Development, preservation still at odds 

Since 1982, the nation’s first-ever Habitat Conservation Plan has balanced the competing interests of development and open space preservation on the Peninsula’s highest peak — the 1,314-foot San Bruno Mountain.

A housing project proposal, however, is highlighting what many say is a major flaw of the plan: a lack of funding to pay for maintaining and restoring the habitat it is supposed to protect.

The final phase of Brookfield Homes’ Northeast Ridge development, which will fill the remaining 20 percent of 300 acres designated for development under the plan, will require a "take permit" from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an amendment to the Habitat Conservation Plan because it would reduce the habitat of the endangered callippe silverspot butterfly.

The proposal includes $4 million from the developer as well as an $800 annual fee on the 77 potential homeowners for habitat conservation on the mountain, but local environmental groups believe authorities should preserve what habitat is left rather than take the money.

"We think there needs to be another way," said Ken McIntire, director of San Bruno Mountain Watch. "We’d like to find another way rather than making this trade-off."

Despite their opposition, foes of the payment plan acknowledge that the primary shortfall of the Habitat Conservation Plan, now in its 25th year, is the limited funding available for habitat restoration efforts.

While new developments might lead to increased homeowners’ fees that go toward habitat restoration, owners of existing homes will still be assessed a fee that many say is not enough to do the job. Most homeowners on San Bruno Mountain pay between $25 and $50 annually, which last year brought in roughly $140,000 for restoration activities.

When the plan went into effect there was no mechanism in the funding program to increase those fees, said Victoria Harris said, vice president of Thomas Reid Associates, the consulting firm that has managed the plan since its inception.

"All the development has gone in accordance with what the plan has specified," Harris said. "The failure has been that we didn’t foresee that these homes were going to cost a lot more money."

Those mechanisms are "inadequate to finance the maintenance and removal and prevent the invasion of non-native and exotic vegetation," said Bill Prince, Brisbane’s Community Development director. A board of trustees made up of the city managers of Daly City, South San Francisco and Brisbane oversee San Bruno Mountain.

Disagreements still persist over how best to guard the biodiversity hot spot from invasive non-native flora and fauna, and Harris said little was known about the problem when the plan was created.

"It’s not black or white; it’s all gray," county park planner Sam Herzberg said of the 1982 plan. "It was the first attempt to balance habitat needs and development needs."

Trails, environment equally diverse

On clear days, visitors to San Bruno Mountain have a 360-degree view of the Bay Area: south to Redwood City, west to the Farallones, north to the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tamalpais and east to Mt. Diablo.

Twelve miles of trails carve up the mountain’s 2,326 acres, allowing hikers, joggers, the disabled and horseback riders to enjoy the diverse terrain.

Sixteen-year Park Ranger Karen Wight said the trails could be used in different variations depending on how strenuous a person wants to make their visit. Of course, visitors can always drive to the 1,314-foot summit for a $5 entrance fee.

The most strenuous hike is Ridge Trail, a 2.5-mile path near the summit, but Wight said her favorite was the Summit Loop — 3.1 miles — because it winds its way around the whole mountain.

"My ears pop when I go up there," Wight said. "[The sunsets] are gorgeous because you can see the sun set right down on the ocean."

The longest trail, Summit Loop, exposes its visitors to all the mountain’s vistas and different terrain, and walkers can experience the temperature swings that come from the different microclimates on the mountain, Wight said.

Other trails include: the 1.1-mile Eucalyptus Loop; the .77-mile Bog Trail, which has disability access; the one-mile Old Guadalupe Trail; the 2.1-mile Saddle Loop Trail; the .5-mile Dairy Ravine Trail; and the .7-mile Old Ranch Road Trail.

Visitors are asked to stay on the trails because of the long list of endangered plants and animals that inhabit the mountain.

Mountain facts

» San Bruno Mountain is the largest urban open space in the United States — 3,300 acres of undeveloped land, according to San Bruno Mountain Watch.

» The mountain is the last fragment of the Franciscan Region ecosystem, the rest of which was located where San Francisco now sits.

» There are approximately 14 species of rare and endangered plants on the mountain, including the Franciscan wallflower, San Francisco owl’s clover, San Francisco campion, Montara Manzanita and Pacifica Manzanita.

» Endangered and threatened butterfly species on the mountain: San Bruno elfin, Mission blue, callippe silverspot and Bay checkerspot. A population of the threatened San Francisco tree lupin moth was destroyed by development.

-Source: San Bruno Mountain Watch and San Mateo County Parks Department

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