Monday, October 31, 2005

Stanford trails at Palo Alto candidates' forum

Acterra recently sponsored a forum for Palo Alto City Council candidates to discuss environmental issues. The forum can be viewed online here, divided up by the questions candidates answered.

Particularly interesting were candidates' answers to a question regarding Stanford's attempt to use the existing Alpine Road sidewalk as one of the two trails it was required to construct (click on "Stanford Development" to watch). As much as anything, it shows the poor relationships Stanford has created by its actions on land use. The University should pay close attention to this, and try and change the atmosphere through appropriate action, not lobbying.


Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Tale of Jane and John

The Tale of Jane and John - A Land Use Parable

Jane Forthright just inherited a vacant, 39-acre parcel in Santa Clara County. This parcel has had a Williamson Act contract attached to it for years, which gave a tax break in return for requiring agricultural use and prohibiting development that is incompatible with agriculture. In fact, no cattle have grazed the land for years and all the neighboring parcels have converted to residential use.

Jane receives a letter from Santa Clara County telling her that they're "non-renewing" her Williamson Act contract because the land isn't being ranched, meaning the development restrictions will last 9 more years, and then be lifted. Jane has no objection, realizing that she didn't want to try and bring cattle there. What Jane would like to do is put a house on the land, but she doesn't want to wait 9 years.

Jane talks to the County, and they tell her she may be able to cancel her contract immediately, instead of waiting to develop. She qualifies, but must pay 12.5% of the land's fair market value to cancel the contract. Jane decides it's worth it to her, and goes ahead.

So that's Jane's story. Now John Sneaky's story begins the same way, but ends differently. He is in the exact same situation as Jane Forthright, and he wants to build a house, but he wants to evade the 12.5% cancellation fee. What to do?

John realizes he can switch his Williamson Act contract to an Open Space Easement. The County tells him that during the 9 year transition period, the Open Space Easement is required to be at least as restrictive as the Williamson Act. For some reason, though, the County lifts the development restriction requiring agricultural use as a condition for receiving building permits. The County thinks that other restrictions in the Open Space Easement make it as restrictive as the Williamson Act.

John Sneaky thinks differently - the County regulations allow him to choose the least-restrictive version of the Open Space Easement. This means he can only develop two of his 39 acres, but that's fine - it's plenty of space for the monster mansion he plans to inflict on the land. There are a few other requirements, but they don't meaningfully restrict his ability to develop the land. John Sneaky is happy.

At the end of the tale, Jane Forthright and John Sneaky are in the same position. John's nearly-meaningless Open Space Easement places no significant restriction in his ability to develop, so he pays the same taxes as Jane. There's only one difference - Jane had to go through the cancellation process required by state law and the California Department of Conservation, and she had to pay the 12.5% cancellation fee. John used a ruse to evade cancellation, a loophole in the County regulations that (it turns out) the County was warned it should close, but didn't.

John Sneaky is happy. Should the rest of us, who pay all our taxes, be happy?


Footnotes (did you know that parables have footnotes?): Per some helpful constructive criticism, we note that cancellation involves additional criteria and processes beyond that mentioned in the parable. Also, this parable discusses the County's proposed policy; it has not yet been finalized.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Preserving our business/environment

I was gratified to see The Mercury News run our Letter to the Editor, following up on this well-done Op-Ed by Silicon Valley Leadership Group's CEO, Carl Guardino.

Our letter is here at the newspaper website, and I'm reprinting it below.



Environment is our responsibility

Silicon Valley Leadership Group's president, Carl Guardino, emphasized in his Oct. 21 op-ed article that weather and "our beautiful physical environment are a key attraction to recruiting and retaining top talent'' here.

Keeping that beautiful environment means maintaining the undeveloped hills and farms that provide the necessary stopping edge to urban sprawl. Growing our cities up, and not out, is the key to our future.

Misguided proposals to convert Coyote and Almaden valleys into sprawl, to sacrifice still other farmlands, and to plop monster mansions on hillsides, all imperil our beautiful environment. And in just the last week, a new proposal would allow logging 1,000 acres in the hills above Los Gatos.

The weather we can count on, but the environment is our responsibility.

Brian Schmidt, Committee for Green Foothills
Palo Alto

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Absolute power is mine!

Well, the title to this post may be slightly exaggerated - I've been named a member of the Stakeholder Group for the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan/Natural Community Conservation Plan (HCP/NCCP), a position that might fall slightly short of Absolute Power Over the Universe.

Still, I hope to help influence the development of the HCP, which is intended to protect endangered species from harm related to development. A good HCP could actually benefit species, while a bad one will trade away legal protection for meaningless mitigation. We've been following this process closely over the years, and being a Stakeholder will give us our best shot at getting a good HCP.


Monday, October 17, 2005

One more problem with Coyote Valley development

San Jose plans to discontinue its Technical Advisory Committee meetings for Coyote Valley development, a process that gave CGF more input than in the Coyote Valley Task Force meetings. We emailed in our response, which I've attached below.


Dear Sal,

As a member of the Coyote Valley Specific Plan Technical Advisory Committee, I want to publicly register my opposition to the decision suspending the TAC, a "temporary hold" on meetings that I expect is actually permanent.

First, the TAC meetings are a smaller scale venue for genuine interaction among people that does not occur at Task Force meetings, where two minutes of speaking time, with no responses from City staff, provide no real means to influence the process. None of the major environmental advocacy groups (Committee for Green Foothills, Sierra Club, Greenbelt Alliance, or Audubon Society) are represented on the Task Force. Unlike the property owners who have been empowered by San Jose to advise City policy in a way that affects their private economic interests, environmental groups have been sidelined at the Task Force level. Even at the TAC level, it is unclear to me whether we have had any influence, but at least we have a greater chance to make our arguments.

Second, because I was not consulted prior to this decision, I assume other TAC members were also not consulted. I think their opinion would be helpful, and I suggest the City ask the other members whether the meetings should be put on hold.

I hope the City will reconsider its decision.

Brian Schmidt

At 01:15 PM 10/17/2005, Yakubu, Salifu wrote:
> Coyote Valley Specific Plan Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) Members:
> To minimize the duplication of effort, the Technical Advisory Committee
> (TAC) meetings have been put on hold temporarily.
> The CVSP planning team is continuing to hold sub-committee and focus group
> meetings on specialized areas of study such as schools, transportation,
> affordable housing, parks and trails, medical services, etc. These
> forums, which several of you currently participate in, are the primary
> vehicles for the review of technical information pertaining to these
> subject areas.
> For the last several weeks the Coyote Valley Specific Plan team of staff
> and consultants have been drafting the Specific Plan document. This
> effort draws extensively from all the community, TAC, and Task Force
> input, as well as information and materials that have been developed by
> the consultants and staff. Once we have a public review copy of the
> Specific Plan (expected in early 2006), we will reconvene the TAC to
> receive your comments on the document.
In the meantime, we are continuing to hold the monthly public Task
Force meetings to apprise the community and Coyote Valley stakeholders of
any proposed refinements. TAC members are welcome to attend and provide
public comment to the full Task Force.

> We wish to thank you for continuing to serve as a member of the Coyote
> Valley Specific Plan Technical Advisory Committee. Your contribution
> during the past three years has greatly enhanced the process and
> development of the plan, and would undoubtedly shape the future of Coyote
> Valley.
> Please feel free to contact me at


> if you have any questions. Thank you very
> much, and we look forward to your continued participation in this planning
> effort.
> Salifu Yakubu
> Principal Planner
> Department of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement

Friday, October 14, 2005

1,500 stitches in time same save 69,000

The rhyme doesn't work as well when you add a few digits, but the idea is the same. The Chronicle reports on attempts to stop an invasive plant in San Francisco Bay. The plant, a hybrid version of Atlantic cordgrass, has already taken over 1,500 acres of the Bay and threatens 69,000 more, including South Bay areas.

Invasive plants and animals are a constantly increasing threat to native species, and are generally considered to be the second-most important problem after habitat loss from development. This is a land management challenge that will be increasingly important in the future.


Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More threats to wetlands at the US Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court has agreed to review whether the Clean Water Act (CWA) allows the federal government to protect wetlands that are hydrologically connected to navigable "waters" (rivers, lakes, etc.), but are not directly adjacent to navigable waters. A decision limiting the CWA would further reduce wetlands protection, a process that began several years ago when the Supreme Court ruled that that the CWA did not protect wetlands that are completely isolated from navigable waters.

CNN and New York Times had only brief reports about this issue, so I did a little research. That the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case is ominous; it means that at least four justices supported reviewing it. That might mean that at least four justices think the lower court was wrong in upholding the authority to protect wetlands. On the other hand, lower courts are split on whether wetlands like the one under review are protected, so the Supreme Court might have accepted the case in order to resolve the split decisions, and not because they thought it was wrongly decided.

We'll have to wait and see what happens with this case, and hope that it's not bad news. Here in California, even wetlands that are not protected by the Clean Water Act are still protected by state law, particularly the California Environmental Quality Act. We have tried to tell that to Santa Clara County, but the County isn't listening. Depending on this case, it could become even more important for the County to start listening.


Thursday, October 6, 2005

Congressman Pombo's land use ethics are raising concerns

Following up on our post last week about potentially disastrous Endangered Species Act amendments introduced by Congressman Pombo (whose district includes Morgan Hill), we were concerned to see the Congressman listed as one of "The 13 Most Corrupt Members of Congress" by an organization called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

While general ethics issues are beyond our normal focus as an environmental organization, two of the charges against Rep. Pombo relate to land use. One concerns opposition to regulations for wind power, where Pombo's family gets royalties from windmills. The other concerns potentially destructive highways that Pombo wants built that could greatly increase the value of land that he has. The East Bay Express provides additional details, including yet another destructive highway that could be built over the pristine Mount Hamilton range (a proposal CGF has consistently opposed).

We would be very concerned if the attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act were related in some way to making it easier to harm the environment on Pombo family property. This concern may need investigation.

CGF contacted Congressman Pombo's office for a reaction to these stories. The very nice person we talked to there said that the group making these corruption claims is a politically motivated attack group and that their claims don't hold water. We did not get a more specific response, but if we do, we will be sure to post it.