The Loma Prietan - November/December 2012

2012: Making Differences for the Peninsula and the Planet

Explore, enjoy, and protect the planet—Sierra Club motto

by David Simon

Since 1958 the Chapter has worked against development pressures to preserve the environment and beauty of the San Mateo County coast.  Photo: Helen Tindall
Since 1958 the Chapter has worked against development pressures to preserve the environment and beauty of the San Mateo County coast. Photo: Helen Tindall

In this issue we take a moment to look back at what the Chapter has done over the last 12 months. And it’s a long list. Our Chapter continues its strong outings program to explore and enjoy—see our report on one recent outing. We continue to protect by working on local issues that have global environmental implications. The way we build in the Bay Area, how much we drive, how much garbage we generate, and how much we pollute the air and water all affect the entire planet, its climate, and its wildlife. Our volunteer activists have been busy bringing together Chapter members like you and working with other environmental organizations to move these issues forward.

Our review covers:

Although we have only one full-time and one part-time paid conservation staff and two part-time administrative staffers, we accomplish as much as many larger organizations by relying on skilled volunteers and interns.

As a result of our work, greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced and our cities are healthier, with more open space,  more housing and transportation options for people of all ages, more resilient local economies, and improved quality of life.

The editors of the Loma Prietan would like to thank the many Chapter activists who took the time to help us put together this compilation of the Chapter’s 2012 work.

2012: Urban Land Use

We’re working to reduce traffic, pollution, and carbon emissions by making our development conducive to walking, cycling, and forms of transit other than the auto. - Image courtesy of Menlo Park Downtown Vision Plan

Many of the problems in the Chapter area—traffic, climate change, wildlife displacement, air and water pollution—are caused by where we hang out and where we drive. What and how we build, and especially where we build will affect our lives for decades.

The Chapter has been working with other environmental groups since 2008 to stop theSaltworks’ project, which proposed turning 1,436 acres of restorable Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City into a mini-city of 32,000 residents and a million square feet of office space—all this behind three miles of new levees, in an earthquake zone, and far removed from transit and downtown businesses. In addition to voicing our opposition directly to Redwood City Council members, we have put on educational events and engaged in a campaign to publicize our views in local media. On May 4 Cargill and Arizona developer DMB Associates announced that they were withdrawing the proposal. They’re likely to submit a revised plan and try to sell it as a “compromise,” but we’ll be there to remind the Redwood City Council that its excellent Downtown Specific Plan suggests putting new housing and office space downtown, on the transportation corridor, not in the transportation desert that is the Cargill property. The Chapter is working with the Committee for Green Foothills and Redwood City Neighbors United, an organization of Redwood City residents.

We lobbied hard and convinced Mountain View not to build housing near burrowing owl habitat. - Photo by Mike Kulakofsky

After extensive Chapter lobbying, the Mountain View City Council voted to plan no additional housing on the bay side of the Bayshore Freeway in the commercial and industrial area extending from Moffett Field to the San Antonio Road border with Palo Alto. Although proponents of the concept argued that having housing near jobs would reduce traffic, the problem is that there is no there there, and residents would be obliged to drive to grocery stores, schools, drug stores, restaurants, and everything else. Traffic is a problem, but putting housing in that area isn’t going to fix it; we need to build some transit. Also, this area contains the last remnants of wildlife habitat, particularly burrowing owl habitat, within the city limits, and adjoins the Don Edwards Wildlife Reserve. The owls and other species, who currently get breaks from human activity on nights and weekends, would have to contend with humans “24/7,” as the tech companies there like to put it. The Chapter will continue to press for housing near services, and better transit to office areas.

We brought together about 60 community leaders and decision makers at each of eight Healthy Community Forums to explore how we can improve the health of our cities— economic, environmental, and social—with suitable land use, housing, and transportation decisions.

After Chapter complaints about the wetland wildlife impact, Google withdrew its proposal to build a bridge over Stevens Creek in the Mountain View baylands. Instead, they’ll move ahead with plans for a bridge near Charleston Road that will cause much less environmental concern. The Committee for Green Foothills and the management of the Don Edwards Wildlife refuge joined the Chapter in this work.

Although the location of the new Facebook campus, far from transit near the west end of the Dumbarton Bridge in Menlo Park, is unfortunate, the Chapter has worked cooperatively with the Facebook development team to distill a set of solutions to problems of transit, traffic, bike lanes, lighting, and bird safeguards. The latest developments are highlighted in “Facebook Plans: Parking below, Park above.

And last, our land-use activists have worked to create a set of guidelines by which to judge proposed development (and by which to let decision makers know where we stand). They applied those guidelines and suggested various design improvements to the San Carlos Transit Village.

2012: The Coast

We need development larger than Pigeon Point Lighthouse. But ‘Big Wave,’ with 225,000 square feet of offices, 713 parking spaces, and more, would have been too large. We stopped it. - Photo by Larry Turino

The State of California proposed replacing the Devil’s Slide portion of Highway 1 with a road though McNee Ranch State Park in 1958. The Chapter and many others objected loudly, and the proposal was replaced with plans for a tunnel, soon to open. Ever since, the Chapter has worked to preserve the environment and beauty of the San Mateo County coast.

Chapter activists spoke out and defeated the Big Wave Project at the California Coastal Commission meeting held to decide the fate of the project. The developer had proposed to build four three-story office buildings totaling 225,000 square feet, a 20,000-square-foot storage building, a 4,000-square-foot communications building, 713 parking spaces, and a "Wellness Center" with 70 housing units for developmentally disabled adults and their caregivers, west of the Half Moon Bay airport. From Pacifica to Pescadero, the size of this project would have been unprecedented in an unincorporated area. The commission sided with the Chapter, the Committee for Green Foothills, and other environmental organizations, voting unanimously to deny the permit. Although we do expect this project to come back in altered form, we will re-appraise it then, and we remain vigilant about other oversized construction projects proposed for the coastline.

After a stream of emails from Chapter members protesting, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors shelved a proposal to log redwoods in Pescadero Creek County Park in order to help balance the county’s parks budget. Assistant County Manager David G. Holland wrote to ask us to stop sending emails. Related suggestions, including a proposal to establish the park as a “Model State Forest and Enterprise Zone,” are also off the table.

- Photo by Larry Turino

The Chapter continues to work with the newly organized PH1A (a group of Pacifica citizens) and the Committee for Green Foothills to oppose widening Highway 1 in Pacifica, the “Calera Parkway” project. Like the Devil’s Slide battle, this one seems destined to go on for a while. Activists peppered the San Mateo County Transit Authority (TA) with so many comments about the project that the agency downgraded it from "green," for "on time," to “yellow,” for "delayed." Many of the comments included constructive suggestions for alternatives to spending $50 million on more asphalt. If, as now appears to be the case, the TA isn’t listening, we’ll be there at Caltrans, when the TA tries to get funding. We’ll also be ready to lobby the California Coastal Commission—whose staff has already expressed skepticism about whether this project complies with the local Coastal Development Permit —when the TA goes there.

After the Chapter, along with two other Sierra Club chapters, Greenbelt Alliance, and the Committee for Green Foothills, protested, Plan Bay Area denied an application to designate coastal lands as “Priority Development Areas.” San Mateo County applied for the designation, which might garner millions in federal transportation money, but at the cost of massive development on the coast. See “Priority Development Area on Midcoast? No Thanks” on page 10.

2012: Elections and Lawsuits

Although much of the Chapter’s work is done by lobbying decision makers, we also concern ourselves with elections. The folks who get elected are, after all, the decision makers we must subsequently work with. And when decision makers get it wrong, we sometimes resort to legal action, working with the Club’s national legal team.

With our help, Laura Stein became the first write-in candidate in memory to win a set on the Midcoast Community Council. - Photo by Martin Stein

One Chapter member didn’t see any reason why only two environmental candidates were running for three open seats on the Midcoast Community Council, an elected body that advises the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors about governance issues in the unincorporated coastal communities from Miramar to Montara. So Chapter member Laura Stein filed as a write-in candidate. Although no one could remember a write-in candidate ever winning an election in San Mateo County, Chapter members, Laura, and the other two environmental candidates walked neighborhoods tirelessly with leaflets on her behalf. With that help, Laura edged out the Patriot Party candidates who hoped to bring a less environmental view to the council.

To help get our allies into public office, we let our members know which candidates we support. The Chapter’s Political Committee worked diligently both in the June primary and the November general election to vet our local candidates. Members of the committee’s endorsement teams sent questionnaires to, reviewed the voting records of, and interviewed over 50 candidates for State Senate and Assembly, San Mateo and Santa Clara county offices, and many city and special-district offices. They covered races from Daly City to Gilroy and points in between. The Chapter endorsed over 40 candidates, none in some races and up to five in some city council races. Each race team had at least three volunteers. Over 55 Chapter members helped, including many first-time volunteers.

Turning to the Courts

- Photo by James Robenalt

After years of illegal pumping-pit seepage into Permanente Creek, Lehigh Southwest Cement in Cupertino is now the subject of the Chapter’s lawsuit to remedy the situation. Lehigh’s discharge of toxic chemicals, especially selenium, has rendered the waterway an “impaired water body,” according to two government agencies. Water samples indicate that harmful chemicals have clocked in at 16 times what is permitted by the Clean Water Act. Lehigh’s own water testing confirms that the amount of selenium in the creek is much higher downstream of the plant than upstream. Even after all these years, says our lawyer, Reed Zars, certain companies continue to ignore the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. We’re simply fighting to protect the public interest as it was expressed in our federal anti-pollution statutes more than 40 years ago. Pretrial motions have been argued; unless the suit gets decided on the basis of motions, trial is set for May 2013.

 

The National Audubon Society has designated Panoche Valley an Important Bird Area of Global Priority. That and three endangered species are among the reasons we’re suing to have a giant solar installation put somewhere else. - Photo by Mike Kulakofsky

Although the Chapter is generally in favor of solar power, we’re also in favor of preserving wildlife habitat. When the San Benito County Board of Supervisors couldn’t see it our way, we joined the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and Save Panoche Valley in suing to stop the Panoche Valley solar farm. The proposal is to spread three to four million solar panels and associated infrastructure on 5,000 acres of core habitat for the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin kit fox, and giant kangaroo rat -- all endangered species under federal and state law. Panoche Valley is also designated an Important Bird Area of Global Priority by the National Audubon Society and Birdlife International because of its short-grass prairie, which provides essential habitat for many bird species.

 


2012: Air, Buses, Carbon, D—, E—, F—, …

The Chapter works on issues A to Z that help the global environment through local action.

The Chapter has been promoting bans on those plastic bagsthat grocery stores hand out by the dozen. The bags are a huge trash problem, littering the landscape and the ocean. San Jose led the way with a bag ban, which Sunnyvale is copying. Now San Mateo County is bringing together 24 cities in both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to develop a model ordinance and to develop an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for it to fend off lawsuits by the plastics industry. We anticipate that cities will be able to use the ordinance and its EIR within the next few months.

Chapter member Kurt Newick has been hugely successful at reducing the permit fees for rooftop solar installations. His published compilations of these fees have in some cases embarrassed cities and counties into reducing them and in some cases pointed out that the fees were illegally high and could subject cities and counties to lawsuits. Now the California legislature has stepped in with two bills limiting what can be charged, one setting a specific dollar limit on permit fees for residential systems up to 15,000 watts and commercial systems up to 50,000 watts; and the other requiring fees to reflect the cost to the county or city and not to be based on the value of the system being installed.

To reduce carbon emissions from transit, we’re working with Valley Transportation Authority to improve Santa Clara County bus service. - Photo by snty-tact / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Together with the Club’s San Francisco Bay Chapter (east bay, San Francisco, and Marin) and the Redwood Chapter (Sonoma county to the Oregon border), the Chapter has been busy lobbying our Bay Area transportation board, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, to reduce carbon emissions from cars by incorporating the requirements of state law into their decisions about which transportation projects get funding. Separately, the Chapter is also working with the Valley Transportation Authority to improve Santa Clara County bus service.

The Chapter continues to provide the Bay Area Air Quality Management District with arguments for strengthening air quality regulations for cement plants beyond what the district originally proposed. We lined up letters supporting our position from the Cupertino City Council, the Los Altos Hills City Council, and Breathe California of the Bay Area. We believe that our proposed measures are healthier for our community and cost-effective for Lehigh Southwest Cement. (That’d be the same outfit we’re suing over water quality violations; see “2012 Review: Politics and Legal” above.)

Preserving and enhancing natural stream habitats has been on the Chapter’s radar this year. We have lobbied the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board extensively about its habitat restoration and stream stewardship projects, and objected that flood control projects are getting priority at the expense of environmental projects. The Chapter has supported a district staff proposal to accelerate the district’s Fisheries & Aquatic Habitat Collaborative Effort, which appears stalled. In addition, we’ve opposed a project in the Penitencia Creek Flood Zone, a project would interfere with flood control projects along the creek and destroy potential riparian habitat.

We promote city and suburban gardens where people can grow and harvest their own produce to provide local healthy food. This food is not processed, it doesn’t require transportation to get to the table, and the gardener gets some exercise. Also, after San Mateo cited EcoVillage, an eight-unit housing coop, for its bees, we approached and secured the support of three of the five-member city council to adopt the Madison Beekeeping Ordinance. The Madison ordinance, called the best in the country by the American Beekeeping Journal, would allow San Mateo’s bees to return. Bees are an integral part of the food chain responsible for about 90% of our food, and the “colony collapse disorder” that has ravaged agricultural bees has not been reported among city bees.

The Chapter continues its ongoing effort to stop clearcutting in the Sierra Nevada, meeting with our California State Assembly representatives and petitioning Governor Brown.

And last, efforts of the Chapter’s Conservation Manager, Megan Fluke Medeiros, helped land three different grants totaling $53,500 to support our Building Climate-Friendly Communities program.