, how much it sells for or who foots the bill for the environmental cleanup.

It's all up for negotiation, and there can be many competing interests at the table the city, the Navy, private developers, myriad other government agencies and seemingly every politician from Concord's City Council to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, the City Council is set to take what Wright, the city's base reuse manager, calls a "first step" in the process, giving final approval to the city's overarching plan for the base, crafted over four years and 36 public hearings.

That plan would add as many as 12,272 housing units, 28,800 residents and 26,530 jobs to the 5,028-acre site.

But it's not time to rest, Wright said. The city must still work the base plans into the city's general plan, giving it the force of law.

"We still have lots of work to do," Wright said. "The Navy has lots of work to do."

Public auction?

The Navy has been coy about when and how it will get rid of the base. Right now, it estimates it will be ready to transfer the property in three to five years, wrote John Hill, the Navy's base closure manager for Concord, in an e-mail.

One option: an auction for all or part of the base. According to Wright, the Navy told the city it prefers that option.

But the Navy said it has yet to decide, and the choice won't be made until environmental analyses are done, Hill wrote.

Such auctions typically mean big money for the Navy. In 2005, Lennar Corp. paid the Navy nearly $650 million for the 3,718-acre El Toro Marine Air Station in Irvine, Orange County, and some associated properties. It plans to build about 3,400 homes there.

The auctions also accomplish the Navy's other goal, Wright said getting the property completely out of the Navy's hands.

"Their desire is to sell it, get away from it and move on to the other things they're responsible for," Wright said.

Environmental cleanup

But before the Navy can unload the property, it must clean it up at least to some degree. Once the land meets standards for commercial or industrial use, the Navy is done, Wright said.

That work will not be completed until at least 2017, according to the e-mail from Hill, though many parts of the base will be cleaned up long before then.

Additional environmental work would be needed to make the land usable for housing. That work is the responsibility of whoever gets the land from the Navy, Wright said.

And even at the same environmental standard, cost estimates can vary widely. At the Alameda Naval Air Station, for example, in 2003 the city of Alameda estimated the cost of cleanup at more than $558 million. The Navy did not officially release an estimate, but at the time several Alameda officials pegged it at $140 million to $150 million.

If the land goes to private developers, cleanup discussions would be between them and the Navy. But the city could still have an interest and try to bargain, Wright said.

"There comes a point in time where dollars that the city would like to see a developer put into parks and recreation facilities and public buildings "... start to erode away because they're putting so much money into (cleaning) the site," Wright said.

The Concord site is not as polluted as many other bases. The most widespread toxin is arsenic, used around the bunkers as an herbicide. But the arsenic does not travel; it sits in the top few inches of soil, which thus can be easily cleaned.

But other areas of require more serious work. One example: "Approximately 174 acres of explosive ordnance disposal areas (burn pits) potentially contain spent (exploded) munitions or munitions constituents," according to the city's environmental review.

Public benefit

Developers might not be the only ones taking over parts of the base. The city hopes the Navy will give away large portions of the land under the "public benefit" part of base closure law for a regional park, a university campus and a public safety training center. The East Bay Regional Park District, Cal State East Bay and Contra Costa County have requested the parcels; the regional park would make up nearly half the site.

On one hand, the Navy is not required to give any land to anyone. That's where the negotiations come in, Wright said.

"It may require us to align all of our state- and federal-level political support to make those things come to pass," he said.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, will stay involved in the closure process to make sure the community benefits, as he did with Mare Island in Vallejo, wrote Daniel Weiss, Miller's chief of staff, in an e-mail.

On the other hand, the city still creates zoning laws. So even if the Navy auctioned off the whole property, city zoning would still define those 2,300 acres as open space.

That would set the stage for negotiations with developers. At the El Toro base, Lennar bought the whole 3,718 acres, but it gave 1,300 of those acres and millions of dollars to Irvine for a park in exchange for rights to develop the rest of the base.

Subject to change

Nothing has yet been decided. Federal laws on base closure can change with actions of Congress as they did in December and preferences in the military can shift as presidential administrations change.

In the 1990s, when the Alameda Naval Air Station closed, the military often just gave land away to local cities, leaving the cities with more cleanup responsibility. Then, in the last decade, the public auction came into favor.

But with the December rules change, the Navy again has the option to give land to the city for free or a bargain price.

"Frankly, the city may in fact push the Navy for some parcels to be transferred that way. We just haven't gotten to the point of evaluating or determining if it's a good thing," Wright said. "I don't see the city going down a path where the entire site would move that way, but that could be what the Navy wants to do."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact Paul Thissen at 925-943-8163.

# what: Final hearing on the future of the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
# when: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
# where: Concord Senior Center, Wisteria Room, 2727 Parkside Circle, Concord.

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