Struggle between preservation and development continues on San Bruno Mountain 

Development on San Bruno Mountain could help, as well as hurt, environmental goals for the 1,300-foot peak.

Buildings remain rare on the rugged 3,400-acre open-space oasis flanked by the densely urbanized cities of San Francisco, Daly City and South San Francisco. Much of the mountain falls under the jurisdiction of San Mateo County and the little-populated town of Brisbane.

The mountain made history in 1983 when 2,750 acres were protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the nation’s first habitat conservation plan, which was drafted under the U.S. Endangered Species Act to help balance development with butterfly protection.

The 1983 habitat conservation plan levied annual property fees of $25 per home to help San Mateo County protect the hills from invasive species of grass and other threats to the native butterflies. The fee has risen with the cost of living and today is roughly $40 per year for most homes on the mountain.

But fewer homes have been built on the mountain than were originally planned, partly because land marked for development has been purchased as new parkland by various government agencies.

Additionally, callippe silverspot butterflies were added to the endangered species list after the plan was approved, which barred construction on their breeding sites, senior county park planner Sam Herzberg said.

As a result, there is less funding available for habitat protection on the mountain than anticipated. At the same time, funding needs have grown as invasive grasslands and scrublands have overtaken the mountain, Herzberg said.

Now, the federal government is poised to approve a new habitat conservation plan that could see developers charged $4 million to offset the building of 71 mansions on protected callippe silverspot butterfly habitat on the mountain’s northeast ridge.

Each of the new homeowners would pay $800 per year in habitat-conservation fees, which — if approved — would raise San Mateo County’s annual mountain habitat conservation budget from $145,000 to $415,000, Herzberg said.

The nonprofit San Bruno Mountain Watch opposes the plan.

"I think it’s a bankrupt way to raise money," Executive Director Ken McIntire said.

The plan will be finalized once Fish and Wildlife Service staff have sorted through roughly 75 letters and comments received from the public, department spokesman Al Donner said.

"While we would like to complete the process as rapidly as we can, we are not able to say how soon that will be," he said.

The ridge overlooks a scarred pock of valley that was mined as a quarry during the last century. Brisbane overwhelmingly voted down plans to develop the quarry in 2006.

"It’s the heart of the mountain — it’s surrounded by some of the most undisturbed habitat," McIntire said.

A subsidiary of CMR Insurance purchased the foreclosed quarry for $5,000 this month. The company "is currently evaluating options with regard to development of the property," spokesman Ron Heckmann said.

Other development projects for the mountain also are in the works.

On the eastern foot of the mountain, near U.S. Highway 101, a 12-story wave-shaped office tower is expected to be completed by December, Myers Development Co. President Jack Myers said. Construction of an adjacent 21-story tower will begin shortly and is expected to be finished by October 2009, Myers said.

Lagoons on the opposite side of the freeway also are scheduled for see new construction, with 600 acres of land expected to be developed under a plan that’s being refined by city consultants, Brisbane City Manager Clay Holstine said.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

Cows’ chomp could revive native plants

The amount of grassland on the 3,500-acre mountain fell by 540 acres between 1932 and 1981, according to figures in a draft new habitat management plan, while invasive gorse shrub and blue gum eucalyptus groves ballooned by 364 acres. Between 1982 and 2004, another 122 acres of grassland was lost.

Nitrogen from car exhaust has helped non-native weeds grow on the mountain, said Sam Herzberg, a San Mateo County official who oversees restoration efforts. In 1982, there were 10 species of weeds on the mountain.

As weeds take over the land, it forces out the native grass, which is a habitat for rare butterflies.

"The bigger problem is the natural succession of grasslands into scrublands," Herzberg said. "We’ve suppressed fire on the mountain. … Fire on the mountain for habitat restoration is a very good thing. It gets rid of the scrub and it gets rid of the thatch."

Mountain grazing originally was performed by tule elk and more recently by domesticated cattle. But grazing has been eradicated from the mountain during the last 50 years.

A draft new habitat management plan aims to restore grasslands to cover half of the mountain by reintroducing grazing animals and by increasing the amount of brush that’s cleared by hand.

John Upton

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