Friday, December 31, 2004

Proposed casino moved away from Santa Clara County

In somewhat-good news for controlling sprawl in Santa Clara County, a proposal to place a Native American casino right across the border in San Benito County has been moved further south, to just north of Hollister. The original location was in an environmentally-sensitive floodplain and wildlife migration corridor shared between the two counties, and was close enough to promote sprawl in Gilroy. The new location eliminates some of those impacts, but would still increase traffic on Highway 101 that would ratchet up pressure to widen the highway, and may still have growth impacts on Santa Clara County. As The Pinnacle newspaper article above notes, many issues still surround this controversial project.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Coastside: Bedford Falls or Pottersville?

Last week's Half Moon Bay Review includes a thought-provoking editorial by Montara resident Barry Parr, who compares alternate realities for the San Mateo County Coast.

This is just the kind of long-range thinking that inspires those of us at Committee for Green Foothills. As the editorial says, together we CAN create the positive vision provided by Bedford Falls, and keep Pottersville from coming to our communities.

- Kathy

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Breaking the law....

Breaking the law - don't do it!

That's what we're saying to Santa Clara County and other jurisdictions that are giving developers access to environmental documents while locking out the rest of us. Here's our latest letter.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Secret developer access exposed

The Pinnacle newspaper in south Santa Clara County did an in-depth article about the issue CGF exposed - developers are given access to draft environmental documents to review those documents and argue for changes while environmentalists are excluded.

Two points we can add here - County staff said giving equal access to environmentalists would be a bureaucratic nightmare. It would not - all the County would have to do is to respond to requests for the same documents the County was already giving to developers.

Second, Supervisor Gage compared the process to the County reviewing financial audit reports before they became public, and said there's nothing wrong the developers doing the same thing with environmental documents. The difference is between who's in charge of the process - the County commissions audit reports which belong to the County, but environmental documents do not belong to developers. They belong to the people of the County, and if one member of the public - a developer - can get to see them, then so should anyone else who requests the opportunity.


Monday, December 20, 2004

San Jose to worsen the jobs-housing balance

San Jose has long (and justifiably) complained that north Santa Clara County cities would build tax-revenue-increasing business developments while failing to provide tax-revenue-decreasing housing. San Jose and areas south and east are then forced to provide housing for the North County jobs, resulting in sprawl and long commutes.

Taking this lesson to heart, San Jose now wants to become like its north County sister cities. With the planned development of Coyote Valley and North First Street, San Jose will also have insufficient housing. Given that the region as a whole is so deficient in housing, San Jose's action will significantly harm the overall region.

Here's our latest letter to the City on the subject (included free in the letter is an argument requiring farmland protection).


MROSD wants your input

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has just posted a Visitor Satisfaction Survey on their newly designed website. Let them know what you think!

Their new site is beautiful, and much easier to use than the old design. I particularly like the new preserve finder - check it out.

- Kathy

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Stanford's improved finances to affect construction?

There's been relatively little construction on Stanford campus pursuant to the 2000 General Use Permit, but much of that lull could be attributed to finances. Things may be changing:

"The university’s investment returns last year were $1.7 billion. The university’s endowment is now $9.9 billion, up from $8.6 billion a year ago."

We'll need to keep a watch on the pace of construction, to see if it's affected by this. Spending the extra cash on environmental research and conservation would be extremely welcome.


Monday, December 6, 2004

Fighting the monster mansion

We've been opposing a "monster mansion" on the outskirts of San Jose. It was first described as a 17,000 square-foot residence on a hilltop. It turns out to be actually 25,000 square feet. The environmental documentation needs to be redone, and Santa Clara County needs to put an upper limit on resource-consuming, speculation-inducing monster mansions.

The property is located above the white rectangle in the aerial photo above (thanks, Keyhole!). Most of the homes directly below and to the right of the white rectangle were not considered in the visibility analysis of the project, and we suspect that they will find the monster mansion dominating their views of the hills.

Here are our two letters about the project, beginning with the most current, December 3, 2004.

For more details, see our September 7th letter.

We'll keep working to fix these problems!


Thursday, December 2, 2004

News roundup

San Jose is considering a new "Downtown North". It will have 100,000 jobs, supposedly, and 24,700 new residences. Shades of Coyote Valley where, once again, San Jose is not providing housing to balance all the people it is trying to attract to the region. On the other hand, this development will destroy much less open space than Coyote Valley. We'll have to think about what degree this is a CGF concern. Here is one concern however: Mayor Ron Gonzales said "he couldn't recall why he decided to cut the developers the break" of having the City (read: taxpayers) instead of the developers pay for the costs of the $1 million environmental review. It's very clear to us that developers, not the public should pay for the cost of reviewing their projects.

Los Altos Hills may require energy conservation in monster homes. Large homes would have to meet a tighter energy standard than smaller places under the proposal. This points out a significant problems with monster homes - besides eating up land and driving speculation, they consume more resources than reasonably-sized residences, for as long as the buildings are standing.

And on the subject of consuming energy, New Scientist reports that climate change culprits could face court, as damage from global warming becomes traceable to the industries that cause the warming. Global warming is another good issue for open space preservation, which promotes smart growth and energy-efficiency.


Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Local connection to global warming - sardines?

An interesting article in today's New York Times discusses a newly-discovered connection between the lack of sardines and global warming. It appears that these tiny fish eat, or used to eat, massive amounts of phytoplankton, which are tiny plants floating in ocean currents. With the sardines exploited and overfished, the phytoplankton proliferates, dies, and rots. As it rots it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The study was conducted in Africa, but could be relevant to the collapsed sardine fishery off the northern California coast. Just one more lesson of the dangers in massively altering systems we don't yet understand.


New guidebook for local open space

We just learned of a new guidebook to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District's 25 preserves and 200+ miles of trails. "Peninsula Tales & Trails" by David Weintraub ($19.95 from WestWinds Press, available at Kepler's) promises a preserve locator map, historical, cultural and anecdotal material, including a table with trail use info (bikes, dogs, horses).

The locator map and trail use info are already available on the MROSD website, but the additional info might be quite interesting, and it's worth taking a look at this book.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Problems with the Stanford Trail EIR

Here is CGF's comment letter on the Supplemental EIR for the Stanford S1 Trail. As you'll see, we didn't like the document very much.


Friday, November 12, 2004

Getting angry on the job

So I'm a little embarassed to admit that I got angry at a public meeting recently. I was attending a meeting of an interminably-long committee process deciding whether to expand a city's boundaries, and a pro-development person made what I considered to be a series of unfair attacks on a new environmental representative at the committee. When the committee took a break, the development person and I got in an argument about her attacks, and I challenged her to appeal to the mayor, who was chairing the committee and was ten feet away, if she thought the environmental groups were doing anything wrong. We argued for a little more, then calmed down and had a normal conversation.

The one consolation was that somebody else at the meeting told me that I was not visibly angry. I kind of thought I was.

The only times I've become angry on the job in my year-and-a-half here are in that particular committee (on other occasions), and with Stanford's various activities. I'm not sure what that says about anything, but I'll try and keep my cool, or keep it from showing when I don't keep my cool.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Pushing for change

CGF has found serious problems with County planning processes, where developers are given access to government documents that are not shared with the public, and given a chance to influence the final version of those documents without input from the public. We have more information about this illegal practice here.

We are now beginning to take action. Here is a letter we're sending to Santa Clara County. We'll see what happens next.


Monday, November 8, 2004

Stanford's S1 "Trail" - comments are due Friday!

Santa Clara County is now accepting comments on the environmental documentation for the first of the two trails that Stanford promised to build in return for all the development it was allowed. (For background information, click here.) You can review the County's new document here:

Stanford S1 Trail Alignment Draft Supplemental EIR (scroll two-thirds of the way down the screen)

The main problem with the document is that the "trail" it identifies as environmentally superior is hardly a trail at all, and simply follows existing roads and sidewalks. The reason for this is that the County refuses to look at which trail best reduces the environmental impact from Stanford's expansion, and instead chooses the trail alignment that has the least impact on its own. Obviously, the smallest impact will come from an alignment that creates as little actual trail as possible. Instead of looking for a more natural setting, the document prefers a trail along existing roads and sidewalks, where people can already go walking.

Comments are due Friday for this document - send them to

We'll do a more public push on the S1 Trail when the final environmental document is complete.


Update: You can read CGF's comment letter on the draft environmental report here.

Friday, November 5, 2004

Planning Santa Clara County's Habitat

Yesterday was the first public meeting in a process to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan for most of Santa Clara County. This is a quiet step forward on a process that will influence development for good or ill in the County over 20 years or more. CGF and other organizations will keep track of the process and publicize it, of course. There's an even a brand new website with HCP information, at:

Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan / Natural Communities Conservation Plan

A question that has long bothered me is why the HCP has been delayed so long - I originally believed it was because San Jose did not want the HCP to moderate development in Coyote Valley. We may have learned part of the answer yesterday when San Jose staff said that the development group funding planning for Coyote Valley is also funding San Jose's participation. My guess it that the development group delayed an agreement to fund the process, which is why San Jose delayed the process. Whether San Jose was actively cooperating or resisting this delay is unclear - they're not talking about it.


Monday, November 1, 2004

A chance to weigh in locally

On this election-day-eve, you might, like me, be feeling the need to act locally. Here's an opportunity to have an effect on our local representation – on the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) Board of Directors.

With the addition of the San Mateo County Coastside to its jurisdiction, MROSD now needs to adjust the boundaries of its seven districts so that each contains approximately the same number of people.

holding a series of workshops to get input on how best to redraw the ward boundaries so that the new constituents are appropriately represented on the district’s Board of Directors. (Each ward elects one Director.)

This could affect many of the district’s nearly 750,000 constituents, as the various scenarios drawn up by staff involve adjusting boundaries of as many as four of the seven districts.

The final meeting on this issue is this Thursday, Nov. 4 at 7pm, at the District’s field office on Skyline.

You can also visit the district’s website (link to to see the proposed scenarios and provide your input electronically.


Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Are we really getting greener?

Today’s SF Chronicle has an interesting article on the growth of the so-called "green economy," or the sales of items considered to be environmentally friendly (rather broadly defined).

Some of this is no doubt due to a cultural shift. But some of it is, I'm sorry to say, just more clever marketing on behalf of companies whose products are no more "green" than they used to be.

Some of this green spending is also bound to be driven by government incentives designed to encourage such behavior. It would be interesting to analyze trends in spending and see how they correlate to local, state and federal incentives (rebates on energy-efficient applicances, allowing hybrid vehicles to use HOV lanes, etc.).

Unfortunately this apparent greening trend is not reflected in increases in charitable giving to environmental groups. The American Association of Fundraising Counsel estimates that only about 3% of total charitable gifts go to environmental or wildlife organizations. That slice of the pie appears to be holding steady – not increasing.

If the so-called boom in the so-called green economy really reflects a cultural shift, I'd expect to see a boom in green giving, too. We'll keep working on it.


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Helping nature in underserved communities

I sit on the Environmental Advisory Committee for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Our local water district is very different from most districts, who view their mission as getting as much water as possible no matter the consequence, and placing development over flood planning and environmental protection. Our water district has come a long way. The County passed a "Clean Safe Creeks" parcel tax measure to finance environmental improvements, and lately our advisory committee has been helping design guidelines for spending that money.

One criterion emphasized supporting environmental improvements in underserved areas, which would often be poor communities of color with a creek area full of trash, barriers to fish passage, and non-native weeds. I supported the criterion but noted it was given little weight compared to other criteria. I moved that it be made one of the most important criteria for determining which projects received funding, and my motion had unanimous support.

I think improving access to natural areas for communities of color, and improving the quality of those natural areas, are important work opportunities for groups like CGF.


Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Rank the danger

So which is more likely to kill you:

Hike alone for an hour at dusk in mountain lion territory;

Take an evening drive for an hour; or

Sit in front of television for an hour, eating a half-pint of ice cream?

I'm not completely certain on first and second place, but my best guess is first place goes to the ice cream, second place goes to the evening drive, and fiftieth place to hiking in mountain lion territory.

Backing up this argument requires some math. Usually, the equation, lawyer + math = ugly sight, but I think I can handle this one. According to this website, the automobile death rate in the US is 1.5 deaths per 100 million miles. If the hour-long evening drive covers 30 miles, my computer says the death risk is one in 2.2 million.

So what's the risk of dying from mountain lions on an hour-long hike? I don't know, but we can be sure it is far less than one in 2 million. There are 35 million people in California. If one-tenth of them hiked one hour each year, that would be 3.5 million hours annually. Six people have been killed by lions in California since 1890. This lawyer's math says that driving is a lot more dangerous.

When people are reading Palo Alto Weekly and deciding whether to change their behavior because of lions, please don't switch from relatively safe hiking in lion territory to relatively dangerous things like driving or packing on the calories and fat from ice cream.


Monday, October 11, 2004

Economic disaster: environmental aspects of surviving a housing bubble

(The following is a "thought-piece" originally intended to be part of an article in the forthcoming newsletter, but we decided it didn't quite fit. We hope it's an interesting read here. More good stuff to come in the Fall 2004 newsletter...


No one has difficulty identifying a speculative financial bubble – with hindsight. Dot-com businesses and Japanese real estate were valued not for their actual worth but for the belief that others would consistently pay more for the same thing. In each case, the sky-high prices had to collapse. Identifying a bubble before it bursts is much harder. Economic experts are split over whether the constant rise in real estate values in the Bay Area or elsewhere constitute a speculative bubble. Not being economic experts, we cannot make any firm conclusions except that it is possible that a housing bubble exists, and that we should be prepared for the possibility that real estate prices could collapse.

Imagine a drastic scenario - what would a fifty-percent collapse in housing prices do the environment and to our work in the Bay Area? As to the environment, the price collapse would certainly reduce much of the pressure to build sprawling hillside housing, pressure that results from the tremendous profits developers can make at current prices. On the other hand, we can expect developers to argue that environmental regulations that were affordable for high-priced markets are no longer affordable, and should therefore be dropped. We should oppose any effort to allow permanent sprawl on the basis of a temporary drop in prices.

While the environment may not be harmed, our own work in protecting the environment could be drastically affected by a collapse in housing prices. As a local nonprofit, we depend on local donors, who in turn fund us based on their own financial situations. If people see the market value of their homes cut in half, they will feel much less able to give generously. A widespread collapse in housing prices could even trigger a recession, further constricting financial donations. This situation will require tremendous effort by environmental organizations and by their supporters to make their way through the financial difficulties, and continue to do their work.

Preparation and improvisation combine to form the basis of any response to disasters. Preparing for this and other disasters, is part of the work we will continue to do in order to protect the environment.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Bicycling to sports complex gets you expelled

A recent study shows that suburban sprawl creates a car-dependent lifestyle pattern that fosters chronic diseases.

Unfortunately, then, San Jose is promoting sprawl with with its recent proposed sports complex, located on a road so dangerous that children are forbidden under threat of expulsion from walking or bicycling to the athletic fields. The complex is a prelude to tearing out the remaining agriculture and replacing working farms with subdivisions.

Our comment letter on the project is here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Breaking news: San Jose upholds ban on trapping coyotes

It's fun to get a news item out before the news media does, and here it is: San Jose failed to pass an "urgency ordinance" that would allow trapping coyotes in part of Almaden Valley. As an "emergency" measure that skips the normal process, it needed 8 of the 11 City Council members to support it, and got only 7.

The Merc has background information here (posted before tonight's vote).

While I attended the meeting, I didn't speak or take a position. I don't think the situation in that area has been handled well, and exterminating the coyotes is not a good idea for the long term. However, the curiosity and lack of fear shown by these particular coyotes (assuming residents are not exaggerating) is disturbing. I couldn't possibly see CGF supporting the trapping, but I wasn't certain enough about safety to move from neutrality to a position opposing the measure.

The council members had to make a decision though. The politically-easy choice was to support trapping, so I respect Council members Reed, Campos, Williams, and Lezotte for opposing the measure. No disrespect intended to the other seven council members, who could be voting based on principles, not on politics.


Should better surveillance mean lower penalties?

In an interesting blog by security expert Bruce Schneier, he argues that technology's increasing ability to detect legal violations has its downside. Calling it "Bigger Brother", he cites the example of Baltimore using aerial maps and computer software to detect code violations such as rooftop decks built without permits. Schneier argues that because technology makes detection easier than before, stiff penalties for environmental violations are not necessary as deterrents for violations that used to be hard to detect.

Is he right? Should we reduce penalties for environmental violations here in the Bay Area?

If penalties were based exclusively on their deterrent value, then he would be right. But penalties for environmental violations also reflect harm done to society. They may also be insufficiently deterring because setting them at a level that truly stops misbehavior would be seen as unjust. No one advocates capital punishment for constructing buildings without a permit. Finally, just because new technology exists somewhere doesn't mean that people are using it. I would love for Santa Clara County to do some overflights of large scale developments, but I don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

Penalties for environmental violations are set for reasons that have little to do with their optimal deterrent value, so being able to detect the violations more easily does not automatically mean penalties should be lowered. I don't read Schneier as saying they automatically should be either, but big environmental violators will think differently.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

CGF's first movie review: it's "Monumental"

"Monumental" is the title of a new documentary about the life of David Brower, the most important and maybe the most interesting environmentalist of the 20th Century. This documentary features archival footage of Brower's work and his experience as a leading mountaineer prior to World War II.

Brower built Sierra Club to prominence, got fired, built Friends of the Earth to prominence, got fired, and built Earth Island to prominence, which didn't get around to firing him. The documentary emphasizes his "no compromise" style, both its strengths and weaknesses. As a lawyer, I sometimes questioned the efficacy of refusing compromises, and I also wondered if he really was as purist as the film suggests. Compromising on outcomes is sometimes necessary, but overall, Brower's success in refusing to compromise on principles is a refreshing and important reminder.

This movie gets four stars out of five (I didn't like all the music, but no one should listen to my music opinions). As a small independent film, it will be difficult to see in theaters, but the video and DVD versions may be easier to find or rent.


Monday, September 27, 2004

Ethnic diversity increases support for open space

I recently attended a very interesting meeting of the Bay Area Open Space Council, a grouping of nonprofits and government agencies concerned with managing open space. One presentation (available on their website) concerned the effect of increasing ethnic diversity on public support for open space. The presentation was short, but had mostly positive news. Here it is in three steps:

1. Support for open space increases with education and income levels.

2. Recent immigrant groups tend to have lower educational and income levels, and those levels rise in subsequent generations.

3. Despite being a (mostly) recent immigrant population, Hispanic voters tend to support open space preservation at the same rate as non-Hispanic whites.

In other words, the Hispanic population is starting off at a higher level of support for open space than non-Hispanic whites ("Anglos"). As subsequent generations move up the income and educational ladders, we can expect even greater levels of support, magnified by the increasing Hispanic population. (Polls of other ethnic groups also showed encouraging support for open space.)

The challenge for environmental nonprofits is to attract and support this powerful constituency, as well as the many other constituencies in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. This is something that we here at CGF are working on, need to be working on, and will continue to be working on in the future.


Earth and Art Day in Woodside

We at CGF find it very timely and appropriate that the theme of Woodside’s annual environmental festival this year is “Earth and Art.” They’ll be holding the event on Saturday, October 9 from noon – 4pm at the Runnymede Sculpture Farm, where some 150 modern sculptures are placed about the 120-acre landscape so as to blend with the natural environment.

It's timely for us because it's three weeks (to the day!) before our big event on October 30, Nature's Inspirations, which will celebrate the local landscape artists who inspire all of us to keep doing what we do to protect local natural lands.

The Woodside event provides a rare opportunity to see Runnymede, which isn’t generally open to the public. Once you read last year’s Almanac article about Runnymede, you'll want to go just to see this place. Plus the Woodside folks have lots of great environmental activities, info and entertainment planned.

You’ll have to buy tickets in advance -- they won’t be sold at the gate. You can get them at the Woodside Town Hall M-F, 8-12 and 1-5. Admission for adults is just $3, or for $10 you’ll also get lunch from jzCool. Kids are $5 with lunch, or $2 for admission only.

CGF will have a booth at the event – stop by and say hello!

- Kathy

Thursday, September 23, 2004

A victory for San Jose on high speed rail

Today's Mercury News had a good article with a bad headline in the print version: "High Speed Rail Setback for San Jose" (the online headline is better). The bullet train environmental planning process will now consider a route over Altamont Pass that may, we emphasize may, be more environmentally beneficial. Only doing the study will let us know - that's what good planning is all about. And doing good planning that minimizes environmental impacts to Santa Clara County is a victory for the people of San Jose.

You'll be hearing more about this development. This particular case is a good example of environmental group coordination. Sometimes CGF has taken the lead with support of other groups, such as curtailing abuse of a zoning process called lot line adjustments. Sometimes we have shared leadership, such as on Coyote Valley and on the illegal golf course in Morgan Hill. Sometimes we've supported other groups taking the lead. Sierra Club took the lead on the high speed rail - we wrote a comment letter, appeared at two hearings, and arranged a meeting with a congressional staffer, but Sierra Club did by far the majority of work. We'll happily accept some of the credit for this interim victory, and happily credit Sierra Club for its leadership on the issue.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Rushing towards sprawl in Coyote Valley

One advantage of this blog is it gives us a chance to share documents that might not fit on other parts of the website. Here (in PDF format; requires Acrobat Reader) is a letter we delivered yesterday to the San Jose City Council.

Of particular interest is our concern that the county-wide habitat plan may have been deliberately delayed by San Jose to keep it from affecting Coyote Valley. This suspicion has been floating around for a while now; it will be interesting to see if we finally get a reaction to it by making it public.


Friday, September 17, 2004

More South County development rumors

The news buzzing around is that the Ohlone Native American tribe living in the south Santa Clara County area has cut a deal with the owners of the 5,000-acre Sargent Ranch. The landowner is supposedly paying for the process of lobbying for federal recognition, and in return the tribe supposedly will help Sargent Ranch develop free from County land use constraints because of some kind of relationship with the federally-recognized tribe. Very unclear, as can be seen from this summary. Watch for news about this over the next few days.

CGF has long opposed short-sighted development of Sargent Ranch. This latest issue adds a very different wrinkle that we'll have to study, but it appears to involve some very cynical maneuvering by Sargent Ranch landowners. We have not heard anything yet to change our belief that destroying natural areas and working ranchland in Sargent Ranch is a bad idea.


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Local land conservancy next step in open space protection

Our colleagues at Peninsula Open Space Trust have been raising private money to buy open space since 1977, and have been remarkably successful. Their work often depends on that of Committee for Green Foothills, which acts to defend lands from development so that they remain as open space and are thus worthy of purchasing, but it's that critical step of purchase - and thus permanent protection - that makes our work on land use issues ultimately very satisfying.

They've recently launched a complete redesign of their website, and it's both professional and informative. I especially like the interactive map linked from this page.

- Kathy

News roundup- Santa Clara County

A news roundup, with our comments.

In the Mercury News:

Plan to clean up mercury contamination in the Bay reaches the Water Board today.
These plans rarely get to that level without having the political path paved in advance, so it will likely go ahead. CGF follows this issue, but we are careful to remain an open-space/natural resource protection group. If we tried to become a toxics-control organization as well, the effect would be to lose our focus and efficiency.

Morgan Hill Times:

A proposal to expand the San Martin airport is in the works.
Proponents say it will help bring jobs to the bedroom communities of South County, while opponents say its just another effort that will promote development of the North County, which lacks housing and will ultimately result in sprawl. This echoes a similar argument over Coyote Valley. Proponents have a somewhat better argument here than is the case in Coyote Valley, but we are reserving our judgment for now.

Morgan Hill ponders expanding the city limits in the southeastern area. We have written about this before, indicating that we have some doubts about the process. I am quoted as saying a compromise between developers and environmentalists would be a good thing, but I certainly intended to say it could be a good thing. The devil is in the details.

The Pinnacle News:

Gilroy supports a southern alignment of the proposed bullet train to Los Angeles. We have no final position on the best alignment, but the southern alignment could harm wetlands in the Pajaro River watershed. We would like to see the Altamont route studied. Left unmentioned in the article is the financial problems this project is encountering. Rumors suggest it is a very long way from ever happening.

The Gilroy Dispatch:

Both the local Native American tribe and members of the local community are opposed to a $300 million casino proposed by a five-member tribe that does not live here. Interestingly, a prominent opponent of a failed measure that would have stopped sprawl in San Benito County is now opposing the casino, which could cause sprawl in San Benito and Santa Clara Counties. They say politics makes for strange bedfellows....


Monday, September 13, 2004

Mercury News perspective on Coyote Valley shifting?

The Merc has two new editorials on Coyote Valley, in advance of today's Coyote Valley Task Force meeting:

Triggering Coyote, and

Main Issues Must Be Solved Before Approval.

The Merc is right to insist on "triggers" that require job creation prior to Coyote Valley residential development. From CGF's perspective, this requirement shows the fallacy of developing Coyote Valley, since it will be years before the City needs to expand to that area.

The Merc is also right to insist on a greenbelt, although we are frankly cynical about whatever San Jose will ultimately propose. The City may try to ram a square peg of developed residences into the round hole of greenbelt purposes, and announce a perfect fit.

Where the Merc is wrong is supporting the current timetable for planning. It is right to support advanced planning rather than rushed, last-minute planning, but what we have here is rushed, last-minute advanced planning in order to accommodate Mayor Gonzales' term of office. People take over a year to design their dream home, but San Jose hopes to plan a city of 80,000 in the same amount of remaining time. If there's any reason for planning something that is so far away from being needed, at least it should not be rushed.

Nevertheless, the Merc appears to be listening to critics of Coyote Valley proposals. We'll keep working on them.

Thursday, September 9, 2004

The nice developers in Morgan Hill

Probably the most interesting meeting to date about the proposed Urban Limit Line (ULL) in Morgan Hill happened on Tuesday. The ULL is supposed to indicate either the permanent limit to the city's growth, or its limit in fifty years, depending on the person describing it. This contrasts with the city's current Urban Growth Boundary, which limits growth for a 20-year period. Environmentalists are generally not happy about the ULL, as it seems to increase the pressure to develop. The city has been holding out the prospect of a greenbelt and open space conservation in order meet some environmental goals, but whether the tradeoff is worth it remains unclear.

The biggest fireworks will concern an 1,200 acre area to the southeast of the current city boundaries, most of which is being farmed. I have been attending meetings of an advisory sub-committee, which appeared likely to recommend that this area be brought within the ULL, and later have an "Area Plan" developed that will recommend open-space preservation.

Somewhat to my surprise, the sub-committee appeared to agree with my argument on Tuesday that moving the ULL first while determining the Area Plan later would give all the negotiating leverage to developers. The subcommittee is now rethinking that idea, while we environmentalists ponder our options.

After the meeting, I was surrounded by a mix of landowners and developers who were less than happy about my comments. We ended up talking for nearly half an hour, and I re-discovered something I've seen numerous times before, that the people on the opposite side of our environmental conflicts can be perfectly nice and decent. One of them even invited me out to their land, and I hope to take up the offer.

The issue that we environmentalists have to remember though is that we support the environment because it's important to do so, regardless of whether the other side has the best or worst of intentions.


(Morgan Hill provides additional information on the ULL process here.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Joni Mitchell and capital depreciation schedules

Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song with the lyrics "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot", may not have realized her connection to obscure tax code provisions. Brian Leiter, a professor from the University of Texas, might see it.

Leiter reports on a proposal to accelerate capital depreciation schedules to a single year, which he says will have the effect of creating a tax profit off of money-losing speculative ventures, such as pink hotels, swinging hot spots, and associated parking lots. Interestingly, he states the schedule was made much shorter in 1954, near the beginning of America's post-war sprawl expansion. Leiter warns that writing off costs in a single year would make things much worse, manipulating the tax code in a way that rewards bad economic decision-making and environmental destruction.

Joni Mitchell's lyrics are here. Land use and tax policy advocates need to work together to avoid the problem she describes.


Thursday, September 2, 2004

Creative diversion of waste

Today's SF Examiner has an article about an operation that's trucking food waste from restaurants in San Francisco not to the landfill, but to a giant composting plant in Vacaville.

This is a creative way to keep landfills from filling as quickly (and could alleviate, or delay, problems such as that posed by Santa Cruz County's need for a new site) and, as it turns out, also provides real and measurable benefits to the agricultural and other operations using the finished compost.

- Kathy

Some good news for Stevens Creek

Next to Stevens Creek and Stevens Creek County Park lies an undeveloped 124-acre parcel that had been proposed for a 1,500-student private academy. Besides destroying the parcel's environmental value, the proposal would have had significant traffic impacts and access issues.

Canyon Heights Academy has now announced an alternative, permanent location for their school, on the site of a former elementary school in Campbell. The short-term threat to Stevens Creek appears to have passed. The next question though is what will happen to the 124-acre parcel. More development proposals may come down the pike, but conservationists might consider it as a possible addition to Stevens Creek park. If preservation is not feasible, then residential development should be required to protect the area's natural value as much as possible.

More information on the parcel and the threat to it can be found at the Stevens Canyon Residents Association.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

A casino just south of Gilroy?

The Gilroy Dispatch discusses a "nebulous" idea for a tribal casino right near the Santa Clara/San Benito County border, south of Gilroy. This proposal seems to be an extension of the "big box" retail concept favored by Gilroy developers - extremely large buildings and parking lots on undeveloped land, designed to pull in traffic from all over the Bay Area, not incidentally clogging the highways in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. To add to the problem, the Native American group that is interested in the casino is not from the area, and local Native American groups are concerned about outsiders bringing gaming their region.

We will have to watch this idea - it raises some obvious concerns from CGF's point of view.

Update, 9/2/04: We've been asking around for more information. The proposed casino would be located just across the border in San Benito County, but is obviously intended to draw gamblers primarily from the Bay Area. Associated resort development could occur in Santa Clara County. Counties and cities have no direct control over projects like these, but it will need the governor's approval, and Schwarzenegger has signalled that he will not approve a compact without local support. On the other hand, the state government is desperate for money, and local governments might also be tempted by potential revenues.

The tribe consists of five members. Tribal gaming can involve thorny issues of social justice, balancing economic activities for disadvantaged groups with the negative sides of casinos. When a project worth $100 to $300 million is under discussion for a five-member tribe, much of the social justice controversy fades away. More details about the proposal are in the latest Dispatch article, here.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Stanford gets massive donation for housing

Stanford recently received a $43.5 million donation that is expected to be used primarily to house law school students. The university had previously announced plans to build a 500,000 square-foot dormitory near the law school.

Generally, building on-campus housing is a good thing that reduces Stanford's environmental impact. However, CGF will also have to watch for "empire-building" among university administrators that may use this housing as an excuse to justify other projects that increase off-campus housing demand.

The donation also suggests that the relatively slow rate of building construction on Stanford campus may start to turn around, and become more aggressive.

Agricultural preservation versus agricultural mitigation

In Santa Clara County, one increasingly hears the argument that "farming is doomed." Farmers have told CGF that it isn't just a matter of them wanting to make windfall profits by selling to developers, but that they can't make any profits at all being farmers in the County. While this is likely an exaggeration, there may be an element of truth to it as well. Farming is certainly no longer a dominant feature of our local economy. As compared to other counties in California, local farmers probably face higher labor costs; more expensive and difficult access to equipment, supplies, and processing plants; and more conflicts with neighbors. On the less-savory side, farmers elsewhere are probably less-scrutinized and therefore more likely to cut corners on environmental protection, worker safety, and worker rights.

So what can we do to balance the scales? There has been increasing focus on agricultural mitigation lately: if a development or city plan involves converting land use away from agriculture, then some mitigation method such as buying development rights on other farmland has been suggested, and sometimes required. While this step may be necessary, it may not be sufficient if farmers can't make a profit.

Here's an idea to consider: requiring developers to pay agricultural preservation fees, just as they have to pay infrastructure fees to pay for roads, schools, and services that their projects will require. The agricultural preservation fees could be used to finance local farmers' markets featuring local products. Hopefully, this would reduce the distribution costs of local produce and make them more competitive, if the produce does not have to pay for the costs of the land where the markets exists or the buildings they operate in. This could be one additional step from agricultural mitigation to agricultural preservation in Santa Clara County, one that local governments might consider, and one that CGF might ultimate adopt as a tool for preserving farming.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Environmental cemeteries

CGF's Executive Director Tom Cronin pointed out another interesting article in Bay Area news: an environmental cemetery in Marin County. The cemetery will come with a permanent conservation easement with guaranteed public access and trails, it will sell "internment rights" on 5% of the land, and it uses the funding to protect the environment through such things as removing non-native plants.

Several years ago, CGF had opposed a cemetery proposal for unincorporated County land in Santa Clara County. If someone had come up with a proposal like this, our reaction might have been different.

Managing West Nile virus in Santa Clara County

Interesting article in today's Mercury News, discussing mosquito control in Santa Clara County, done mostly to prevent the West Nile virus from spreading. My biggest fear, that pressure would be placed to drain wetlands, does not seem to be happening. The pesticides being used could be of some concern, although the bacterial control does seem safe. As we mentioned earlier, this is an issue that bears watching from an environmental standpoint, not just a health perspective.


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Mercury News Spotlight on Coyote Valley

The Mercury News published a CGF Op-Ed criticizing Coyote Valley development, focusing on the unneeded rush and the excess housing demand that will bring sprawl thoughout the region. We appreciate the Mercury News adding legitimate criticism like this to the news and opinion coverage of Coyote Valley.

I can also attest that the San Jose is finally paying attention, in public, to the jobs housing imbalance. Whether anything will be done to correct that is another question.


Thursday, August 12, 2004

Unfortunate but unsurprising bias in San Jose

The scandal in San Jose over City staff bias in favor of Cisco products is unforturnate but unsurprising to environmentalists. Coyote Valley's unwise momentum towards development came out of the same pro-Cisco bias. While there is nothing wrong with rooting for the home-team company, San Jose needs to remember that its first priority is its residents, not its resident businesses.


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

"Sick of Nature" writing

An interesting article by a nature writer in the Boston Globe, bemoaning the current state of nature writing as being too reverent and preaching to the converted. (Hat tip to Conservation News (August 11) for the reference.)

A good thing to keep in mind for those of us among the converted. CGF's newsletters do try and balance reverence with all the other appropriate emotional and dispassionate reactions to the world around us.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Glad-handing the politicians

Just a short observation: I went to a Sierra Club/League of Conservation Voters' meeting with candidates for political office. Those two organizations kindly offerred other groups, like CGF, a chance to set up tables with information.

I manned a table, but the politicians were sitting, not circulating. "No use just sitting here," I thought, grabbed a bunch of CGF newsletters, and started introducting myself to candidates and giving them newsletters.

That's when the observation hit me: a meeting full of politicians, and the only person working the room is me. How often does something like that happen?


Thursday, August 5, 2004

Green Foothills' Decision Markets

I (Brian) have been listening to the audio version of a good book recently, The Wisdom of Crowds. The author's thesis is that groups can arrive at the correct answer to a question more reliably than single individuals, even if the individual is an expert and the group members are not. Larger groups are better decisionmakers than smaller ones. The reason for this is that each individual knows some small amount of useful information along with random biases. In the collective decisionmaking, the random biases cancel each other out and the correct answer emerges, under the proper circumstances. The author then goes on to discuss ways that the process goes wrong.

An example of this type of decisionmaking is a decision market, where people bid real or fake money on how a future decision will turn out. The best known examples of this are the Iowa Electronic Markets (real money predictions of electoral results) and Hollywood Stock Exchange (fake money predictions of Hollywood success or failure). These markets have consistently out-performed expert predictions and polls.

The Wisdom of Crowds author says decision markets can work well even with small groups, and recommends them to corporations. CGF might also find it is interested in them as well, for determining what issues are either sure winners or sure losers regardless of our involvement (which suggests we should spend little time on them) and what issues hang in the balance where we might want to spend maximum effort.

Real money markets, even small money, would create obvious problems, but fake money markets are just a matter of software and bandwidth (and time spent managing them). They could be kept small and confidential so that only the environmental groups involved know what the markets suggest the future will be like. Making them public has advantages too - more participants will make them more accurate, and if our opponents understand that a highway from Central Valley to San Jose has not a snowball's chance in Fresno of happenning, they won't waste our time by pushing their proposal forward.

Maybe an idea for the not-too-distant future.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

It's here....

West Nile virus, that is.  A dead crow in East San Jose has been diagnosed with the disease.  This exotic disease may force some unfortunate changes in wetlands management.  Environmental groups will have to watch government agencies to make sure they do not cross the line separating reasonable caution in conducting mosquito abatement, from paranoia that causes environmental destruction.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Tiger Salamanders finally get protection

The Fish and Wildlife Service has apparently decided to finally grant protection under the Endangered Species Act to California Tiger Salamanders throughout their range. While the government missed its promised May 15 deadline, it at least decided to go ahead with the listing, contrary to the wishes of developers. The timing is also fortuitous for CGF, coinciding with the headline article for the latest Green Footnotes article.

Something that is a little unusual about this listing is that ranching activities that harm salamanders will be allowed, without the usual provision that a permit must first be issued. Usually species listed as "threatened" get the same protection as species as ones listed as "endangered", but this time an exception was made. If the salamanders had been listed as endangered, no exceptions for the permit requirement would have been possible.

We can now expect the usual rhythm in conservation - before a species is listed, developers claim to find it everywhere, so no listing is needed. After it's listed, developers claim the species is nowhere to be found (at least on their own property), so there is no need to restrict their development. To be fair, conservation groups often make the exact opposite conclusions.

The other thing to watch for would be Stanford University's submission of an application for a permit that would allow it to harm tiger salamanders.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Sprawl comes home to roost in Gilroy

For years, the City of Gilroy has had an unfortunate obsession with promoting "big-box" retailing, placing massive discount outlets near the outskirts of town in order to attract retail customers from around the Bay Area. Besides using up open space and destroying farmland in the last stronghold for agriculture in Santa Clara County, this policy maximizes commuter miles as people travel to the southernmost point of the Bay Area, and increases pressures to widen highways.

The Gilroy Dispatch is now writing about the decay of Gilroy's downtown business area. Big-box retail, used to grab tax dollars from other jurisdictions, is hurting Gilroy's own small businesses. Maybe city politicians will learn from this lesson.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Morgan Hill's version of Coyote Valley?

I (Brian) just came back from a meeting in Morgan Hill to discuss the City's proposed "Greenbelt", which is unfortunately linked to a proposal to establish a new and expanded Urban Line Limit for the City. While a protected greenbelt could be a good idea, the proposal to create a 50-year, Urban Line Limit beyond the current Urban Growth Line could be a recipe for sprawl.

The issue we were discussing is the unincorporated, southeast area of the City. While most of the discussion was about a greenbelt, another concept under consideration is a 200-acre industrial campus, plus vaguely-defined residential development. We at CGF have heard this before - it sounds like Coyote Valley, complete with a sales pitch for a greenbelt, but vague on how to finance environmental protection. What's ironic is that Morgan Hill, unlike San Jose, is alarmed about the impacts of Coyote Valley development, but then may be poised to make the same mistake.

We can't completely rule out the idea that something beneficial will result from this process, but we will have to follow this issue carefully.

(Morgan Hill staff claimed some information is on their website, but I couldn't find it. I'll put up a link when I do.)

Metro Weekly corrects the Mercury News

A good article about Coyote Valley was in last week's Metro Weekly: "Coyote Ugly -
Why is the 'Mercury News' calling the city's vision for Coyote Valley sustainable when it isn't?

The Metro points out that 25,000 homes will not satisfy the demand created by the massive industrial development in Coyote Valley. Neither the City of San Jose nor the Mercury News has publicly admitted this flaw, although the City comes a lot closer. Like the Metro Weekly, we have contacted the Mercury News, but have yet to hear back from them.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Otters recovering, but still in danger

Some good news about California sea otters: "After a long, frightening decline, a new survey shows that the number of California sea otters living along the coast has increased sharply for the second straight year." (Mercury News, registration required for viewing.)

Before that long, frightening decline, the otters had been steadily progressing towards recovery, and were set to be removed from the endangered species list when the numbers remained above 3,000 for three years in a row. The current number is just short of that - 2,825.

While 3,000 may have seemed a safe figure back when the trend line went nowhere but up, we are now aware that the numbers don't always go up. Next year, the number could top 3,000. The federal government will have to think carefully about whether that figure still represents safety, and CGF may want to weigh in on that decision.