Preserving a Marsh for People and Wildlife: The Dotson Family Marsh

February 1, 2017, Department, by Ana M. Alvarez, Ph.D., and Erich Pfuehler

2017 February Conservation 410

When Ethel and Whitney Dotson were growing up in Richmond, California, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, they spent hours exploring outdoors. Their father, Reverend Richard Daniel Dotson, had grown up in a rural area of Louisiana and instilled his family with a love of fresh air and scenic open spaces. Decades later, the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) renamed the wetlands that young Ethel and Whitney roamed the Dotson Family Marsh, in honor of their family’s environmental legacy.

When the Rev. Dotson moved his family to the Parchester Village neighborhood of Richmond, California, in the 1950s, they were some of the first settlers in what became a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Whitney Dotson recalls how refreshing it was to move near the shoreline after living in public housing further inland. Built after World War II, Parchester Village consists of 400 single-family homes intended to house those who would have otherwise been displaced after temporary war-time housing closed.

Tucked between two railway lines, Parchester Village was named for its developer Fred Parr and his son Chester and came with the promise the community would always have a view of the bay. In a city known for its industrial activity, including oil refineries, shipyards where many U.S. ships were built during World War II and a deep-water port, this assurance meant a lot to the community.

When Mr. Parr sold the property in the 1970s to Gerald Breuner, the owner of a furniture company, the Dotson family and their neighbors found themselves having to fight to keep the shoreline adjacent to their neighborhood undeveloped. There were numerous proposals to develop what was then known as Breuner Marsh, into industrial uses: a small airport, several versions of housing developments and a light industrial park were some of the proposed options.

Whitney Dotson recalls his father’s dismay at the proposed development. “Everybody neglects the need of low-income communities to access to quality of life,” says Mr. Dotson, remembering the community using the adjacent open space for fishing, swimming and nature viewing. Rev. Dotson was determined to keep this corner of the East Bay wild and open. To uphold the community’s promise, Rev. Dotson organized his neighborhood council and later brought in the Sierra Club as an ally to halt such development projects. In 2008, Whitney successfully ran for an open, elected seat on the EBRPD Board of Directors and, today, continues to be a driving force in the advocacy of this valuable parcel being accessible to the public.

In May of 2008, the EBRPD was able to acquire the marsh through the eminent domain process after three years of legal battles. Had it not been for the Park District’s efforts, and the passion Parchester Village had for this Bayfront marsh, the property would have been developed and the community’s promise broken. In 2012, the EBRPD Board of Directors adopted a plan to restore the marsh and improve public access to the area then known as Breuner Marsh. The marsh is contiguous with the District’s Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, one of two major shoreline parks operated in the city: Point Pinole and Miller/Knox — each located on former industrial sites.

The 150-acre marsh is currently undergoing an extensive, $14 million habitat project funded by more than 10 agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and through local bond Measures CC and WW. When the restoration is complete, the marsh will be a self-sustaining wetland complex that will filter polluted runoff and provide habitat for high-quality native plants and threatened and endangered species, such as the ridgeway rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse.

The project includes a 1.5-mile extension of the San Francisco Bay Trail, helping to close the remaining 10 miles of Bay Trail gaps within the city’s current 32 miles of existing trail and will provide the first safe, non-motorized access to Point Pinole Regional Shoreline. It also includes a 24-space parking lot and two new trails, to be named the China Clipper Spur Trail and Cordgrass Jetty Trail.

During the restoration project, the marsh is closed to the public, but the restoration is expected to be complete in late spring 2017. Once open, the Dotson Family Marsh will be a site for outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, picnics and nature observation.

The park addition is designed to accommodate for sea-level rise resulting from climate change through 2080. This includes infrastructure design such as elevated trails and planning wildlife habitats so that even if some areas are submerged, the area can still sustain diverse species. The final restored area will also include interpretive exhibits.

“This was all possible because of decades of community engagement for environmental justice in an area impacted for so long by industrial uses,” says Park District General Manager Robert Doyle. “The Dotson family and other Richmond residents worked hard for this project, and we’re thrilled to honor them this way.”

Today, Parchester Village is the home to more than 10,000 individuals of various races, education and income levels. Through the efforts of the Dotson Family, Park District and community, Parchester Village retains its view of the San Francisco Bay, as promised.

Furthermore, the restoration and soon-to-come public access to the Dotson Family Marsh is part of an overall trend in the city of Richmond toward increased outdoor access. There are now several miles of publicly accessible shoreline along the Bay, in a city which in the 1950s had hardly any.

In November 2016, the East Bay Regional Park District officially incorporated the Breuner Marsh parcel and one other into the Land Use Plan for Point Pinole Regional Shoreline and renamed the wetlands the Dotson Family Marsh.

“This is a tremendous honor,” says Whitney Dotson, whose family has been on the forefront of Richmond environmental advocacy and justice for decades. “This beautiful marsh is an asset not just for Richmond residents but the entire Bay Area.”

Ana M. Alvarez, Ph.D., is the Deputy General Manager at East Bay Regional Park District. Erich Pfuehler is the Government Affairs Manager at East Bay Regional Park District.