Friends of Knowland Park held a press conference at Oakland City Hall Tuesday, December 16 to kick off a 30-day referendum petition drive. The group seeks a public vote on whether to reverse a recent City Council decision that paved the way for a controversial Oakland Zoo expansion above the ridge in the heart of Knowland Park. Click here to see video.
The Sierra Club, among many conservation groups that have long opposed the project, has already passed a resolution supporting the referendum.
“It’s time for the public to have a say in how their parkland and important native wildlife habitat is used,” said Beth Wurzburg, a referendum leader. “Since most of the City Council has refused to listen to the public, we are exercising our right to seek a vote.”
The divided City Council vote that recently approved granting the Zoo easement rights on 53 acres of Knowland Park was required because the Zoo wants to build on habitat used by a threatened species, the Alameda whipsnake. Without the easement, the Zoo may have to consider alternative locations, because state and federal wildlife regulators found the development would cause permanent habitat destruction. Easement land would be closed to the public forever.
Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Rebecca Kaplan voted against the controversial easement, with Kalb chastising the City for not ever requiring a full environmental impact report (EIR) on the project. Kalb noted that it was rare for public parkland to be used for a conservation easement by a private developer, and that doing so would set a bad precedent.
In a recent poll of Oakland voters, 80% said access to public open space and parkland was very important to their quality of life, and 85% believed Knowland Park should be protected as a rare place where Oakland kids can go to learn and explore California’s natural environment. When presented with options, 75% did not support the current plans. Almost half thought that any Zoo expansion should occur either within or near existing Zoo buildings (44%) or that the Zoo should not be allowed to expand onto currently undeveloped parkland at all (31%).
Getting the referendum on the ballot will require collecting more than 20,000 signatures of registered Oakland voters, a task organizers admit will be challenging. However, the controversy over the decision to give away more parkland seems to have galvanized the public. “We’ve had so many people calling to ask how they can help,” said Wurzburg. “This referendum will send a message to the City that they can’t give away our public parkland without consent of the citizens of Oakland.”
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