Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Opposition to Santa Clara County General Plan Amendment Proposal

(CGF sent the letter below to the Santa Clara County Planning Commission. -Brian)

June 30, 2010

Santa Clara County Planning Commission

            Re:  CGF support for the County staff position on Planning Commission July 1, 2010 meeting Agenda Item 11, recommending rejection of application for formal processing

Dear Commissioners;

I regret that I may not be able to attend the Planning Commission meeting discussing the Pickett General Plan Amendment Proposal, but as we also stated in 2007, the Committee for Green Foothills continues to oppose the proposal, and the current proposal does not change any important issue that constituted adequate reason for rejecting the proposal three years ago.

The staff report describes several reasons for rejecting the application, both now and in 2007.  Related to the 2007 discussion, I would like to correct the record contained in the staff report:  it correctly states that I spoke on behalf of CGF in opposition to the project, but also states that I supported "conversion of lands to rural residential if the property is 35 percent or more surrounded by rural residential."

I am attempting to obtain the audio recording for that meeting, but at the least, the record does not describe what I intended to say.  Proposals like this one, where a minority of adjacent land is Rural Residential, should be rejected.  Proposals where even a majority of adjacent perimeter land is Rural Residential may also be inappropriate, and only where a substantial majority, such as three out of four sides, may be appropriately considered infill under some circumstances.

The applicant's proposal for what constitutes "infill" actually leads to a logical contradiction.  As can be seen on the parcel maps for the area, parcels with a large variety of sizes and shape are adjacent to one another.  If infill is only allowed where a substantial majority of adjacent perimeter is Rural Residential, then there will soon be a condition where the infill has "infilled" and no other parcels qualify for consideration.  If, on the other hand, the County uses the applicant's very different, proposed criteria of a minority of adjacent land being sufficient to justify changing designation, then the "infill" will actually expand consistently outward.  Instead of infilling holes, the applicant's rationale will lead to outward expansion, in direct contradiction to the purpose of infill.

Take the applicant's own example, where approximately one-third of their parcel number 77611001 borders Rural Residential property.  Changing this parcel's designation means that other neighboring parcels will have similar or greater percentages of perimeter shared with Rural Residential and appropriate for re-designation – parcels 77929027 (small parcel to the east), 77926003, 75619032 (already at equivalent percentage), 75619036, and 77612008.  These parcels, once re-designated, would justify changing the designation of still other parcels in an outward expansion that includes parcels 77929028, 75619031, 75619006, and 77612012, and those parcels would justify still more re-designations.  This is just in the immediate vicinity of the applicant, but their argument logically applies to any parcels anywhere in the County that border Rural Residential land.

The problem with the applicant's argument is not that it may someday take us down a "slippery slope" of accepting ever-smaller percentages for justifying re-designations.  Rather it is the applicant's own principle without any further deterioration that justifies outwardly expanding "infill".

Committee for Green Foothills has seen too many instances where past environmental mistakes have been used by developers to justify arguing for new mistakes.  We urge the Planning Commission to avoid a repeat of that process, and to recommend rejection of this application.

Please contact us with any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Neutering feral cats not shown to reduce their environmental impact

An interesting if depressing piece of research about feral cats:  the "trap, neuter, and return" policy for neutering and returning feral cats to the wild doesn't reduce their tendency to roam and hunt widely.  The "return" happens because there are too many feral cats to find homes for, and many are too wild to ever socialize in order to be come pets.

Neutering will keep those cats from reproducing, but as long as there are other fertile cats, the populations will stay just as high.

Santa Clara County has a significant problem with feral cats and with people who set up feeding stations for them, so this issue is something that affects us locally.

-Brian Schmidt

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fixing the mercury problem here at home and throughout California - a guest post

(Below is a guest post by CGF Intern Anthony Aerts, completed today on his first day on the job.  We expect that we'll be seeing more over the summer.  -Brian Schmidt)

Due to its unique mining history of being the main source of mercury used in vast quantities for gold processing during California's Gold rush, Santa Clara County suffers from large concentrations of mercury pollution. In high enough amounts, mercury can prove harmful to humans, especially to children and pregnant women, by causing neurological defects. A recent Mercury News article detailed the severity of this problem by reporting on a survey conducted by the State Water Resource Control Board. The survey found that five Santa Clara County lakes and reservoirs rank in the top 15 statewide for mercury contamination, with concentrations well above the consumption-safe level. Almaden Lake, near San Jose, has the highest mercury concentration in California.

 Several policy options should be considered for reversing this contamination. These policies function as variations of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a standard pollution-control concept which holds the original producers of a pollutant responsible for the recovery and disposal costs throughout the entire life of their product. In Germany, EPR is applied through the Green Dot System whereby a product is awarded a distinguishing symbol if its manufacturer helps to fund the recovery and recycling of the product’s packaging waste.

One solution here in California would be a new state law making the original mercury producers responsible for funding the removal of the mercury that they have introduced into California's economy. These would be the earliest in time, "upstream" producers of the mercury, who would be responsible for solutions at least as much as the later consumers who may have less knowledge of the problem or only deal with tiny amounts.  The California Product Stewardship Council (CPSC)  works on similar EPR concepts that shift costs of waste management from publicly-funded entities to private manufacturers.

  Depending on the product, some waste materials are difficult or impossible to recover. Applying EPR may work best when manufacturers can recover the same kind of waste even if it’s  not tracking and recovering the specific waste they released.  From a cost-efficiency standpoint, it may be cheaper to allow manufacturers of mercury-related products the option of participating in the removal of the mercury waste of others. For example, several old mine sites have large concentrations of mercury and do not present the same clean-up challenges as tracking and disposing of mercury-related products distributed over a large area . Cleanup of mercury in “fixed” locations, however, may provide fewer environmental benefits because that mercury has less outlets to enter the ecosystem. In order to compensate, producers who choose this option should have to clean up much more mercury than they actually emit thorough their own product.

A third potential solution is to focus not on the physical removal of the mercury, but rather on mitigating its toxic effects. These measures include installing devices which might pump oxygen into lakes to prevent mercury from being chemically converted into its harmful form and working to isolate old mercury deposits.

CGF will continue to track this issue and cooperate with the with other organizations looking for opportunities to help create the significant legislative and regulatory changes needed to combat the severe problem of mercury contamination in Santa Clara County waters.

(UPDATE:  Anthony has revised the text above to clarify some of the concepts.  We thank readers for the suggestions.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Good news for improving environmental funding by the Water District

A potential environmental victory may be in the works at the Water District, fixing a defect in the current Clean Safe Creeks measure, if the measure gets renewed.

The current CSC funding is supposed to dedicate 14% of the parcel tax to environmental enhancement, while most of the remainder is dedicated to flood control.  While that 14% of course should be good news, included in the allowable activities for that 14% is removing vegetation from flood channels.  The argument is that much of the removed vegetation are non-native plants, but really it's not about getting rid of non-natives, it's about improving flood conveyance.

At a recent workshop about a potential renewed CSC measure (the current one expires in 2016), I raised this issue and said vegetation removal from channels should be charged to flood control, not to environmental enhancement.  Water District staff agreed with me, and said they'd been thinking along the same lines.

While that might not sound like a huge victory (and it's not a victory at all unless and until a new parcel tax measure is written with the right language and passes), it could be bigger than it sounds.  In effect, it boosts the amount spent on actual environmental enhancement, and will help make Santa Clara County watersheds that much better off.

-Brian Schmidt

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Not letting the "Interchange to Nowhere" force additional sprawl in Coyote Valley

The San Jose General Plan Task Force talked about backloading development in North Coyote Valley and east Evergreen. I'm actually writing this during the meeting and will soon have my very short chance to comment.

Unfortunately there was one objection to backloading which couldn't be more wrong but I won't have time to address.  One person said that the state spent money building infrastructure in Coyote Valley, so it would be wrong not to promote development there.

What I would say, if I had time, would be to say that the state spent money widening Highway 101 and on building the Bailey Avenue/Highway 101 Interchange.  Widening Highway 101 was done for many reasons for better or worse and isn't dependent on developing Coyote Valley.  The commenter may appreciate Highway 101's widening, without needing to support development of Coyote Valley.

The Bailey Interchange, however, could probably be known better as the Interchange to Nowhere - a massive, expensive construction designed to funnel tens of thousands of non-existent commuters to non-existent jobs in Coyote Valley.  A significant portion of the useable lifetime of the structure has passed and will pass for no reason with no justified use - think of the actually useful things that could have been done with that money.  The Interchange to Nowhere isn't a reason to double down on a mistake; it's a glaring example of why sprawl is a gigantic waste of taxpayer money.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Letter to San Jose Envision 2040 Task Force on backloading North Coyote and East Evergreen

(The letter below was submitted to the San Jose General Plan Task Force, discussing why and how the City should "backload" development in the greenspace areas of North Coyote and east Evergreen until until other areas have been fully developed, if at all.  -Brian)

Envision San Jose 2040 Task Force

Re:  following the City Council's direction, some options on "backloading" development in North Coyote Valley and east Evergreen

Dear Task Force Members;

On April 20th, the City Council directed that the General Plan revision process include consideration of "backloading" greenfield development in North Coyote Valley and east Evergreen until jobs capacity has been fully developed in other areas of the City.  The vote was to entertain and consider the idea, not necessarily to do it.  To provide feedback from the Task Force to the City Council and staff, we suggest the Task Force hold two votes.  First the Task Force should consider whether it supports the general principle of backloading, which is modifies the idea that jobs development should occur anytime and anywhere to an idea that prioritizes redevelopment over conversion of open space.  Second, the Task Force should vote on different options on backloading to recommend to the City Council, a recommendation that could be useful regardless of the outcome of the first vote, because the City Council must make the final decision on General Plan issues.

We strongly urge the Task Force to support backloading, and to recommend a policy that only exempts existing permits and entitlements.

1.  Supporting the principle of backloading.  We will not repeat the argument made at length to the Task Force and to the City Council that converting valuable farmlands, ranchland, and open space buffers to development when the rest of the City needs redevelopment is a mistake.  San Jose has a chance to grow upward instead of outward, and places like downtown, North First Street, and Evergreen would benefit if development is not siphoned off elsewhere.  The idea would not permanently forbid development of North Coyote and east Evergreen, although the Council is aware that the effect may be to stop development. While existing permits such as the Coyote Valley Research Park would not be affected, renewal of unutilized permits would be.  Please see the attached April 26th letter for more information. 

We suggest a simple motion on this issue that provides feedback to staff and City Council on the general idea that they can use regardless of how the City proceeds on the second question.

2. Options for backloading.

Our recommendation and proposed General Plan Policy:

Preferred Policy:  "New permits for industrial or commercial development of undeveloped lands in North Coyote Valley and east Evergreen shall not be issued until the planned jobs capacity has been reached in all other parts of the City."

Please note the above policy contains an implicit exemption, in that any truly exceptional proposal could be approved by the City Council through a General Plan amendment, something that a "truly exceptional" proposal shouldn't have trouble achieving.

Alternative policies:

Alternative 1: "New permits for industrial or commercial development of undeveloped lands in North Coyote Valley and east Evergreen shall not be issued until the planned jobs capacity has been reached in all other parts of the City; provided however that exceptions for projects of unique economic opportunity creating at least X thousand jobs shall be allowed when the "trigger" conditions for City fiscal health and governmental services, described for development in mid-Coyote Valley in the San Jose 2020 General Plan, are also met."

We suggest the project be a minimum of 10,000 jobs to ensure a size of project that could not be easily accommodated elsewhere.  We recommend this alternative if an exception is to be included.

Alternative 2: "New permits for industrial or commercial development of undeveloped lands in North Coyote Valley and east Evergreen shall not be issued until the planned jobs capacity has been reached in all other parts of the City; provided however that exceptions for projects of unique economic opportunity creating at least X thousand jobs shall be allowed."

Removes the trigger concept.

Alternative 3: "New permits for industrial or commercial development of undeveloped lands in North Coyote Valley and east Evergreen shall not be issued until the planned jobs capacity has been reached in all other parts of the City; provided however that exceptions for large projects of unique economic opportunity shall be allowed."

Instead of providing a set number, it merely says the project must be "large."

Please contact us with any questions.

Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County