The site of the former Pine Lake Reservoir, seen from the freeway to the right as one drives west on Highway 780, will remain as it is for the immediate future. That didn’t sit well with the Planning Commission on Nov. 9. Their questions indicated that the planned use for the vacant field is not so much a problem as the lack of trees forming a “screen” along the freeway. The C.C. Meyers Company, the prime contractor for the new Benicia Bridge and for many other highway projects in the state, moved out in February and another company is moving in.
Everyone in the room appeared in agreement that the current tree “screen” is inadequate. It consists of a handful of scraggly trees that were planted about five years ago and are barely hanging on.
The property is generally considered by all who see it as an unsightly entryway into the city. What was once an attractive reservoir full of water and reeds is now a dusty lot used as a storage area. It is littered with steel beams and choked with weeds.
Another requirement for the property is a “water feature,” a nebulous term that nobody in the room seemed to be able to define. It is still unsure where the water for the “water feature” will come from, especially in this era of droughts. There is a spring that runs at least part of the year out of the property and under the parking lot of the military cemetery. People who keep the cemetery point to the distinct sulfur odor coming from the water as a reason why it was never used for drinking. Other springs in the Arsenal may also be used but most of those are sulfurous and all are seasonal.
Planners seemed optimistic that a solution could be worked out to everyone’s liking. It will probably involve a greater number of trees and requirements for their proper care.
The Pine Lake Reservoir has a long history. In 1940 the current earth and concrete dam was constructed to contain the rain runoff, sulfurous water from the springs and water drafted from the Carquinez Straits. Until the construction of the dams on the Feather River, the Straits ran fresh water to where the Carquinez Bridge stands. A complicated series of pipes were constructed for drafting river water.
Never intended as a source of potable water, Pine Lake was used only as flood control to protect a reservoir downstream from it, for irrigation water, and to provide water for fire fighting. The dam was raised 8 feet in 1952 to increase its capacity from 86 to 135 million gallons.
When the Arsenal closed in 1964 the Army listed Pine Lake as a “fire-fighting reservoir” and it, along with the reminder of the water system, was owned by the Department of Health Education and Welfare (DHEW).
City Attorney John Bohn wrote to the DHEW in 1963 detailing which facilities the city wanted to acquire, including the reservoirs, filtration and purification system, the delivery system, a water pipe to Contra Costa County, and Pine Lake. In turn, DHEW did an appraisal and set the price of $70,950.00, which the city accepted, knowing that Benicia Industries would pay for it out of an escrow fund. At the time the City was near bankruptcy. The brothels, a major source of income, had been shut down by Edmund Brown when he was Attorney General.
On Feb. 25, 1965 the Benicia City Council passed Resolution No. 4136 accepting the deed from the United States for the water system and the following day the DHEW executed a quitclaim to the city.
There were four clauses in the 1965 quitclaim from the DHEW to the city: 1. The city had to use the properties for a minimum of 20 years for public health purposes, 2. The property couldn’t be resold, leased, mortgaged, or encumbered for 20 years without the permission of the Secretary of the DHEW, 3. The city had to file reports on the operation and maintenance of the water system and, 4. The city agreed to comply with the Federal Civil Rights laws.
A series of Benicia Industries planning papers and brochures from this period are preserved in the Government Services Administration (GSA) and city archival collections. The company consultants recommended the preservation of Pine Lake and surrounding it with office buildings and park-like landscaping. The land, however, belonged to the city and the city didn’t act on the recommendations.
The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) became involved in the Pine Lake saga in 1968. In February, representatives of the DWR inspected the reservoir and dam, recommending an outflow spillway and an upstream control sufficient to empty the reservoir within a reasonable time. The city delayed action until 1971 when it disconnected the inflow pumps into the reservoir and took the lake out of service. By that time, the reservoir was silting up and the dam had become choked with brush.
The lake continued into decline. In 1974 the DWR again inspected the site and objected to the overgrowth of brush. At that time the facility was also being considered for a waste water reclamation project. A 1975 DWR inspection letter reported substantial silting, but the city wrote back that it was intending to transfer title to Benicia Industries and promised to clean up the brush. The city asked for an extension, which was granted.
In the 1975 exchange agreement between the city and Benicia Industries, the city obtained the waterfront between First and Fifth streets (to be used for the yacht harbor), Francesca Park, the Guardhouse, the parking lot of the Clocktower, the land on which the Camel Barns and magazine sit, a fire station site, the railroad property, and the hospital—if it could be moved. Benicia Industries obtained Pine Lake, the equity the city had in the remaining unsold property (0.5 percent), and the wharf (defined as improvements on tidelands). The agreement also cancelled the so-called “Master Lease” and its addenda, but it kept intact the leases on the tidal and submerged lands. By the end of February, a negotiation committee had hammered out the agreement and both the Surplus Property Authority and the City Council approved it.
Escrow instructions were completed but the Benicia Fair Trade Committee, a citizen’s committee opposed to the exchange agreement, forced it into an election. On Tuesday, May 27, the agreement was submitted to the Benicia electorate where it was approved with a plurality of 69 percent.
Activists recognized that the first clause of the 1965 DHEW quitclaim to the city prohibited the city from deeding Pine Lake for 20 years and wrote to DHEW, which in turn wrote to the city ordering it to stop the sale. By agreement between the city and Benicia Industries, the exchange proceeded without the Pine Lake reservoir.
Over the next five years, the state DWR peppered the city with letters expressing its concern about the stability of the Pine Lake dam and insisting on a new outlet valve and spillway. According to Warren O’Blennis, former City Councilman and mayor, who was on the Council at the time, the Council was disinclined to spend the money on the improvements to the dam and lake, given the reality that it was not being used for drinking or firefighting water, it was silting up, and the city had already committed itself to transferring it to Benicia Industries. There was a great deal of liability involved, not just in an unstable dam upstream of houses, but also the failure to go through with an agreement with Benicia Industries that was endorsed by a vote of the people.
To settle the problem, the city entered negotiations with DHEW for a release from the first and second clauses of the 1965 quitclaim to the city. Letters passed back and forth, with the DHEW pointing out that the city would have to purchase the property at current fair market value to clear the title for transfer to Benicia Industries. There was even a 1978 face-to-face meeting between city and DHEW officials. The Department of Interior became involved after being contacted by local environmentalists. At the end of 1979 DHEW wrote to Benicia Industries reminding them that no transfer of property had occurred. In December of 1979 DHEW wrote the city that the request for abrogation of the quitclaim was denied and that the city had the choices of using the property or returning it to the US Government. The city asked for an extension, which was granted.
Again, letters flew back and forth, fueled by environmentalists. In February 1980 the DHEW concurred with the abrogation of the first and second clauses of the quitclaim, but the GSA objected. The Department of Interior continued to say that the land should belong to DHEW. In 1981 the state Division of Dam Safety declared the dam unsafe. The city asked for an extension, which was granted.
Over the following four years, more letters were exchanged between the DHEW, GSA, state DWR, state Division of Dam Safety, Department of the Interior, and city. The city asked for extensions, which were granted.
On May 25, 1985 the DHEW control over Pine Lake ended when the 20-year time limit in the first and second clauses of the 1965 quitclaim expired. The federal government was now out of the picture and Benicia Industries wanted the property. That same year, the State again condemned the dam and lake. The city asked for a waiver which was granted.
Then-Mayor Marilyn O’Rourke asked for a legal opinion as to whether the city had clear title to Pine Lake when it entered the land exchange and if Benicia Industries should get the property. The city contracted with the law firm of Downey, Brand, Seymour and Rohwer in Sacramento and on May 1, 1986 the firm wrote, “…we have determined preliminarily that the city of Benicia…has entered into a binding contract with Benicia Industries to convey Pine Lake.”
Seventeen pages of legalese said that a deal is a deal, especially when validated by a vote of the people.
By November 1986, Benicia Industries became inpatient, so the company attorney started negotiations with the city attorney. According to a confidential Benicia Industry memorandum the city attorney said that the only way to get the city administration to act was to make a formal demand. The company did just that, but there is no evidence in the archives that the company filed a lawsuit. The city reluctantly acquiesced by proceeding with the quitclaim of the Pine Lake property to Benicia Industries.
Mayor O’Rourke did, however, get a parting shot when in 1987 she negotiated with Benicia Industries for “Covenants Running with the Land,” a document that called for the construction of a water feature such as a pond or fountain and the planting of trees if, and when, the property should ever be developed.
In October 1988, Benicia Industries obtained a permit from the city and filled in the lake so that it could no longer retain water, thus eliminating the Pine Lake reservoir and any jurisdiction that the DWR and the state Division of Dam Safety had over the property.
In the 1990s the southern boundary of the former lake was filled to make a right-of-way for a new freeway transition from Highway 680 to Highway 780.
Dr. Jim Lessenger is a local historian who is a member of several historical societies and has written books on historical subjects.