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Facing some vocal opposition and a hearing before Sonoma County supervisors, a Marin County land management firm has made a last-minute change to its big plans for a ranch near the mouth of the Petaluma River.

Berg Holdings of Sausalito wants to raise 528 acres of farmland it owns adjacent to Port Sonoma by adding up to 18.5million cubic yards of soil dredged from the bottom of San Francisco Bay over a 20-year period.

The project would dramatically escalate the dredge-and-spread operation that's been occurring on the property over the last 14 years. It is meant to improve the acreage for farming.

It is also a potentially lucrative project for the company headed by Marin investor Skip Berg, which is paid to dispose of the soil that is dredged from the bay each year to maintain shipping channels.

The county's zoning board gave the project a unanimous go-ahead in July, but some environmental groups have continued to press for a full environmental impact report, saying the project's more basic review was inadequate.

Berg Holdings officials have disputed that claim and were set to defend the project and their studies today in a hearing before the supervisors.

On Monday, however, J.T. Wick, a principal with Berg Holdings, announced the company would temporarily shelve the project to conduct the more in-depth environmental impact report.

Wick said the move would give the project a better chance of standing up in court if it is ultimately approved and then challenged by opponents.

The report would likely take several months to complete and was expected to at least double the $250,000 Berg Holdings has already spent on studies, Wick said.

"I do this with a heavy heart," he said.

Local representatives of the Sierra Club who had appealed the project's approval welcomed the company's decision. They said they were not trying to halt the project and pledged to work with proponents on minimizing their concerns over water quality, soil contamination and habitat impacts.

"It's a win for the county as a whole because projects of this magnitude should really get the proper level of environmental review," said Leonard Holt, a Sonoma County representative of the Sierra Club's Redwood Chapter. The Sonoma County Water Coalition, Marin Audubon Society, the Marin Conservation League and the Black Point Improvement Club, representing nearby residents, also voiced concerns about the project.

The decision was expected to result in the cancellation of this afternoon's Board of Supervisors hearing on the project.

The company wants to raise the entire property at least eight feet, from one foot below sea level — it sits behind a 10-foot-tall levee on the east side of the Petaluma River — to seven feet above. The rise would escape brackish groundwater and allow a switch from farming low-value crops such as hay to higher-dollar crops such as tomatoes and blueberries.

Even without the crops, the project could be a financial windfall for Berg Holdings by expanding the amount of soil it accepts from dredging operations around the bay. The company, which currently takes in about 80,000 cubic yards of dredging materials annually, mostly from Port Sonoma, would accept as much as 900,000 cubic yards annually from across the Bay Area to elevate the land.

Berg Holdings could get $9 for each cubic yard of soil it receives, equating to more than $166 million over the project, according to one source familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Wick declined to provide financial details but said the revenue estimates were inflated. The revenues are offset by the cost of equipment, soil improvements and soil and water testing requirements, many of which stem from a 2008 settlement with the Sonoma Land Trust, he said.

The land trust holds an easement requiring the ranch be kept in agriculture. It has not objected to the project.

The plans could come directly back to the board upon completion of the impact report, or go back to the zoning board, county officials said.

Meanwhile, Berg Holdings continues to battle speculation that the project is a backdoor bid to industrialize Port Sonoma, with plans for rail, barge and freight truck operations at the 110-acre recreational marina, a property that Berg Holdings also leases and manages.

Wick called those claims "ridiculous," saying the operations would be limited to two new off-loading docks for dredging barges. The company's separate bid to establish a commuter ferry service at the port with a $20 million federal earmark it received in 2005 is dead, Wick said.

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