Bait and Switch: How the Zoo and the City of Oakland used a 1998 MOU to Mislead the Community

The current legal case is a complicated one. Part of the difficulty arises because a very different version of the Zoo’s expansion plan was approved in 1998 than the one approved in 2011.  When the Zoo presented its expansion plan in 1997, there had been considerable community outcry, because those plans were quite different from what had been originally described in the 1996 Zoo Master Plan.  So, city-facilitated meetings between community representatives and the Zoo were held over a period of many months. These meetings, described as grueling by the volunteer community representatives, finally resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by Dr. Joel Parrott, the executive director of the Zoo, and representatives of community groups, one of which was the direct predecessor of Friends of Knowland Park.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act, it is harder to challenge a project’s environmental report if the project has already been approved, even if there are reasons to do so. The standard is higher because the thought is that once a project is approved, some finality is needed. This means that it is important to sue the first time around if one feels the environmental review is inadequate.

In this case, the community members were not entirely happy, but they agreed in good faith to the terms of the MOU because certain conditions had been met, the structures were low-profile and intrusion into the park on the eastern side of the ridge was minimal (basically, only an ‘off-site breeding center’ was to be located there, and since it was by definition ‘off-site’ it was not envisioned as being part of the expansion development). The visitor center, described as 7500 square feet, 1 story and “low profile,” was located in a saddle where land had already been disturbed. The exhibits were on the west (Zoo) side of the slope.

Thus, believing that the Zoo and the City would stand by the agreement they had worked so hard to craft, the community groups at the time did not sue.

Fast forward to 2011. Now, the Zoo plans, and the City approves, a radically different plan than the one they agreed to build in 1998. Numerous entirely new elements are added. Virtually all the exhibits and visitor areas are moved up well over the ridgeline, now facing directly into the remaining parkland. The visitor center balloons from 7500 to 34000 square feet and is relocated to an area of sensitive plant and animal habitat. Yet the City and the Zoo refuse to complete a full Environmental Impact Report, instead performing a revision of the “Mitigated Negative Declaration” (A lesser category of report suitable for projects with minimal environmental impact) used for the 1998 plan.

Challenged in court on the grounds that they have not complied with the California Environmental Quality Act, the City and Zoo now have the nerve to argue that “the time to sue was in 1998.”  (They also claim that the MOU is now irrelevant.) And yet the City incorporated the MOU into the previous approval, knowing full well that the community relied on its provisions. This bait and switch was a gross betrayal of the community’s trust.

If this stands, there is nothing to stop the Zoo three, five, or ten years hence from coming back with yet another revised plan—perhaps this time proposing that the interpretive center will now include seven stories and overnight hotel accommodations for parents whose children will attend the overnight camp. Or perhaps an RV parking area for out of town visitors. Or a roller coaster ride. Far fetched? I don’t think so. In 1998, the community would not have dreamed that the Zoo would be back with this bloated theme park plan approved and ready to build on the most fragile and biologically important habitat in the park.

Since numerous elements of the current plan were not part of what was approved in 1998, but the Zoo and City claim it is still “the same project,” it is clear that what constitutes a particular “project” is simply a matter of the Zoo’s current ambition and what it is able to ram through a development-friendly City process.

This bait and switch shows that the Zoo is willing to lie to get what it wants. To say now that “you should have sued then” displays contempt for both the community of park users and for Knowland Park’s wildlife and plant communities. We hope that the Courts will understand this. Regardless of the outcome, this kind of behavior by public agencies must not go unchallenged–or there is no point in having environmental protection laws.

Ruth Malone is a resident of Oakland since 1983, a founding member and co-chair of Friends of Knowland Park and a longtime Oakland neighborhood activist. Since 2007, she has been working to educate and organize environmentalists, park users, and community members to protect the park. In her day job, she is a professor of nursing and health policy at University of California, San Francisco, where she helps students study the links between health and political, social and natural environments, and conducts research on the tobacco industry and its efforts to thwart public health efforts worldwide.

Ruth Malone’s Reflections Blog offers a combination of reflective essays and updates from the Protect Knowland Park Campaign, linking the fight to protect Knowland Park to broader environmental and ethical issues.

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