Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Open issues for land use in Santa Clara County

Last week the Santa Clara County Supervisors deferred action on a 17-lot subdivision in the hills above Milpitas (our comments on the proposal are here). A large part of the controversy over this proposal stemmed from concerns neighbors have over water use. I suggested the Supervisors discuss the issue of water scarcity at their upcoming land use workshop.

Several other things need further work by the County:

*mitigating the environmental effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the County does nothing about this, because the Air Board has no regulations. The County can't defer to the absence of regulations; it has to figure out for itself what it needs to do. This is a potential opportunity - requiring new developments that waste energy to pay into public transportation funding or energy conservation can mitigate the developers' impacts and provide a benefit to the County.

*protecting wetlands that are not protected by the Clean Water Act. The CWA fails to protect certain wetlands because the federal government's jurisdiction is limited, not because the unprotected wetlands are unimportant. This is like the greenhouse gas problem - because some other agency fails to tell the County what to do, the County does nothing. That is unsatisfactory.

*ending process problems, like County staff making decisions on whether Negative Declarations are adequate when such decisions should be made by the Planning Commission, and scheduling public hearings weeks before written comments are due (which guarantees that the oral comments will not be substantive).

*managing land under conservation easements. Some arrangement should be worked out with the Open Space Authority and MROSD over conservation easements; those agencies are much more involved in these issues than the County is.

I'm sure there's more possibilities - plenty for the County to work on.


Friday, June 24, 2005

More evidence of a housing bubble

As the reporting of a housing bubble escalates, I thought I'd go back and find the post we did October 11 last year on how it could affect our work.

(I suspect we may need to revisit this again in the near future)
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.

Court: Coastal Commission is constitutional

The state Supreme Court has ruled that the California Coastal Commission is lawful, and that its previous decisions should stand. The Commission was challenged in court by those who wished to end the group’s excellent work to protect our coast and who claimed that the method of appointing commissioners was unconstitutional.

The ruling, which was unanimous, says that the Commission’s appointment process doesn’t violate the “separation of powers doctrine.”

For more info, read the story in today’s SF Chronicle.

Our almost-off-the-press Summer 2005 Green Footnotes newsletter includes a couple of articles describing how the Coastal Commission works and underscoring the importance of ethics among Commissioners.

If you’re not on the CGF mailing list and would like a copy, let us know. The articles will be posted to our website within the next week or so.

- Kathy

Monday, June 20, 2005

Letter from a CGF member about Coyote Valley

I really liked this email from CGF member (and CGF Board Member!) Jeff Segall sent to the City of San Jose on behalf of himself and his wife, so with his permission, it's reproduced here.

Dear Members of the Coyote Valley Specific Plan Task Force,

I have great concerns that in some ill-considered haste to develop the Coyote Valley, the City of San Jose may be abandoning good planning principles put in place to insure that the development there does not come at the expense of the city's finances and existing economic zones such as downtown and North First Street. Currently, there is a tremendous oversupply of commercial office/industrial space in San Jose, and in the entire area, and this oversupply has existed for years. It defies logic to believe that any new office/industrial development will not lead to even longer times for the oversupply of this space in downtown and North First to abate. This will directly negatively impact these vital areas.

More generally, it is not hard to read the April 28, 2005 memo, "CVSP Timing and Logistical Requirements Discussion" as an attempt to abandon sound planning principles in favor of the good old fashioned sprawl development. Phrases like "phasing by the willing", "letting the market dictate", "sub-regions are not required to have geographic continuity", "the plan should allow General Plan budget triggers to be changed" are very troubling to anyone committed to careful land use planning.

In conclusion, I ask that the planners be directed to evaluate development needs citywide (particularly downtown and in the North First Street area) before committing to the development of Coyote Valley; and the city council should adhere to and strengthen the "development triggers" that are required by the General Plan, ensuring that development occurs first in central San Jose, that the City is fiscally ready for this development, and that the City actually needs this development.

Thank you for consideration of my comments.


Jeff and Meridith Segall

Monday, June 13, 2005

Coyote Valley, China

Yesterday's Washington Post had a really interesting article on a land use battle between farmers and industry in China. Just when I think we've got it tough here, I see how much worse it can be in a place without even the trappings of democracy.


Ritz to remove illegal seawall

For years now, the bluff below the Ritz Carlton hotel in Half Moon Bay has been supported by an illegal 270-foot-long seawall, created by riprap (hunks of granite) placed in an attempt to keep the green for the golf course's vaunted 18th hole from eroding into the Pacific.

As Coastsider.com reports, Ocean Colony Partners has not only withdrawn their application for an after-the-fact permit for a seawall (fought vociferously by CGF and others) but also agreed to remove all the rip-rap rocks (placed without permits) from the face of the bluff and move the green away from the coastline, allowing natural erosion to continue.

The excellent documentary film Coastal Clash covers the controversial issue of seawalls quite well: they simply displace erosion, and cause plenty of other problems elsewhere.


Thursday, June 9, 2005

Anti-sprawl comics

Designed for Washington State, but very relevant here. Take a look!

(Thanks Michelle from Greenbelt Alliance for the tip!)

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Impervious surface presentation

Here are the notes for today's presentation to the San Francisquito Creek Watershed Council on the cumulative impacts of impervious surfaces in Santa Clara County, a project we are researching with great help of a grant from the Santa Clara Valley Water District.


Impervious Surfaces, Cumulative Impacts, and Divergence Between NPDES and CEQA Requirements

The Problem and Two-staged Solution

The Problem: CEQA requires more extensive consideration of cumulative impacts than NPDES C.3 provisions. There are (almost) no exceptions to CEQA requirements to consider cumulative impacts from impervious surfaces, while NPDES C.3 requirements focus on larger projects, and don’t consider smaller projects.

Why Now? State-issued CEQA Guidelines were changed last fall in two ways: first, they increased the emphasis and the possibility that small impacts should be considered cumulatively significant. Second, they removed the possibility that simple compliance with other regulatory standards like NPDES would, without more, constitute CEQA compliance. These Guidelines were changed in reaction to successful lawsuits by environmental groups two years ago. Local agencies may not have changed their CEQA compliance to reflect the new guidelines.

Specific Area of Divergence – the HMP. The Hydromodification Management Plan examines how large impervious surface projects (one acre or more) could alter stream flows so as to increase erosion, and prohibits them from increasing erosion for less-than 10 year storm events. A complete “no impact” requirement would eliminate the divergence, but the HMP’s failure to cover small projects and 10-year-or-greater flood events leave open potential un-analyzed and unmitigated cumulative impacts.

Specific Area of Divergence – Water Quality. To treat water quality problems from impervious surfaces, NPDES C.3 provisions require medium and large projects (10,000 square feet or more of impervious surface to capture 80% of the annual runoff, or to treat 10% of the 50-year peak flow rate. This has a similar problem as the HMP – smaller projects are not mitigated, nor are all the impacts from the larger projects mitigated.

Specific Area of Divergence – Other Environmental Impacts. Increased impervious surface eliminates habitat and biomass, and increases the urban heat island effect, and none of these impacts are analyzed, and may not be mitigated by the NPDES provisions. Difficult to analyze.

Where Divergence May Occur – Map. Watersheds draining to hardened channels and tidal areas only have no HMP divergence (but possible water quality impacts). All other areas have at least the potential for unalyzed, cumulative impacts. Areas with the highest percentage of existing impervious surface and the highest percentage of existing buildout are the least likely to have cumulative impacts.

Summary of the Problem – NPDES analyzes and eliminates some but not all cumulative impacts. Local agencies must analyze the remaining impacts, and where feasible, mitigate them.

Two-Stage Solution – First Stage, Complete the Missing Analysis. Examining the “trend line” in impervious surface coverage will indicate potential cumulative effects from impervious surfaces. An upward trend line suggests a potential problem. The data is readily available from compliance with C.3 provisions, from EIRs, Negative Declarations, and from building permits.

Analysis Gap – Trend Line Suggests But Does Not Completely Prove a Cumulative Impact. If the project in question does not have an EIR, however, the reasonable inference of a potential impact requires preparation of an EIR.

Second Stage of the Solution – Assume a Cumulative Impact and Fully Mitigate It.
1. Reduce the Impervious Coverage
2. Change from Impervious to Permeable Cement/Pavement/Concrete
3. Pay Into a Fund for Offsite Mitigation

Problems with our approach:
1. Incorporation of available science.
2. Nuts and bolts of tracking the data.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Training for change

The environmental community needs strong leaders volunteering at local government commissions, and hopefully even running for office. Acterra is starting a new leadership program "Be the Change," that will help people acquire the skills and knowledge so they can take up the work our local communities need, in a variety of ways. You can find out more about it here, deadline for applying is June 15th.

(And after you're done, we'd love to have you come and volunteer with us here at CGF!)

Friday, June 3, 2005

Principles for resolving the Williamson Act issues in Santa Clara County

Along with our Action Alert on Williamson Act issues, CGF submitted the following memo that gives an expanded version of the working principles we think should be used to resolve compliance problems in Santa Clara County.


To: Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
From: Committee for Green Foothills
Date: May 31, 2005

Re: Proposed working principles for resolving Williamson Act Issues in Santa Clara County

The Committee for Green Foothills proposes the following principles for resolving problems with Williamson Act compliance in Santa Clara County:

1. Each Williamson Act constitutes an agreement between the landowner and the taxpayers – the taxpayers have agreed to pay higher taxes than the landowner has to in order to preserve farming and ranching for ten years. Cancellation of contracts (as opposed to non-renewal) is appropriately disfavored and subject to a penalty because the taxpayers lose that medium term, ten-year protection.

2. Landowners have developed and subdivided land under Williamson Act contracts in ways that contravene their contracts. These violations have occurred while the County has been deficient in protecting the taxpayers’ side of Williamson Act contracts over the years, by allowing development and subdivisions that harms farming and ranching. Taxpayers and the state are appropriately upset over non-compliance by landowners and non-enforcement by the County. The past violations are not grounds for landowners to demand continued non-enforcement of Williamson Act contracts. The County, instead, must start protecting the taxpayers’ interest in the Williamson Act.

3. Developers and others who purchased lands based on their own expectation that non-enforcement of Williamson Act in the past will continue in the future, made that purchase at their own risk.

4. The simplest method for landowners to end Williamson Act restrictions on their property is to file non-renewal of the contract, and start the ten-year clock to allow development.

5. The per-acre value of small parcels (less than 10 acres of prime land or less than 40 acres of non-prime land) carved from larger parcels after Williamson Act restrictions were in place have mushroomed over the value the acreage would have had if it had been retained in a large parcel. If people want to cancel the contracts now, the land they possess already has greatly appreciated in value, so there is no clear reason why the 12.5% cancellation fee should be waived.

6. Preservation as open space rather than agricultural use would be worth considering in the County for properties that are not viable for farming and ranching. However, the County should be careful about immediately switching viable Williamson Act properties to Open Space contracts merely to facilitate monster mansion development.

7. Monster mansions can interfere with the continuing viability of farming and ranching on a property both by directly interfering with agricultural operations, and by making the property only financially available to those who want the monster mansion, not genuine farmers and ranchers who want to continue agricultural operations. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “incidental” as “[s]ubordinate to something of greater importance; having a minor role.” A monster mansion will substantially detract from the ability to keep a property in agricultural operations and therefore will not be an “incidental” use.

8. For very large parcels, the size of the residence may be less important. A rancher with the financial ability to buy a 5,000 acre ranch will likely be able to afford the cost of a larger residence on-site, while a rancher investigating a 70 acre parcel might not be able to afford a large residence on site.

9. Some flexibility in proving agricultural use is necessary, but the County must not create a loophole where landowners providing essentially no agricultural use are taking a tax subsidy. While the $10,000 annual gross income figure is too large for many parcels involved in ranching and hay production, some criteria must be used that demonstrates more than token agricultural use, and that demonstrated use should scale to the size of the parcel. Proof of actual agricultural use for 1000 acres should be more substantial than that needed for 40 acres.

10. The County should enforce the Williamson Act through the use of penalty provisions provided by law for illegal construction as well as any other actions necessary to retain the ability for Williamson Act properties to remain viable for farming and ranching.

Thursday, June 2, 2005

News roundup

Nice article about the beautiful and endangered San Francisco garter snake in the Chron. CGF Board Member Chris Powell has a quote in the article about the importance of small animals to the environment.

The Mercury News has two articles of interest: first, that the landslides that destroyed homes in Southern California are equally a threat up here, which is still more reason for protecting hillsides and ridgelines from development. Also, a sad article on the loss of vineyards in San Jose. We may have some concerns about planting new vineyards that remove natural habitats, but long-established vineyards are certainly far better than sprawl. The article says you can't stop progress, but we question what they call progress, and we know that if we try, we can stop sprawl.

And not quite in Santa Clara County but I'm reporting it anyway: just south in Pinnacles National Monument is one of the world's bee biodiversity hotspots. “The Pinnacles has about one-thousandth of 1 percent of land mass of the contiguous United States, and we have 10 percent of U.S. bee species.”