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Could Delta island become more than cow pastures?

A natural habitat for Delta waterfowl and wildlife, and more recently grazing cattle, Jersey Island in East Contra Costa County has remained largely undeveloped for more than a hundred years. Plans are percolating, though, that could turn it into a vacation getaway with a wave pool, sandy beaches, a wildlife refuge — and more — close to home.

That’s what one entrepreneur/developer, Montezuma Water LLC, has in mind with a preliminary concept it has presented to the island’s owner, Ironhouse Sanitary District, which has been looking for ways to reduce its responsibilities for the surrounding levees and shed some of its expenses for an island it no longer needs.

“It was costing a couple of million dollars a year in maintaining the levees and the drainage on the island and all of that,” Ironhouse Sanitary District general manager Chad Davisson said.

Montezuma’s initial concept for the 3,520-acre island includes building 450 waterfront homes, 60 townhouses, a 125-room hotel, a sports-and-recreation center with a wave pool and sandy beach, a public marina and ferry, a retail center and a wildlife rescue center and refuge that would replace cattle grazing on the site. Also suggested are wind and solar energy production and specialty agriculture, such as fodder crops for the refuge.

At a recent meeting, the ratepayer-funded district board approved the potential reimagining of the island Montezuma Water outlined, but the board would still need to formally approve the project before it could move forward. The Emeryville company is also seeking the blessing of the project from a variety of other agencies.

“We’re extremely excited,” Montezuma Water CEO Jim Levine told the Ironhouse Sanitary District board. “I think this is going to become one of the most important areas in the county, and I think it will serve generations to come.”

Levine, who is also an engineer, pointed to the wildlife conservation of both native and exotic species, the renewable energy and planned $6 million sports and recreation facilities as the key features of the proposed project.

“I think those are the three things that are going to make this really valuable to the community out there,” he said, noting that he’s already seen “a tremendous interest” in the wildlife refuge proposal.

Officials say, though, it could be years before any plan comes to fruition, with many regulatory hoops to pass through. Approvals alone could take four years, they say.

Located between Oakley and Bethel Island on the San Joaquin River, Jersey Island was used mostly for farming until Ironhouse Sanitary District purchased it 30 years ago to dispose of treated wastewater rather than dumping it into the river. But by 2012, the district had built a new treatment plant, and it was allowed to discharge the clean recycled water into the Delta.

“We didn’t really have that regulatory need to have an island anymore,” Davisson said.

Wanting to shed the burden of maintaining and restoring the Jersey Island levees, the Ironhouse board began looking into selling the island five years ago. It reached out to other agencies such as East Bay Regional Parks District and the state to see if they might be interested but didn’t get any takers, Davisson said.

A formal bid request, however, got Montezuma’s attention. The entrepreneur/developer had ideas about how to preserve much of the island and still turn a profit.

Under the concept, 75% of the island would be reserved for open space, agriculture, wildlife grazing and habitat enhancement in a project estimated to cost $180 million.

In its report, Montezuma Water said, “The magnificent setting of the approximately 3,500 acres of land that makes up Jersey Island provides a perfect canvas to create a project unlike anything previously imagined for the site.”

Levine, Montezuma’s CEO, called the proposed wildlife refuge the reimagined island’s centerpiece, noting that he hopes to partner with a major West Coast zoo for that portion of the project.

The Montezuma plan would maintain the island’s agricultural use, bring tourism to the Delta, provide amenities for residents in the region and could generate enough “green” wind energy with 22 turbines to power everything on the island and provide revenues for Ironhouse through renewable energy tax credits, according to the report.

To proceed with any project on the unincorporated island, though, the developer would have to obtain permits and zoning changes from a government agency. Montezuma representatives say they think the best option would be for nearby Oakley to annex the island.

Several Ironhouse board members had questions about the project, but only one was unwilling to take the next step in evaluating its feasibility.

“I have a lot of concerns with traffic and the impact on the existing community … questions like policing,” board member Pete Zirkle said. “I’d like to have a whole lot more information before making any major decision.”

Board member Chris Lauritzen, though he said he was not enamored with the project, wanted to consider the possibilities.

“I’m not a fan of the project at all,” he said. “I’m familiar with floods. If building houses on an island was a good idea, all the rest of the reclamation districts and islands would do it.”

Even so, Lauritzen noted that one can’t do anything without permits, and as such he wanted to consider approaching Oakley about annexing the island. Ultimately, he said he wants to sell the island and “get it off taxpayers’ backs.”

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