Wednesday, August 30, 2006

County enacts viewshed protection in a win for the Measure A Campaign

Yesterday, Santa Clara County enacted improved viewshed protection for hillside development (Agenda Item 66) in the County, limiting the aesthetic impact from new development and giving people incentives to construct smaller, less intrusive homes.

CGF asked for even stronger protections which were not granted, but developers' efforts to weaken the protections also were rejected. Overall, I would describe this both as a significant improvement and a first victory for the Measure A campaign, the Land Conservation Initiative.

Relatively few opponents of the County viewshed proposal tried to kill it, but rather most of them only sought to weaken it. If we had not been bringing our Measure A, there's little doubt that the realtors and developers would have tried to kill viewshed protection entirely. Because they had to act "reasonably", our Measure A campaign defused a great deal of potential opposition to the County's action yesterday.

Our comment letter is reposted below.

August 25, 2006

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors

Re: Agenda Item #66, Viewshed Protection

Dear Members of the Board of Supervisors

The Committee for Green Foothills continues its ongoing support for improvements to County viewshed protection, which include proposals suggested by County Supervisors for nearly two years. While interest in improving the viewshed protection extends even longer than two years, the Committee was involved in the recent catalyst for this effort, a proposal to place a 25,000 square-foot monster mansion on a hilltop ridgeline. We are very glad to see the effort to improve rules make so much progress.

The Committee generally supports County staff’s viewshed protection proposal. We support the proposal both on its own merit and as something that complements the more general protection we hope to achieve through the Land Conservation Initiative on the fall ballot. We note that Initiative opponents have stated they also support the viewshed process and proposal, and we hope they will not seek to remove the most important portions of the viewshed proposal.

Rather than remove vital parts of the proposal, the Committee seeks to see it strengthened. In particular, we suggest the following:

· House size levels for design review should be better adjusted to reflect the problems that monster mansions pose for viewshed protection. As proposed, a 4,900 square-foot structure would not get Tier 2 review and no incentive in the rules to reduce its size. The 12,500 square-foot limit for Tier 3 is similarly too high to create a significant disincentive. We suggest the transition from Tier 1 to Tier 2 occur at 4,000 square feet, and from Tier 2 to Tier 3 occur at 10,000 square feet.

We understand that staff based the Tier 2 transition on the current typical house of 5,000 square feet in the hillsides, but if the goal is to fix an existing problem, some incentive should be given for people to choose less massive housing. Similarly, the problem of a “monster mansion” arises at a much smaller level than 12,500 square feet, and the tiering system should address that problem through appropriate incentives, including transitioning to Tier 3 at 10,000 square feet.

· The alternative proposals for ridgeline development, General Plan Policies RGD31a through 33a, should be adopted. These proposals achieve what the Board of Supervisors want – get development off of ridgelines unless no other choice presents itself, while protecting private property rights. We strongly encourage the Board to adopt these proposals and direct staff to prepare the appropriate zoning ordinances.

In addition, the Committee recommends that the 18-24 month review period include considering improvements to the proposal that would protect the viewshed for County residents who are not located in the County valley floor. These people also have the right to quality views. In particular, the review should consider the following:

· Extending viewshed protection to areas heavily used by many County residents – Highway 280, Highway 152, Highway 17, and parts of selected County parks.

· Improving lighting control ordinances to decrease light pollution and improve access to night sky views, something the County could do in conjunction with city jurisdictions.

· Review air quality protections to reduce haze in the County.

We applaud the County’s efforts, and look forward to protecting viewsheds. Please contact us with any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

Friday, August 25, 2006

Getting sponsorship for "Saving the Bay"

CGF wrote the following short message of support to the Santa Clara Valley Water District, urging them to sponsor the public television special, "Saving the Bay." This program will be a very useful method for public education.


Dear Santa Clara Valley Water District Board Members:

The Committee for Green Foothills urges the District to provide sponsorship support for the public television program, “Saving the Bay”. We believe this program will advance the District’s goals of environmental protection through education, and sponsorship will also give appropriate visibility to the District.

The Committee is also familiar with “Saving the Bay” producer Ron Blatman’s work on other projects, and we expect he will again do an exceptional job. We encourage the District to help bring this program to the viewing public.

Please contact us with any questions.

Brian Schmidt

Santa Clara County Legislative Advocate
Committee for Green Foothills

Monday, August 21, 2006

San Jose Insider discussion of the Land Conservation Initiative

One of the San Jose Insider bloggers posted a great editorial supporting the Land Conservation Initiative, and a spirited discussion is in the comments section.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Coyote Valley fiscal analysis already showing flaws

As we reported a while back, San Jose expects to make money off of Coyote Valley development only because it expects housing prices to increase exponentially faster than income, every year for sixty years. We think this reasoning is flawed, and the problems are already showing.

The National Association of Realtors just released its national report on the housing market, and we can check San Jose's assumptions against what is actually happening. San Jose expected housing to increase 3% above inflation, so with inflation at 4%-5%, San Jose is counting on a 7%-8% increase in housing prices. The Excel spreadsheets at the Realtors' site show 0.4% increase for single family homes in the greater San Jose area, and 4% for condos in the San Francisco area.

San Jose's estimates are already off by 5% or more, according to these figures. More importantly, they demonstrate the flaw in San Jose's method of projecting unsustainable trends as something that will last forever.


UPDATE, 8/17: Figures from a different source for all of Santa Clara County show a 7% rise, which just barely keeps up with San Jose's projections (although the decline in sales volume may indicate problems). There's a difference in geographic area and time period, but the range betweeen 0.4% and 7% is so large that I suspect something is wrong with at least one of these estimates.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Toxic explosion in East Palo Alto has uncertain effect on the Baylands

(Guest posting by CGF volunteer Annie Ryan.)

On June 5th of this year, a four-thousand gallon mixture of volatile and­­ semi-volatile organic compounds exploded inside a tanker truck at the East Palo Alto Romic toxic waste facilities, and subsequently escaped from the tanker into the air (the press release avoided the word “exploded” and said “reacted chemically” instead). A mist spread over the Bay Road complex, nearby homes, and the immediately adjacent Bayland marshes before coating the ground, leaving buildings, roads, and wetland plants covered in a residue of sticky black dots. Immediately following the spill, nearby residents were warned to stay inside their homes pending a further investigation into the cause and severity of the spill. Following the incident, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report outlining their initial findings regarding the nature of the spill, and what steps they were taking to ensure the safety of the nearby citizens and wildlife.

The report claims “the release of the VOCs had no effect on nearby neighborhoods or residents due to the fact that the chemicals dissipated so quickly into the air”, and that the sticky, black residue left on the road and plants “is not likely to be harmful unless one comes into direct contact with the material”. Any long term effect on the marshland was unknown at the time of the report, but biologists were expected to release results within the end of the week. (week of June 12th).

Nearly eight weeks later, the overall impact that the chemical spill had on surrounding East Palo Alto neighborhoods and marshlands is still largely a mystery. The EPA states that the tanker was carrying semi-volatile and volatile compounds, however according to Greg Baker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration there is still no definitive list of every compound in the tanker at the time of the spill. According to Baker, the biologists’ primary focus has been determining where the released spray passed over and if any damages to plant or animal life occurred. Back in June biologists explored the marshes looking for any signs of impact such as dead fish or birds, and used an imaging fly-over technique to get aerial views of the affected marshlands, and determine to what degree the area had been affected. Biologists could find no signs of environmental distress or a lack of photosynthetic activity. In August a second round of fly-over imaging will be used to see if any previously undetected impacts arise.

This incident is not the first time Romic has threatened the health and safety of residents and the marshland. In 1995 Romic mistakenly released cyanide into the Palo Alto Wastewater Treatment Plant, and in 2005 Romic paid the state of California $849,500 to settle 53 safety violations, accumulated over the last 7 years.

Romic’s presence has caught the attention of the East Palo Alto activist group Youth United for Community Action or YUCA. Over the last few years YUCA has worked to raise awareness of the harmful effect Romic has on the community. Roger Madrid, a co-member of the group believes that Romic has no place in his community, “they handle chemicals that are known to cause cancer and asthma” and “we want them to leave”.

It is troubling that while the EPA has released a statement assuring the community that the people, plants, and animals within the vicinity of the Romic spill were not harmed, it is still unknown what was in the tanker that spilled. Furthermore, EPA has not addressed the possibility of long term effects that the released chemicals could have on the community and wildlife. The Romic toxic facility has a controversial history, located in an economically disadvantaged, ethnic minority community while receiving, storing, and processing toxic waste generated elsewhere. The facility’s presence immediately next to the Baylands raises both environmental concerns and community economic development concerns for why the facility should occupy a prominent Bayfront property. These concerns are longstanding, and Committee for Green Foothills will continue to monitor the natural resource protection issues that result in this area.

-Annie Ryan