Oakland Zoo Expansion Won't Be Stopped By Knowland Park Referendum

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Expansion rendering. - COURTESY OF OAKLAND ZOO
  • Courtesy of Oakland Zoo
  • Expansion rendering.
Environmental activists' final effort to block the Oakland Zoo's expansion into Knowland Park has failed, which means the massive "California Trail" project is, as zoo executives have insisted for a long time, officially a done deal. After the Oakland City Council approved the final part of the zoo's project in November, opponents of the expansion launched a referendum drive seeking to overturn the council's decision by giving voters an opportunity to directly weigh in on the zoo's proposal. But today, Save Knowland Park advocates announced that they were unable to collect enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot. The zoo plans to break ground this year on the new exhibits in the public park in East Oakland.

According to Beth Wurzburg, one of the activists who led the referendum initiative, volunteers managed to collect nearly 8,000 signatures (though she said the group was still finalizing its official count of petitions today). In Oakland, the bar is very high to get a measure on the ballot. Residents must collect signatures from ten percent of all registered voters, or roughly 21,000 people. 
The activists had thirty days to collect petitions since the final passage of the council measure authorizing the zoo's plan, and because that period was during the holidays, the group always knew it would be a long shot.

"Close to 8,000 is amazing for a volunteer effort," Wurzburg said by phone this afternoon. "It didn't work out as we had hoped, but we had to try." 

For years, activists have fought the East Bay Zoological Society, the private nonprofit agency that runs the public zoo, arguing that the organization shouldn't be building exhibits on rare habitat in an urban open space park. The final battle in that dispute was the subject of the Express cover story "Zoo Gone Wild," (9/3/14) which chronicled activists' efforts to block the zoo's 2014 plan to further expand the total footprint of its project in order to meet the requirements of state and federal regulators.

The site of the expansion — which zoo officials have argued will be environmentally sensitive — is roughly 56 acres total, with the zoo planning to close off roughly 30 acres within the expansion for conservation purposes. The zoo also plans to close off 22 acres of the public park outside of its California Trail project to fully meet the conversation requirements of regulators, which have demanded that the zoo protect a specific amount of habitat to make up for the damage its expansion will cause. Knowland Park features rare plant communities and a threatened snake species, and activists argued that the closure of 22 additional acres was an unethical seizure of parkland that the public has a right to access. 
Joel Parrott, director of the zoo, in Knowland Park. - BERT JOHNSON / FILE PHOTO
  • Bert Johnson / file photo
  • Joel Parrott, director of the zoo, in Knowland Park.

If the activists had received enough signatures this month, a measure to overturn the council ordinance that authorized the zoo's final conservation proposal would have gone before voters on the ballot at a later election. 

"We're disappointed that the public has never had a chance to vote on this," said Wurzburg, noting that more than sixty volunteers helped collect signatures over the last four weeks. 

Zoological Society officials, however, have argued that local, state, and federal agencies have thoroughly scrutinized the project and that the expansion is designed to minimize environmental impacts and enhance habitat in certain areas. Earlier this week, the zoo also announced that it has secured final permits for the California Trail project from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. The expansion will feature wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, and other animals, along with a gondola attraction and an interpretive center.

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