Montara Mountain Construction
The San Francisco Water District bulldozed an area at the peak of Montara Mountain to make way for sensitive monitoring equipment. Officials there say hikers really shouldn’t be trespassing in the area at all. Photo courtesy Mark Verlander

After construction for a utilities project began atop Montara Mountain recently, some Coastside residents are voicing their continued opposition to the project and the reduced public access to the mountain’s peak.

Spearheaded by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns the top of the mountain, the project will install a radar and new radio system to improve rainfall forecasts and emergency communication throughout the Bay Area. In August 2019, the project was approved by the SFPUC and discussed by the Midcoast Community Council and San Mateo County Planning Department, both of which advised against it.

But when Montara resident Mark Verlander hiked to the top of the mountain recently, he was shocked to find a bulldozer and ongoing construction. A dirt road had been carved into his beloved mountaintop and the peak was now fenced off. Verlander said he doubts many locals outside of the regular trail users know about the project, and would oppose it if they did.

“I’m sure if the community and the public became aware of what is happening up there, they would be concerned,” Verlander said.

SFPUC Natural Resources and Lands Management Division Manager Tim Ramirez explained that the utility has owned the top of the mountain since 1930 as part of a land buy to protect the Bay Area’s watersheds. He says public access to the peak should have never been permitted.

When SFPUC was undergoing the environmental review process as part of the California Environmental Quality Act for the Montara Mountain project, it discovered threatened butterfly species, prompting the closure of the top of the mountain and roping off of sensitive habitat. That’s when access to the top was first limited for runners, hikers and bikers.

“It's one of those things where you don't know until you look,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said he understands the resulting confusion and frustration among locals, but that anyone going to the peak in the past was unknowingly trespassing on commission land. He said, once the project is complete, hopefully by the end of next year, the commission plans to create a trail through the property to an alternate peak with a similar lookout.

According to Ramirez, SFPUC monitors and works around sensitive species throughout its watersheds. In compliance with CEQA regulations, Ramirez said construction windows for the Montara Mountain project are limited. Press Secretary Will Reissman wrote that no butterfly habitat was or will be removed or relocated for construction.

Some opposition to the project did arise last year, but to no avail. On Aug. 28, the San Mateo County Planning Commission voted that the project did not conform to the county’s General Plan on the grounds that the completed environmental review did not consider the fence closing public access to the peak. And at the MCC meeting that night, resident Sean Handel who runs the peak weekly, advocated for public outreach and communication to reopen access. The council sent a letter to the commission expressing the community’s concerns and desire to work collaboratively.

After the Aug. 13 commission meeting, public records show that staff met with Coastsiders on Aug. 26 to discuss collaboration, including the creation of a “potential vista point” slightly lower than the North Peak with similar views and interpretive signs.

Verlander said he’s disappointed in the process, which he sees as nontransparent. Now, he wants to reopen the conversation about public access to the top of Montara Mountain and work with the commission to ensure residents regain access to the peak. To Verlander, the memories, 360-degree views and the community of hikers, runners and bikers for whom the peak is an integral part of their Coastside home are too important to ignore.

“I think everyone should be able to enjoy it, not just the public utility commission,” Verlander said. “I think the way they went about it could have been more public. I would much rather see something where people work together.”

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