Bay CrossingsBay Environment

Port Sonoma Marina: Wildlife Refuge or Transit Hub?

Published: March, 2002

The controversy about whether to transform sleepy Port Sonoma Marina into a North Bay transit hub anchored by ferry service or protect it for wildlife grew more tangled after Bluewater Network learned of recent unlawful dredging at the site. Officials were told by marina operators caught in the act of unlawfully dredging an overgrown channel choked with bay mud and cord grass last summer that they were laying the groundwork for a ferry terminal.

The San Francisco Water Transit Authority (WTA) was not involved and has made clear it does not condone such activity. In fact, the WTA is studying low-draft vessels that may not require new dredging at potential ferry sites. However, the incident has undermined an already uneasy dialogue between stakeholders over the future of ferry service at Port Sonoma.

For months, North Bay environmentalists, public officials, business people, developers and transit planners have been debating the merits of siting a ferry terminal at the shallow port at the mouth of the Petaluma River along Highway 37. Port Sonoma is one of numerous sites being considered in a state-funded planning effort to study expanded ferry service on San Francisco Bay as a way to help relieve highway traffic congestion. The site is contentious due to wetlands and wildlife, development and transportation issues.

Though conceptually in favor of low-emissions ferries to help relieve traffic congestion, especially hybrid-electric and solar-powered designs, environmentalists are concerned about the air and water pollution generated by diesel fast ferries and the potential impacts to wildlife and wetlands from vessels and terminal construction. They are specifically worried that a new ferry terminal at Port Sonoma could promote new development and gentrification of the mainly rural Highway 37 corridor. Some public transit advocates also question the need and practicality for a Sonoma commuter ferry to San Francisco since 80 percent of Sonoma commuters never leave the county for work.

The Dredging Incident

The Army Corp of Engineers halted the Port Sonoma marina’s dredging operations in August 2001 after being notified that dredging equipment was operating in an old berth that had been reclaimed by tidal marsh. Marina operators told enforcement agents that the long-neglected Shellmaker Channel needed dredging to make it deep enough for future use, such as a ferry terminal.

Marina operator Brian Swedberg of Granite Lands Co. maintains what happened was just routine maintenance dredging, which allows removal of 60,000 cubic yards of silt and mud each year. His consultant John Zentner echoed this explanation, saying that the marina possessed dredging permits, including one from the regional water board, that allowed work in Shellmaker Channel. At issue was a permit mix-up, they say, not any intentional wrong-doing.

However, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) is taking a more serious view. It stated in a letter to the marina operator that the existing BCDC permit “clearly does not authortize dredging into the Shellmaker Channel, nor does it contemplate any future ferry facility.” BCDC staff is issuing a violation report that will be reviewed by the full commission later this year. If upheld, the marina could face thousands of dollars in penalties.

Competing Interests

Due primarily to strongly voiced objections from the environmental community, Port Sonoma was given low priority in the original ferry expansion blueprint, a study produced in 1999 by the pro-business Bay Area Economic Council.

But Port Sonoma was put back on the map by Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Cale and Marin County Supervisor Cynthia Murray after the WTA was funded with $12 million to analyze the feasibility of expanded ferry service on the Bay.

Former Sonoma County Supervisor Jim Harberson is also active in the ferry arena, representing business interests, including North Bay developer Skip Berg, who want to develop Port Sonoma. Berg, former owner of Sears Point Raceway, is a partner in Port Sonoma Associates LLC, which has options on both Port Sonoma Marina and the 500-acre agricultural property immediately to the north. The names of the other partners and their visions for the properties are currently under wraps.

Harberson says that Berg’s group would like visitors to be able to ride the ferry to Sonoma, then hop onto a train to the wine country, leaving their cars behind. A railroad right-of-way runs along the south side of the marina, offering the possibility of future passenger rail service.

Not long ago, another development team with options on the marina and 500-acre property circulated plans for residential and commercial development at the marina, and a vineyard with visitor center across the highway.

Under current zoning, development potential at Port Sonoma Marina is severely limited. No commercial, industrial or manufacturing operations are allowed, neither are overnight accommodations or even live-aboards on the vessels that dock at the marina. Only a general plan amendment would begin to open the door to a ferry terminal and a transit village.

But zoning changes can and do occur. The developers must have been encouraged when the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported Cale and fellow Supervisor Michael Kern agreeing that “a little development” would be OK there.

Such statements raise the ire of longtime conservationist and former Sonoma County supervisor Bill Kortum.

“We’ve been working for years to protect that region,” said Kortum. “The whole area was going to stay in agriculture. Farmers have been selling development rights. Imagine how they would feel if now their neighbors could sell and make a fortune.”

If a ferry terminal that allows high-paid financial district workers to jump on the ferry and get to Southern Sonoma in less than an hour, it would create strong growth pressures, he added.

The Public Transit Question

The current push to transform the neglected marina into a modern ferry terminal seems rooted more in long-term prospects for winery tourism and commercial development than a real need for mass transit.

The need and practicality of a commuter ferry service at Port Sonoma Marina, even with connecting rail service, remains questionable. Most Sonoma commuters never leave the county. About 10 percent travel to Marin, and less than 5 percent or about 11,000 people go to the city every day. Those numbers are projected to steadily decrease, according to government estimates, making the imperative for commuter ferry service questionable.

Even if you could draw commuters out of their cars and onto the ferry, the environmental trade-offs are currently poor. Today’s fast diesel ferries are significantly more polluting per passenger mile than diesel buses or even single-occupant cars. Utilizing low-emission non-diesel vessels, which are under study by the WTA, could reduce this problem.

When looking at ridership, however, it is significant that 6 million visitors travel to Sonoma County each year, mostly leisure travelers in search of good food and wine. About 40 percent or about 2.5 million come from the Greater Bay Area. This provides a pool of riders for potential recreational ferry ridership.

The possibility of connecting train service makes the site more promising. Plans for a rail line from Cloverdale to San Rafael are slowly moving forward. Funding is in place to utilize the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad right of way for passenger and freight service, which could become a reality before the end of this decade. Connecting to Port Sonoma is further off.

“My feeling is we should not be proposing a ferry operation at Port Sonoma at this time,” said George Ellman, a member of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Commission “The railroad needs to be operating before the port gets into operation.”

Tidelands Reclaiming the Marina

Port Sonoma Marina was built during the 1960s and 1970s before stringent environmental laws were in place. It is located in what is now some of the last remaining wetlands in San Francisco Bay. Numerous endangered and threatened species are known to inhabit the area, including the clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse, the disappearing Point Reyes Bird’s beak, Suisin shrew, steelhead trout, and San Pablo song sparrow.

Keeping the marina from reverting to baylands is an ongoing battle because it silts up continuously. On a recent visit, I noticed that only the dock closest to the river appeared to be in good shape and in regular use. Several commercial bait fishing vessels motored into port

while I was there at high tide, a band of snowy egrets on the stern pecking for shrimp bits. Several sailboats and motor vessels also lined the dock. The small beer and bait store was open, offering drinks, candy and pictures of massive Bay sturgeon caught by recreational fishers. Along the shore, families with children were fishing and picnicking, mostly people of color. I wonder what will happen to these folks if a major development is ever allowed.

Mud, cord grass and wetlands have long ago displaced marina structures along the south side of the marina adjacent to railroad tracks that skirt the property. Most of the land near the marina is protected baylands or pasture and hay fields. Other protection efforts are underway.

The Sonoma Land Trust is interested in purchasing the Port Sonoma Marina, but discussions have not yet been fruitful. The trust owns agricultural easements on the property across from the marina and has been active in restoring nearby baylands.

Audubon is currently spearheading a campaign to purchase the undeveloped Bahia property on the Marin side of the Petaluma River immediately north of Port Sonoma. The US Fish & Wildlife Service is slowly adding parcels and converting old hayfields back into tidal marsh.

At environmental hearings on the ferry system expansion hearings held late last year, Bryan Winton of the San Pablo National Wildlife Refuge said:

“I see potential significant impacts to California clapper rails if a ferry terminal is ultimately sited at Port Sonoma. A final concern about a ferry in this location, would be that the area west of Sears Point is largely undeveloped and a new ferry terminal may result in expansive development in one of the final remaining undeveloped open space areas remaining in the entire San Francisco Bay.”

He also cited concerns about traffic and the impact on wildlife mortality. Instead, he supports a doubling or tripling of existing ferry service at Vallejo to serve the North Bay.