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.