ALBANY -- For years, many have dreamed of the completion of the Bay Trail, encircling San Francisco Bay, giving complete, unbroken access to joggers, bicyclists and others. One key portion of the Bay Trail, a strip of land behind the grandstand of Golden Gate Fields, is the subject of an eminent domain action by the East Bay Regional Park District and the next court date, although not set yet, appears to be coming up soon.
"The district has been in discussions and negotiations with Golden Gate Fields over the last 10 or 15 years to get a trail outside of the racetrack area," said Ted Radosevich, district counsel for the EBRPD. "We've had promises that the district would be given the trail at no cost. They'd give it to us as part of some kind of development. After 10 or 15 years of no progress we decided to move forward."
Representatives of the racetrack see the situation differently.
"Golden Gate Fields would very much like to work with the parks district," said John Briscoe, lawyer for Golden Gate Fields. "But if that's not possible, we're hopeful that the court of appeal will lay down the rule that environmental review must be done before project approval and not when the project is underway, in which case it would be done to justify a decision already made and implemented."
EBRPD has negotiated with various owners of Golden Gate Fields for years to acquire the land for the trail. A license was agreed to in 2003 but was not renewed. The racetrack has allowed the public to use its land to access the beach pretty much since the track opened but there is no formal agreement currently.
In 2011, the regional park district began eminent domain actions. It said in filings that Golden Gate Fields was trying to tie any resolution to its plans to redevelop the land. Golden Gate Fields is the last full time racetrack still operating in the Bay Area but has been the subject of several development proposals, including a proposed second campus for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that ended up being awarded to Richmond a year ago.
"Golden Gate continues to persist in the frivolous explanation that it wants the Bay Trail to be designed in concert with the development of the balance of the property," EBPRD lawyers wrote in a legal filing. "Time and time again, the owners of GGF have promised to provide for the Bay Trail in connection with a planned development, but none of the development schemes has ever materialized."
Attorneys for Golden Gate Fields objected on two main points: That no Environmental Impact Report was done before beginning the eminent domain process and that the legal requirements for eminent domain were not met.
Attorneys for EBRPD have argued that an EIR is not required in this case. An Alameda County Court ruled in May, 2012 that an EIR is required. But it also refused to throw out EBRPD's approval of the project, something that usually happens when an agency is found in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. Golden Gate Fields has appealed the latter part of the ruling. Written briefs have been filed and oral arguments should be scheduled in the next few months.
While the park district has since completed an EIR, Golden Gate Fields has claimed the intent of CEQA is to force officials to consider alternatives before approving projects and that, therefore, doing an EIR after approving a project is incorrect. The district maintains that no specific project has been approved and a further EIR will be done once it finalizes plans for the land.
EBRPD has been accused of violating CEQA on two fronts -- it also has been sued by a group called SPRAWDEF, which claims that the EIR filed regarding plans to renovate and restore Albany beach is inadequate.
In the meantime, the state Legislature is considering whether to amend CEQA. Pro-development lobbyists have claimed the law has been misused as a tool to delay or stop all development. Several environmentalist group representatives have countered that the law should be strengthened.