Friday, March 31, 2006

Morgan Hill ignoring the effects of losing farmland

Morgan Hill is considering establishing an Urban Limit Line, a second line that shows where long-term growth will occur outside of the current Urban Growth Boundary.

As stated in our comment letter reproduced below, City staff isn't taking seriously the environmental effects of losing the farmland. We hope the City Council decides differently.


(one other note: after submitting the letter below, I re-read the original document and realized I had misunderstood the section discussing "Black Rock," so in my oral comments, I asked the City to disregard that one paragraph in my comment letter)

March 28, 2006

Kathy Molloy-Previsich, Community Development Director
Community Development Department
City of Morgan Hill

17555 Peak Avenue
Morgan Hill, CA 95037

Dear Kathy:

The Committee for Green Foothills submits the following comments on the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the Urban Line Limit and Greenbelt Study General Plan Amendment and Related Actions (ULL). We understand from communications between City Consultant David Bischoff and Michele Beasley of Greenbelt Alliance that comments submitted today would be considered timely.

The Committee supports the comments submitted by the Greenbelt Alliance in its March 27th letter. These comments state that it is reasonably foreseeable that establishment of the ULL will ultimately lead to a conversion of farmland. In fact is more than reasonably foreseeable, it is quite obvious. The MND itself states “the implementation of Part A could lead to eventual conversion of farmland within the ULL area, since the nature of establishing a ULL boundary is to provide an envelope for future development.” MND at 45. The MND then incorrectly states this possibility is speculative. It is not – rather, it is the clear intent and purpose of establishing the ULL. Where the MND states the “nature” of establishing the ULL is to outline future development, that is really the end purpose of the project, and if this purpose is not even a remotely foreseeable possibility, there would be no reason to include it as the major component of this project.

Furthermore, the cumulative impact of this new designation for land as bounded by the ULL together with future actions to annex and convert away from farmland the parcels within the ULL is reasonably foreseeable as a cumulative impact. From a practical viewpoint, it should be clear to City Staff and the Planning Commission that landowners within the ULL will seek annexation when possible, and will loudly trumpet the fact that they are inside the ULL as an additional reason for their annexation to proceed. This cumulative impact is foreseeable, and must be addressed.

We agree with Greenbelt Alliance that a feasible mitigation measure of 1:1 ratio for permanent farmland preservation to compensate for lost farmland should be included in this project. We wish to add that while farmland preservation can feasibly reduce the impact of farmland loss, it cannot reduce that impact to a level of insignificance. As the Greenbelt Alliance letter makes clear, California is losing farmlands at a significant rate, and such a loss can only be slowed, not stopped, by agricultural preservation. Therefore, a Negative Declaration is inadequate for this project, and the City cannot legally approve this project without preparing an Environmental Impact Report.

For the same reason, the conversion of farmland in the Black Rock subarea, which the City acknowledges is a “real” impact, cannot be mitigated to a level of insignificance through agricultural preservation, and also requires preparation of an EIR.

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

Monday, March 20, 2006

Let the sun shine in - improving disclosure requirements

The Mercury News has a series on the need for better disclosure of government operations in San Jose. They asked for reader comment, and we sent in the email below.


Dear Mercury News editors:

I'm very glad to see this effort by your newspaper to increase disclosure and "sunshine" in government operations. In our work as an environmental organization involved in local land use issues we have seen two specific disclosure problems in our field. The first is general, and the second is specific to San Jose.

The general problem is the shift by governments from distributing environmental documents from paper form to electronic form, either downloadable from the Internet or sent out as CDs. While electronic distribution is fine as an addition to paper distribution, the public no longer gets a paper copy of EIRs in increasing numbers of cases. It's extremely hard to cross-reference information in electronic-only format. This change reduces the public's ability to use the information, or it forces us to spend our own money printing out documents that are the responsibility of the developers who apply for permits.

A better solution is to continue to make paper versions of EIRs and other environmental documents available to those who request them. A nominal fee of several dollars would discourage people from requesting documents that they don't actually need. This costs taxpayers nothing in most cases, as it is the responsibility of developers to pay for the costs of environmental review.

(As an aside, the electronic documents should also be in searchable formats, like Word documents. The Adobe PDFs that are usually used often cannot be searched, in whole or in part. Agencies also often post the EIRs broken up into many different chapters, which can be extremely annoying to download. They should add the option of downloading the entire document at once.)

The second, San Jose-specific problem is its retention of the archaic and biased system that allows developers to prepare the preliminary version of environmental documents that may then be adopted by San Jose as its own documentation. While technical reports or architectural drawings may be appropriately prepared by an applicants' experts, Draft Environmental Impact Reports require judgment and analysis that should belong to the agency, not a biased developer.

Handing developers control over preliminary documents creates two disclosure problems. First, even the City does not know what went in and what was left out of that preliminary document - effectively, the practice means San Jose is hiding information from itself. Second, the City loses the ability to disclose preliminary documents and information that developers fail to turn over. While San Jose may not be obligated to turn over this information on request, if San Jose prepared it instead of developers, it would have the option to do so if it chose. Developer control of preliminary documents hides information from the City itself, and from the public. No wonder that most jurisdictions in the Bay Area have abandoned this developer-controlled process.

There are other disclosure problems, but these two are clearly among the most important.

Brian Schmidt

Brian Schmidt
Santa Clara County Legislative Advocate
Committee for Green Foothills

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Stanford's sidewalk proposal, and our response

Stanford's proposal to expand the Alpine Road sidewalk is out, and can be viewed here. No big surprises, but plenty of hints remain that the "poison pill" that Stanford inserted, giving it control over San Mateo County's review of alternative trail locations, will be firmly enforced. Welcome to Stanford's concept of environmental review.

Actually, giving Santa Clara County Parks Department control over changes is interesting. Looks like a future exercise of discretionary power to me, meaning Santa Clara County would have to do the environmental analysis they've tried to avoid. Maybe they'll continue avoiding it though.

We drafted our response in advance, printed below.


March 6, 2006

Dear Members of the Town Council and Board of Supervisors;

We understand that Stanford University has submitted an application to the Town of Portola Valley and to San Mateo County to widen the existing sidewalk along Alpine Road (the incorrectly labeled “C1 Trail”). We recommend that the Town and County both reject the application. Expanding the sidewalk will have significant environmental impacts to the riparian environment along San Francisquito and Los Trancos Creeks, while doing nothing to increase the recreational value of the sidewalk. Residents of the Town and County are much better off if this proposal does not go forward. Under that circumstance, the money will then be spent on providing recreational opportunities in Santa Clara County expected to be close enough to the County border to attract significant numbers of San Mateo and Portola Valley residents.

The Alpine Road sidewalk expansion fails to serve the public interest, even at the most basic conceptual level. In addition to that central problem, some crucial details will likely make Stanford’s proposal even worse. First, Portola Valley and San Mateo County should not take any financial liability for a project that is solely the responsibility of Stanford University. The Town and County should require Stanford to sign an unlimited indemnity provision, including for stream engineering and all liability related to future upkeep of the trail, rather than transfer Stanford’s responsibility to the taxpayer. Because Stanford has only proposed to spend a limited amount of money, it is unlikely to fix this problem.

Second, while Stanford will likely claim that it will pay for agency staff time spent on that proposal, this cost recovery will presumably not occur until some process has been agreed upon between the two governments and Stanford. The Town and County should not take a single step forward with this proposal until Stanford clarifies that it will pay for all of the initial staff time taken up to decide whether the project should be considered or rejected outright. Given the complication of achieving true cost recovery, however, a better approach is to simply not spend any staff time, and reject the proposal out of hand.

Third, based on Stanford’s experience bullying Santa Clara County into ceding control to Stanford over the range of alternatives considered in environmental analyses, we anticipate the same problem will arise for the Town and County. We doubt that Stanford will acknowledge that it has no control or veto power over the environmental documentation needed for the examination of Stanford's proposal. In particular, Stanford will not acknowledge that it cannot veto the location of alternatives to be considered by those two jurisdictions, a power Stanford has asserted in the past in Santa Clara County. Without this acknowledgment, Portola Valley and San Mateo County should simply refuse to take further action. Please note that Stanford's interpretation of any commitments has been highly legalistic and cramped in Santa Clara County, so there should be careful analysis of exactly what Stanford acknowledges.

Fourth, in the 2000 General Use Permit, Stanford committed to maintain the C1 trail, but no maintenance was mentioned in the agreement it signed with Santa Clara County in December last year. Stanford’s failure to include long-term maintenance (presumably foisting the cost on to the taxpayers instead) would be yet another reason to reject its proposal.

Fifth, Portola Valley and San Mateo County should be aware that Stanford likely views its offer as subject to change or withdrawal without notice. Stanford exhibited this behavior with regards to the S1 Trail on the other side of Stanford’s land. To avoid a S1 Trail alignment it disliked, Stanford proposed a different S1 alignment called the S1-C (Ramos Ranch) alignment. Santa Clara County went along with Stanford, refused to consider superior alignments, and after two year of contentious environmental review, the County planned to accept Stanford's S1-C proposal. At that point, Stanford placed a new condition on its offer that it had not required previously, essentially making the S1-C alignment available only if Santa Clara County agreed to do what Stanford told it to do on the C1 Trail. We would not be surprised to see similar behavior by Stanford regarding the Alpine Road sidewalk.

To be clear, the problems listed above only make a bad proposal worse. Even in the unlikely event that all five issues were resolved, the best outcome would still be to reject the proposal so the money will be spent on something that actually mitigates Stanford’s impacts on land uses. We request that San Mateo County and Portola Valley reject this proposal, and we further request to be kept informed of all developments.

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Lennie Roberts

Legislative Advocate, San Mateo County

Brian A. Schmidt

Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

Friday, March 3, 2006

Lois Crozier Hogle

I just came back from attending the memorial service for Lois Crozier Hogle, a founder of the Committee for Green Foothills. The Palo Alto Weekly wrote about her here, and we will have our own article in our forthcoming newsletter.

The service was moving, and the large Presbyterian church in Portola Valley was packed. What struck me most during the service was her daughter's observation that Lois "gathered friends like she did flowers, with both arms wide open." I'm sure that packed church held only a small portion of the friends she gathered over the years, in a life that could not have been better spent.


Thursday, March 2, 2006

The Open Space Initiative has a website

Santa Clara County's Open Space Initiative (endorsed by Committee for Green Foothills) has a webite, They even have a blog! It's a moderated blog, but anyone can post to it, so please take a look and consider becoming one of the bloggers.

The website and blog are just getting started, but I expect they'll be providing plenty of information over the next few months.