ALBANY -- Canines and some recreational users are the basis of a legal action challenging the Environmental Impact Report for the restoration of Albany Beach.
A lawsuit filed Jan. 17 by a group called Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Defense Fund (SPRAWLDEF) claims the East Bay Regional Park District, which is working on the restoration, has allowed "dogs to run wild, damaging the San Francisco Bay wildlife," and that the EIR left "unanalyzed the impacts of windsurfers upon endangered eel grass."
Norman La Force of SPRAWLDEF said his group believes there are a number of problems with the environmental report.
"The EIR has failed to address the impact of off-leash dogs on the beach area," he said. "People who do not have dogs, or even if they do have dogs and want to enjoy that experience or have children, no longer have that experience."
Dogs -- both on- and off-leash -- have become a contentious issue in parks around the Bay Area. Officially, dogs are banned from using state parkland. But Albany Beach has become an attraction magnet for dog owners over the years. The beach is part of the Sylvia McLaughlin State Park, but is managed by the regional park district, which also has a nearby dog park at Point Isabel in Richmond.
Ted Radosevich, district counsel for the EBRPD, said the beach has been used by dog owners for decades, predating it being a state park.
"When you do a project, you have to look at the current conditions and look at whether there will be adverse environmental impacts if you do the project," he said. "Our project will create a fenced off habitat area where dogs will not be allowed. There will be a picnic and staging area where dogs will have to be on leash. We've tried to balance the conflicting needs and issues of the East Bay public, which is not an easy thing to do. Right now, dogs can go pretty much anywhere. Our project will restrict dogs."
La Force said he helped expand the dog area at Point Isabel and that he's not against dogs. However, he said the consequences dogs have on the environment can be huge.
"Dogs have an impact on wildlife, chasing birds," he said. "That weakens the birds in terms of the ability to rest and to forage. And there's the aesthetic impact that dogs off-leash aren't controlled as well by the owners, or at all, and this has caused impacts on other park users, particularly the elderly and young children."
The other focus of the lawsuit is the use of the beach by boaters and windsurfers. A planned parking lot could make it easier for those with watercraft to access the beach. SPRAWLDEF claims that will be bad for eel grass in the area.
"They want to facilitate people going out in small craft in the area of the eel grass bed," La Force said. "The response in the EIR is, 'We don't think it's going to be a problem and if it is, we'll just figure something out.' Well, that's not appropriate. This is an endangered plant that used to be prominent in the area. It needs certain conditions for it to be able to thrive."
Radosevich said all of the state agencies responsible have examined the eel grass issue and none have objected. "That's what we've looked at and analyzed, and we don't believe it will happen," he said.
"If, down the road, there are impacts, we're a responsible public agency, we'll look at the real impacts that develop," Radosevich said. "We feel that from an environmental document viewpoint, we've satisfied the law."
In another development, neighboring Golden Gate Fields has also challenged the EIR as part of an eminent domain lawsuit EBPRD filed to complete the Bay Trail on land owned by the racetrack.
EBRPD and Golden Gate Fields negotiated for several years over the strip of land behind the parking lot of the racetrack. Attorneys for Golden Gate Fields could not be reached for comment.
Radosevich said he expected the two actions would be consolidated, and added that he felt positive about the project.
"Long term, the district will provide the trail and we will provide the public access," he said. "It's a great public need and that's what we're committed to achieve."