Those of us who fought to keep the Mif Albright par-three golf course out of the clutches of developer Ron Cowan were intrigued to learn of Cowan’s recently announced plan to build 80 luxury homes on the site of the existing Harbor Bay Club.
Many of us suspected that this was Cowan’s original scheme: Said to be deeply in debt, he craved the cash that sale of waterfront homes would bring. To get it, he would move the Harbor Bay Club to the Mif site and build homes on the prime property vacated by the club. In exchange he’d give the City the North Loop Road property he had been denied permission to develop. Ultimately, of course, the deal ended up as a swap of the Mif golf course for the North Look Road scrubland, and the Harbor Bay Club was not part of the deal.
It is too early to evaluate the merits of Cowan’s latest proposal, but it’s not off to an auspicious beginning, since Cowan’s minions are slinging the same sort of stuff they dished out during the golf wars. The pitch includes a version of the law that is simply wrong and a version of history that is purely fantastical.
First, the law. According to published reports, Cowan continues to maintain that, “The courts have determined that Harbor Bay Isle Associates has the indisputable right to build an additional 227 units” on Harbor Bay Isle. It just ain’t so.
As I previously explained in a piece in the Alameda Journal, Cowan did indeed sue to force the City to abandon the conditions it sought to impose for re-zoning the North Loop Road property to allow him to build additional homes there. But the suit settled. Two interested parties – Peet’s Coffee and CLASS – then intervened to challenge the legality of the settlement.
Judge Frank Roesch of the Alameda Superior Court rejected the challenge. But the judge did not rule that Cowan had the legal right to build additional homes on the North Loop Road property. Rather, he ruled that Cowan only had the legal right to apply to re-zone the property for that purpose and the City retained discretion to review – and to deny – the application. The judge wrote:
[T]he Settlement Agreement here imposes no constraint on the City’s exercise of its police power in the future, and does not mandate any action. . . . The Settlement Agreement contemplates that land use applications for a General Plan amendment and re-zoning will be presented to two decision-making bodies of the City, which will exercise their judgment as they see fit. . . . The City Council maintains its discretion to weigh and evaluate the Application and make a decision as to whether to approve or deny it.
Which is what happened: Cowan applied for re-zoning – and the Planning Board unanimously denied his request.
Maybe Tim Hoppen, who signed the letter read to Council Tuesday, has forgotten what the judge ruled. But one hopes City Attorney Janet Kern will give Council a refresher.
Then there’s the fantasy. According to published reports, Cowan still wants the public to believe that his involvement in the land swap was simply the response of a civic-minded citizen to a concept concocted by City staff. Baloney.
As Cowan has told it, the story begins when two City staff members –former City Manager Debra Kurita and former Assistant City Manager David Brandt – were bemoaning the financial condition of the Mif Albright par-three golf course. Never mind that at the time the Chuck Corica Golf Complex was throwing off $1 million or so per year that went right into the general fund to pay for public safety wages and benefits and other vital items. Never mind that the Mif was never intended to be an independent money-maker for the golf complex; rather, it catered to juniors who paid a buck a round to learn the game and to seniors who found a shorter course more manageable than the regulation 18’s.. For some reason, staff decided, the Mif must go.
But here they ran into a problem. Back in 1973 Alameda voters had overwhelmingly passed a charter amendment prohibiting the City from selling parkland – which specifically included the golf complex – without a vote of the electorate. So selling the Mif land to a developer wasn’t an option. But, displaying creativity for which they were previously unknown, staff seized upon ambiguous language in the charter amendment to conclude that, even though the Mif could not be sold, it could be swapped for other vacant land on which the City, someday, would build sports fields.
And who, staff wondered, could they find to take the other side of this deal? Why, Ron Cowan, of course. So, staff went on bended knee to Cowan and implored him to help them out. Magnanimously, Cowan agreed.
That, anyway, is the story Cowan pitched in the golf wars and apparently is trying to sell now. It doesn’t fly. Why doesn’t Cowan just come clean and admit that he’s a hard-headed businessman whose objective is to make money for himself and his investors? Until very recently, that wasn’t considered such a crime.