Sweating lightly and nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, the passion on Coastsiders’ faces was palpable, even behind masks. They were demanding an end to construction of a rainfall monitoring and radio project at the peak of Montara Mountain. And they may have gotten just that.
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Assistant General Manager for Water Steve Ritchie agreed on Dec. 1 to halt construction of the project, after closing up the site for winter, in response to residents’ complaints about its impact on the mountaintop and restricted access for the Coastside community that has historically enjoyed it. Ritchie committed to working with residents to look for potential relocation sites and, if the project is relocated, to restore the peak. He also recommitted to creating public access to the mountaintop.
“I will commit to stopping the construction and to resolving the Coastal Zone issues,” Ritchie said to scattered clapping barely heard over the whistling wind.
On Monday, Ritchie said he began consulting with staff to work through the technical issues involved with moving the site downhill. He’s also beginning to coordinate with San Mateo County to utilize some of its neighboring facilities for dishes or other equipment. He said his organization is also taking a second look at San Bruno Mountain to house some components.
“That would take one piece out of the puzzle,” Ritchie said on Monday. “With luck, I'll have answers in the next few days. We’re asking those questions and hopefully we’ll get some of those answers.”
Recent public scrutiny of the project came in mid-November after Montara resident Mark Verlander alerted the Montara Water and Sanitary District board about continued construction altering the landscape of the top of the mountain. That’s when residents began to protest the project. The MWSD invited SFPUC leaders to its subsequent meetings to better understand the project’s impacts.
MWSD General Manager Clemens Heldmaier and other board leaders were among a handful of residents who climbed the 4 ½ miles up the mountain last week to meet with SFPUC officials and request a stop to the project due to many concerns about its location and approval process.
“I’m not really a spiritual guy, but this is my closest thing to church,” said Verlander as he climbed the sunny face of the mountain that morning.
Among residents’ concerns were the restriction of public access after decades of public use, whether the project required a Coastal Development Permit from the California Coastal Commission, its effects on the MWSD watershed and local ecosystem, the location of a lost peak marker, and the approval process for the project, which some found to be deceptive.
According to Ritchie and Natural Resources and Lands Management Division Manager Tim Ramirez, the project site, located on SFPUC land, was never supposed to be open to public access. But residents argued that locals and visitors alike have been climbing to the top of the mountain unrestricted for decades, creating a precedent for a continued right to access. Although public access will not be allowed during the project’s construction, Ritchie said he hopes to restore access to the peak if SFPUC is able to find a suitable alternative.
In response to resident concerns about the Coastal Act, Ramirez said SFPUC consulted with San Mateo County to ensure the project was outside of the Coastal Zone, eliminating the need for a Coastal Development Permit. But according to SFPUC’s records, the county never responded, nor did it communicate that the Planning Commission voted against the project, 5-0. Ritchie said on Monday he is working to clarify the zoning questions as soon as possible.
“I did suggest that when we do it, we’re not just doing it over Zoom ... that we actually go up to the site to make sure that we’re really on the same page there,” Ritchie said.
Residents also voiced concerns about the environmental effects of the project, particularly after learning that endangered butterfly habitat lies nearby. No butterfly habitat was removed or relocated for the project, but residents said they felt the peak’s closure was misrepresented as a step to protect butterflies, not to begin construction.
In fact, residents said the approval process felt misleading. Had they known just how the project would alter the mountaintop, they said they would have opposed it sooner. Heldmaier and MWSD board member Scott Boyd said the environmental review documents presented to county staff didn’t accurately represent the project.
“We feel deceived,” Boyd said last week. “We feel deceived about the fencing, the site plans, the flattening of the mountaintop. Whether it was intentional or not, people are telling you we feel deceived.”
The document does state that “approximately 2,000 square feet of vegetation would be cleared for installation of an access road and components at the project site” and that the project site would be graded and leveled, up to 2 feet. The documents described the facility as featuring a 20-foot radar and support structure next to a 48-foot pole and antenna radio system, in addition to a backup generator, 150-foot access road, propane tank, power lines and security fencing, but no renderings or visual estimations of the project’s final appearance were included.
One thing the residents agree on is the project’s usefulness, once it is completed. At a recent MWSD meeting, Heldmaier said the rainfall facility will help MWSD and others better manage their water.
“That’s actually, I think, a great thing, because it will allow for a finer, better weather forecast and observation,” Heldmaier said. “I think the entire Bay Area is going to benefit from this.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Ritchie and Ramirez acknowledged residents’ concerns about the transparency of the project, apologized for confusion surrounding its intent and said that, going forward, they hope to make clear their future plans. Residents thanked the visitors for being open to their concerns, and said they hoped to find a solution they can all agree on.
“I'm cautiously optimistic,” Boyd said at a MWSD meeting following the
Tuesday trek. “They showed up and they engaged and they took the line of fire from some passionate residents.”