couple of months ago, I rode my mountain bike to the top of Montara Mountain. It was my birthday, and summiting seemed a fitting way to mark it. I cranked my way up Old San Pedro Road through the fog, then emerged into the sun at the hairpin where the gradient really kicks up — especially tough on skittery decomposed granite. But I made it.

As always, I touched the old survey monument and took in the view: Moffett Field to the southeast, fog over Half Moon Bay to the south, up north to Point Reyes and Mount Tam, over to Mount Diablo in the east, and beyond the Farallon Islands to the west. 

Remnants of fog floated by and a yellow Western tiger swallowtail flapped about while I gazed. A perfect day.

Like many Coastsiders, I was disheartened — to put it politely — to read in this newspaper that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns the peak, had fenced it off a few weeks later, blocking the best 360-degree view in the Bay Area. The reasons given were to protect San Bruno elfin butterflies, to comply with 20-year-old regulations requiring watershed land to be fenced, and — the real reason — to install a radio tower for SFPUC staff communication on the mountain and a weather station to collect better information on incoming storms. 

A number of Coastsiders approached the SFPUC to object to the closure and lack of public input. Sean Handel, who runs up the mountain every week, and some compatriots attended a recent SFPUC meeting and later met with Tim Ramirez, the SFPUC’s Natural Resources and Lands Management director. To Handel, the SFPUC proposal means one thing: “If they continue with this project, they will pave over the peak.” 

Putting it like that takes my breath away — and not in a good way.

The SFPUC has been responsive to the criticism. Ramirez, himself a trail runner, is working to restore some degree of public access. “We want to do something that will allow people to have that view, but it can’t be the peak because that’s where the tower will be,” he told me. It also turns out the butterfly habitat was discovered via the environmental impact report and was never the main reason for closing public access, though it has influenced the project design. Though I may disagree with the idea of planting a tower right on the peak, I’m glad that the agency is moving toward providing access. 

At issue is balancing the need for public access to open space with the needs of land owners — in this case public agencies — and the needs of species that inhabit the space. That it didn’t occur to the SFPUC to seek public comment demonstrates a lack of awareness of its neighbors.

Coastsiders don’t take kindly to fencing off previously available open space. More than 150 years before Vinod Khosla chained off Martin’s Beach, a Pescaderan named Loren Coburn gated off the road to Pebble Beach, which had been designated public coastline. Enraged Victorian picnickers stormed the gate. I’m not advocating storming anything atop Montara Mountain, but I do believe there’s precedent for ensuring public access to the North Peak, and for involving the public in the decisions. Progress has been made on Martin’s Beach access. We’ve figured out how to share the beach with snowy plovers. We’ve managed very well to balance various needs here on the Coastside. And we can do the same on Montara Mountain. Please, SFPUC, don’t pave the peak.

Katie Sanborn, who has lived on the Coastside for half her life, is chair of the Board of Trustees of Mills College in Oakland. She will be a regular columnist for the Review.

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