Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Coyote Valley, accelerating towards sprawl

Here's the latest Mercury News article on Coyote Valley: the City, in our opinion, is trying to loosen restrictions on growth, and in doing so it is placing the rest of San Jose at a financial risk. It's still unsettled what the Task Force will ultimately decide, and then the City Council will have to make its own judgment about whether the decision is a good one.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Great move forward to funding Santa Clara County Parks

Thanks to everyone who responded to our Action Alert calling on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to endorse a Charter Measure for parks funding! The Supervisors heard you, and voted unanimously today to support an endorsement resolution.

A lot of work remains between now and the likely election date of June next year, but this couldn't have started off better than it has. Thanks again!


Monday, August 22, 2005

Protecting parks in Santa Clara County

CGF sent out an Action Alert last week to call for support for extending the Santa Clara County Parks charter funding, which ensures that the parks will have a dedicated, stable financial funding source. We're already hearing a lot of wonderful support from the community in response. With permission, I am posting below the response from Rod Diridon Sr., of the Mineta Transportation Institute.


We must all strongly support the retention and additions to the County Parks Charter Fund. I'm trying to shuffle my schedule to be with you at tomorrows Board meeting.

The original Parks Charter Campaign of 1972, I think, was my introduction to county government. I was one of many co-chairs as a kid Saratoga City Councilmember, along with Mary Davey and others, and remember the elation at the campaign's success. The campaign group, lead by Wally Stegner and others, often met at the Duveneck's and dreamed of a better future for our Valley. We were so proud to have done something that would have lasting impact; it felt good in a deep, transcendent way.

But that impact can be lost!

County parks' financing charter protection is needed more now than ever and should not only be reestablished but increased significantly.

1) The added funding is needed because the County's park acreage is so much larger now (from about 2,000 acres in the early 1970s to almost 50,000 acres now).

2) Urbanization is causing so much more pressure on our parks. The Valley had about 750,000 people in the early 1970s and is over 1.7 million now.

3) Beyond the development, custodial and maintenance cost increases, we must acquire those last parcels that are needed to ring the currently urbanized areas. That long-pursued objective will not only protect open space and create park lands but also preclude the extension of growth-inducing services further into the hills. Our open-space districts and land trusts are doing all they can but don't have the funding to complete the job by themselves.

4) And we need to complete our creek-side trail system that began with the Los Gatos Creek Streamside Trail and is expanding but not fast enough. The land along those creek is perishable and once access is lost it's impossible to regain. And we have some relatively small but strategic gaps in the current trails that can only be filled by judicious investments.

5) Remember that the County's Historical Heritage Commission also provided historic preservation funding from the Parks Charter Fund. That's been discontinued because of the fiscal crisis but must be reestablished so we can protect the best of the past to create a better future.

Thank you for the very important work done in the past and currently by the Committee for Green Foothills. Wally Stegner would be proud of you!


Rod Diridon, Sr.
Supervisor 4th Distinct for 20 years (ret.)
Chair, League of Conservation Voters of SCC Board

Rod Diridon
Executive Director
Mineta Transportation Institute
SJSU Research Center

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Our "To Do" list for Santa Clara County Supervisors

Santa Clara County Supervisors will be holding a land use workshop this month, and below is our suggestion on the subjects that need discussion and potential changes.



Date: August 16, 2005

To: Santa Clara County Supervisors and aides

From: Brian Schmidt, Committee for Green Foothills

Re: Potential subjects for the forthcoming Land Use Workshop

The Committee for Green Foothills suggests the following potential subjects for the Land Use Workshop to be held at the end of this month:

Conducting environmental analysis for land use decisions that are not regulated by expert agencies. The de facto position of County staff is that if an expert agency does not regulate a particular environmental problem, that problem does not exist. Two examples would be wetlands that are not subject to regulation by federal agencies under the Clean Water Act, and cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In both cases, CEQA documents produced by County staff in the last year have said there is no requirement to impose feasible mitigations for impacts. Some wetlands escape regulation under the Clean Water Act because they are not directly connected to “navigable waters,” an issue that has nothing to do with the environmental value of those wetlands. The environmental impact from greenhouse gases is self-evident.

The County could resolve this issue by clarifying that it has to independently examine environmental impacts, and it can also examine why an expert agency does not regulate a problem – if the lack of regulation is for reasons unrelated to the issue’s environmental significance, then the County should analyze and require feasible mitigations. With regards to greenhouse gas emissions in particular, a no-impact standard for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Clara County could lead to funding beneficial programs such as installing solar panels on County schools and hospitals, and increasing funding for public transportation. Analyzing environmental issues can lead to direct societal benefits.

Tightening General Plan restrictions on development in Ranchlands, Hillsides, and Agricultural-zoned lands. Maintaining these areas as the least-developed and most agriculturally-productive parts of the County will be a tremendous challenge as ranchettes, monster mansions, and high-priced exurbs are pushed by developers. The County should consider changing the General Plan rules so that future subdivisions will not create lots too small for these areas, which currently can be as small as 20-acre parcels. Size limits on mansions and ridgeline protections have also been discussed as viable changes. Natural resource protections for riparian areas, wetlands, and endangered animals and plants could be added.

Ending certain process problems in land use planning. Examples include 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), and failing to put all publicly-available environmental documents on the Planning Office website.

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.

Regulating vineyards/wineries, greenhouses, and mushroom production. Vineyards are spreading in Santa Clara County, a welcome development in some places and worrying in others. Erosion, pollution from pesticides, and development from associated wineries need better regulation. Santa Clara County should compare policies with other wine-growing counties and adopt comparable standards that it currently lacks. Greenhouses and mushroom production also get into a gray area of permanent development. Mushroom farming done inside buildings is little different from any other industrial operation. Greenhouses constructed with all-cement floors and plants grown on trays also constitute permanent alteration to the land (other types of greenhouses are much less problematic). These issues would also be worth examining.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Not calculating the cost of sprawl

The New York Times has a long article on people choosing to live in "exurbs," converting farmland and open space into isolated, long-distance commuting, bedroom towns. This raises a host of issues, but one interesting aspect of the piece was the polling that said people are willing to increase their commute by 15 minutes if it saves $12,000 on the cost of a house compared to a similar one that is closer to work.

People are not thinking through the costs in this case. Fifteen minutes at highway speed is 15 miles, or 30 miles round-trip, or 7,500 miles annually. At a reasonable allocation of 33 cents per mile (for gas, insurance, and car depreciation), that 15 minute extra commute costs the $2,500 each year. In effect, the person living further away is giving up an income stream of $2,500 annually to save $12,000.

So which is better? This nifty site says the present value of $2,500 annually over the life of a 30-year mortgage, assuming an inflation rate of 4%, is $43,208. That's how much less a house in the exurb should cost for each additional 15 minutes of commute time.

Just one more reason why converting open space to sprawl is a bad idea.

Monday, August 8, 2005

CGF appeals Santa Clara County approval of "wine caves" off Skyline Drive

We've become increasingly concerned in recent years about conversion of steep hillside grassland and forests into vineyards and wineries. See our appeal letter below - this is an issue that the County needs to examine more carefully.

August 4, 2005

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
County Government Center, East Wing, 10th Floor
70 West Hedding Street
San Jose, CA 95110-1705

Ms. Colleen Oda
Santa Clara County Planning Office
County Government Center, East Wing, 7th Floor
70 West Hedding Street
San Jose, CA 95110-1705

Fax (408) 288-9198

Re: File Number 4242-9-60-04G-04EA, Grading Permit – Rhys Vineyards Winery

Dear Board of Supervisors and Ms. Oda:

The Committee for Green Foothills joins with Sharon Peters and John DeLong in the appeal of the grading permit granted to Rhys Vineyards Winery for the construction of wine-storage caves and related improvements.

In general, we support and promote ranching and farming throughout Santa Clara County, including vineyards. In some places, replacing seasonal row crops with vineyards may even be a positive development that signals a longer-term commitment to agriculture. Rural industries like wineries, tasting rooms, and storage caves could also be appropriate under the right conditions.

We note, however, the potential impacts of increasing conversion of hillside grassland and forests to new vineyards and wineries throughout the Bay Area and in our County. These new developments present problems that are less relevant to long-established vineyards. While we do not take an outright stance against all new vineyards and wineries, the Committee for Green Foothills believes the environmental impacts of these projects must be closely analyzed. We appeal this particular project’s approval because of problems in the way that it was handled, particularly in what we consider “segmentation” of a single project into subsequent parts that have not been analyzed. We request that the Supervisors fix this problem by requiring the project appellants to submit an application for the entire project. We additionally request that the Supervisors begin the process of revising County codes to more closely regulate new vineyards and wineries.

Segmentation of the Rhys Vineyards Winery

As described by the applicant’s consultant and submitted by the applicant, the owner is applying for a “Winery Cave Portal Permit” that will allow operation of a 24,000 gallon per year winery. (Riechers Spence & Assoc., “Waste Disposal Feasibility Report”, Feb. 15, 2005 at 1 (attached)). The winery will include storage and so uses the caves as that storage. Id. The applicant’s submission states “Rhys Vineards is planning on developing a winery in three phases over the next decade. The first phase will be the construction of the caves for the storage of barrels of wine.” Id. The applicant goes on to describe the subsequent “phases” of constructing the winery and designing a tasting room (a vineyard has already been planted). Id. At no point does the applicant assert that the cave construction is an independent project that would be done for it’s own sake, but rather the applicant describes it as part of the overall winery project. At a meeting with the applicant’s architect, Chuck Peterson, he asserted that the applicant would not be considering caves on the property if wineries were not allowed by the zoning. (Meeting with Chuck Peterson, August 1, 2005).

The County has not analyzed the subsequent phases of this project, so we do not know what impact of the overall project will be. We recognize that the applicant has made several environmentally-responsible statements regarding their operation of the winery and vineyard. We applaud those statements, but until proper environmental analysis occurs and conditions placed on any future permits, we can find no security in statements that can be changed at the whim of the present or future landowners.

There are two alternative reasons for why the Board of Supervisors should consider the subsequent phases of this project to be one single project, and analyzed together as a single project. First, the County could decide that this is not a “judgment call,” that the only appropriate way to look at these phases is as a single project. In that case, the County must grant this appeal and require a full analysis of the whole project. Second, the County could decide that it is a “judgment call” or gray area as to whether this is a single or multiple projects. In that case, we argue it makes much more sense to consider the subsequent phases to be a single project, and the Supervisors should therefore judge it all to be one project, and grant the appeal.

The only appropriate analysis of the proposed phases is as a single project.

The applicant does not consider the caves to be separate from the subsequent winery, and no evidence in the record suggests otherwise. In fact, the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District specifically objected to the segmentation of the project as one of several objections to the project, and unless we are missing part of the County’s response, the County never responded to this issue. In discussions with County staff, we were told the caves could have an independent utility from the planned future winery because the landowners could use them solely to store wine produced at their Woodside winery. While an interesting suggestion, it has no relation to what the landowners actually intend to do. It also does not make any economic sense – if the winery is not present at the same site as the caves, then all the caves represent is a highly inconvenient, relatively small (13,000 square feet) storage space. The landowners would have to harvest grapes from that property (located just two miles from the Skyline-Highway 9 intersection), truck the grapes all the way to Woodside in San Mateo County, process them into wine, truck the bottles all the way back up the hill to store them in the caves – and then transport the wine all the way back down to Woodside to sell it. None of this makes sense, as opposed to leasing appropriate storage space much closer to the Woodside winery.

We additionally note that the County Hillside Zoning requirements state that low-intensity “commercial, industrial and institutional uses may also be allowed if they require a remote, rural setting…” Absent an associated winery, the storage caves are merely a form of warehousing – there is no other special reason to construct the caves. Warehouses do not require a remote, rural setting, so the caves then should not be allowed.

The County cannot rely on some strained, imaginary purpose for the caves as an isolated storage spot miles away from where it is needed, where no reasonable person would make such use of the property, and one that contradicts the applicant’s own statements. This interpretation of when it is permissible to divide a project up in phases, if allowed, would permit segmentation limited only by people’s imagination. It should not be allowed.

As a matter of judgment, the County should consider the different phases of the winery to be a single project.

The question that the Board of Supervisors need to consider is whether it will result in better planning if it splits the analysis of the project, as proposed by County staff, or analyzes all phases at the same time. The applicant has stated they will need a grading permit for thousands of cubic yards of cut and fill for the winery construction. Granting such a permit is a discretionary decision by the County. The County could potentially deny the permit, a possibility we cannot rule out in part because no analysis has yet been done of the environmental effects of the winery. If this happens, the applicant will be left with exactly what they said they do not want – storage caves miles away from any winery. This outcome is not just a risk to the applicant but also to the public, because the applicant having made an investment in the caves will continue to press for approval, and use their cave investment as one reason.

The better planning approach is to handle the whole project at once. Combined impacts, such as all the construction impacts and traffic impacts, can then be considered together instead of piecemeal. If the County exercises its discretion to reject the project, the applicant would make decisions that are not based on investments already sunk into part of an already-constructed project.

For the above reasons, the County should grant this appeal. The County clearly needs to tighten its regulations on both vineyards and associated winery developments so that better regulation will happen. Again this is not to oppose all new vineyards and wineries, but only to call for better regulation. We suggest the County investigate the regulations and protections here as opposed to neighboring counties, and regulations in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

Friday, August 5, 2005

The Mercury News and The PInnacle report on potential tax fraud issue raised by CGF

The news coverage continues on the issue CGF raised with the County District Attorney: potential tax fraud committed at the illegally-built Institute Golf Course in Morgan Hill, drawing subsidies for an "agricultural" tax break that it does not deserve.

See The Pinnacle News for their report, and The Mercury News as well (Morgan Hill Times also covered the story but a subscription is needed to view it online). Hopefully this story will continue to develop.


Monday, August 1, 2005

Letter to the Regional Water Board on impervious surfaces

CGF received a grant from the Santa Clara Valley Water District to analyze the need under the California Environmental Quality Act to monitor cumulative impacts from impervious surfaces. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board is considering similar issues under different laws that regulate water quality. Below is a letter we sent today asking for improved monitoring, which will take us well on the way towards getting improved mitigation.


August 1, 2005

Mr. Bruce H. Wolfe
Executive Officer
Regional Water Quality Control Board
1515 Clay Street, Suite 1400
Oakland, CA 94612

Dear Mr. Wolfe,

The Committee for Green Foothills believes that the success of the stormwater program as it currently exists and as it could improve in the future relies upon an effective program to monitor changes in impervious surface. We write you today to request that the Regional Board take the necessary action to clarify the monitoring requirements of all the existing stormwater programs in the Bay Area.

The essential elements of an effective monitoring program would be:

1. Annual reporting on the increase and decrease in impervious surface in each community, the volume of stormwater detention storage provided and an estimate of the degree to which this storage would provide detention for the 2 year, the 10 year and the 50 year storm. The data should be in spreadsheet/database and report format that identify the type of development, the status under the permit (i.e. exempt, subject only to treatment requirements,etc) and the watershed to which each development is tributary.

2. A report on developments over 5 acres approved by each municipality, the amount of impervious surface added or reduced by the development, the volume of stormwater storage/detention provided, an estimate of whether this storage will contain the 2 year, the 10 year and the 50 year storm. the the percentage of the increase for which the 2 year, the 10 year and the 50 year storm are being captured by flow detention facilities. This report should be quarterly during the first two years of the permit and annually thereafter in order to assure that the program is being effectively implemented during the startup period.

The quarterly report should be due 45 days after the end of each quarter and the annual report should be submitted with the regular Annual Report for the Stormwater Program.

We would appreciate your thoughtful consideration to this proposal. This request is substantially similar to a suggestion I made in oral comments at the July 20, 2005 meeting. In a sidebar conversation I had Board Chairman Muller at the meeting, he said he would request that you respond to my suggestion. I hope you can do so by replying to this letter.

Please contact me if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County