At 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, the sound of lapping waves prevails at Albany Beach. Interstate 80 is just half a mile away, but this two-acre strip of Eastshore State Park seems a world apart from the traffic. Convenient isolation draws people here, and many bring their dogs for off-leash exercise.
Officially, dogs aren’t allowed on the beach at all, but this has been a popular off-leash area for years. Now an impending restoration project being developed by the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), which manages Eastshore State Park, has some dog owners worried that their use of the area will be curtailed or eliminated.
“You can’t simply ban dogs from a beach because the national or state park rules make a blanket ban,” says Paul Kamen, founder of the group Coalition for Diverse Activities on Water, Grass and Sand (CDAWGS), which has been circulating a petition asking for continued off-leash access at Albany Beach.
“There has to be some fair allocation of local use pressures,” says Kamen. Those pressures range from sports field users to advocates for small boat access to the Bay–the latter is Kamen’s particular interest. CDAWGS unites these groups to oppose what Kamen calls “the open space monoculture, where every bit of waterfront property is seen as protected habitat.”
Still, off-leash considerations dominate the conversation. “The dog owners are certainly the loudest voice,” says Kamen.
But Brad Olson, an environmental project manager at EBRPD, says the dog policies are separate from the restoration project. “These policies are set by our board of directors,” he says, “and that goes through an annual update process.” (The park district also happens to be home to the nation’s largest off-leash dog park, Point Isabel in Richmond. For the district’s full dog policy, visit ebparks.org/activities/dogs.)
Nine years ago, the district laid out loose plans for an Albany Beach project. Produced in conjunction with the California state parks department, the Eastshore General Plan outlined long-term management goals for a large area including the beach and part of Albany Bulb. That document remains the blueprint for Albany Beach today. “Our goal is to implement the improvements shown in the Eastshore General Plan,” says Olson, “which are in general terms restoration and public access.”
In late April 2011, district staff proposed a specific set of improvements for the beach and surrounding area, priced at about $4 million. Those include stabilizing the shoreline against rising sea levels and expanding dunes and wetlands onto an additional 2.8 acres currently owned by Golden Gate Fields. The plan also features public access amenities like picnic facilities and a new vault toilet.
“For its size, it’s an expensive project,” concedes Olson. But the area’s ecological significance seems to outweigh its dimensions. “This beach is representative of what is now a very scarce type of resource in the East Bay,” he says. “Most of the natural beaches are gone.”
The shoreline provides unique habitat for vegetation and wildlife. Mike Lynes, conservation director at the Golden Gate Audubon Society, says even one acre can make a difference to migrating birds. When high tides submerge a foraging area, smaller spaces provide refuge for birds. “You need small spots like that for birds to stay around for the winter,” he says.
Patricia Jones, CESP’s executive director, echoes the importance of restoration at Albany Beach. “The park was not created just for recreation,” she says. “CESP is very much an environmental habitat protection and restoration organization. The Bay Area deserves to have this area restored and fixed.”
That outcome is still far in the future, as several bureaucratic hurdles remain. “We’re early in the process,” cautions Olson. “The next step would be to go through an environmental permitting and design, so that will take about three more years.”
The EBRPD board will meet in June to decide whether to proceed with developing a project. “We plan to keep moving this ahead,” says Olson.
To read more about the Albany Beach Habitat Restoration Project, visit ebparks.org/planning#albany.