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Point Molate: Waterfront Dream or Terrorist Nightmare?

By Susan Williams

Many in the City of Richmond have dreams for Point Molate—a secluded, mostly undeveloped, 290-acre strip of waterfront nestled in Richmond’s Potrero Hills north of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. It offers spectacular views of the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays, the Marin hills, and the bridge from its 500-foot high ridge top down to the water’s edge. In late September, the Navy turned the deed to Point Molate over to the City. Now dreams for allowing the public in and for creating a Bay-front gem—a large park, homes, and a retreat center—tantalize the City more than ever.

Surrounding this piece of paradise, however, is the Chevron Texaco Refinery. The company’s executives envision nightmarish scenarios if the public gains access to Point Molate. They are pressuring the City to fence it off as a security area or to allow industrial uses only.

Plans for Building in Paradise

Eight years ago, the City got the news from the Navy that Point Molate could one day be theirs. They developed a Reuse Plan, and more recently, issued a request for developer bids. Seven developers expressed interest.

The City’s Reuse Plan includes preservation and access to a little-known historic treasure called Winehaven—a century-old red brick castle, with turrets and crenellations—which could be a set for Lord of the Rings. Early in the century, Winehaven was the largest wine producer in America. A couple of the City’s development proposals envision a new winery and a retreat center moving into the renovated castle. The winemaster’s home and the 29 winemakers’ cottages could lodge travelers, and house restaurants and cafes.

Most of Point Molate, which the Navy used for underground fuel storage during WW II, is clean and ready for developers. Unfortunately, the remaining contaminated portions, three 400-foot treatment ponds, lie in the center of the 90 most developable acres. The Navy-funded cleanup may continue for a few more years.

A Difficult Neighbor

The real obstacle to the City’s development plans comes not from underground contamination, but from Point Molate’s next door neighbor, the Chevron Texaco Refinery. An ammonia leak at the refinery could create a toxic cloud and endanger Point Molate residents, according to the Navy’s environmental report. Housing at Point Molate is deemed an incompatible use, but transient residential use, such as a conference center, would be acceptable.

The most dire threat, according to Chevron itself, is the possibility of terrorists sneaking into the refinery by way of Point Molate. "Since September 11, 2001, much has changed," says a letter from Gary Fisher, Chevron’s Manager of External Affairs. It warns that the U.S. Office of Homeland Security and the FBI see the refinery as a critical facility. Therefore, Chevron objects to any use other than "industrial, manufacturing and restricted open space,"—in other words, very few people.

Don Gosney, Community Co-Chair of the Point Molate Restoration Advisory Board, says "Chevron is milking the paranoia surrounding the September 11 attacks." He adds, "They’re more concerned with keeping potential litigants away than with terrorists. Chevron thinks residents at Point Molate will sue the first time there’s a little spill. They’re just concerned with their profits."

"There are 25 better ways for a terrorist to get into the refinery than through Point Molate," says Tom Butt, Richmond City Councilman. "The refinery can be reached very readily by land, sea or air."

Rosemary Corbin, ex-Mayor, decries the toxic clouds as a false threat as well. "The Point Richmond neighborhood is just as close to the refinery as Point Molate. Yet Chevron says Point Richmond is safe."

Some fear that Chevron will find a way to get their way. Gosney thinks that Chevron will get an injunction on the land preventing the City from building anything. Or the company will lease the land for a year then offer the City a "gazillion dollars," a chunk of change that would be hard to resist. Once Chevron owned Point Molate, they’d fence it off and let the historic buildings crumble.

A Solution: Bigger Fences, Better Neighbors

Tom Butt recommends taking the time to negotiate. "The next time Chevron asks the City for some kind of permit, the City could require Chevron, as a condition, to move or downsize the ammonia tanks, or at least to add more protective devices."

"Maybe a solution would be for Chevron to purchase the ridge top, the area adjacent to the refinery— or to put an easement there," says Corbin. "Chevron could build a better fence there and provide increased security. Then the City could have the waterfront portion of the property." Bigger fences make better neighbors, particularly when your neighbor is a huge Chevron refinery.

Both the Richmond City Council and Chevron hope for a mutually acceptable solution. But for now, the fate of Point Molate is anybody’s guess.