OWN VOICE. ~ InPerspective by Gregg Dieguez — Photos by Jill Grant
It would be easy to say “They’re at it again. Corporate interests scarring the public habitat and views for profit…”. But let’s step back and state the facts about another pending project on Montara Mountain, and then you can decide for yourself what the implications for our governance are, going forward.
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That image above shows what we’re trying to save. Unfortunately, if you turn left a bit, there’s a complex of cell towers on the mountain. Somehow put there legally. And that wasn’t the last “surprise development” on the Mountain.
The immediate issue is that American Tower Systems Inc. wants to widen access roads to their towers, which will involve destruction of vegetation and rare species habitat, and likely cause more erosion and degradation of the scenery. Jill Grant – the MCC council member who as a licensed biologist, works on Montara Mountain frequently – looked carefully at the documentation provided by the permit application and has serious concerns which are not addressed. As a result, last night (6/9/21) the Midcoast Community Council (MCC) voted to send a letter to County Planning raising those concerns in hopes of improving the plans before more damage is done to the Mountain. You may recall that SFPUC chopped the top of the mountain in 2019, and that restoration is still awaited. So, local residents are highly sensitive to further degradation of this tremendous recreational and spiritual asset.
One immediate concern is that the additional turnouts and road grading are not needed, yet will do damage. Using existing utility turnouts for emergency vehicle access would require minimal vegetation removal and grading for improvements. Plus, one wonders, why is this road needed at all, given that SFPUC has another road on the more easterly side of the mountain? Can’t they share?
Ms. Grant enlisted the services of Chris Rogers, Principal Ecologist at Wood Biological Consulting, who provided written opinions to SMC County Planning and to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which support Ms. Grant’s conclusions and state, in part:
The biology report is deficient in many critical ways… the conclusions in this document also are misinformed by the inadequate biological analysis of the actual impacts that would result from road widening and new turnouts… The findings and basis of a negative declaration, which you signed, states “The project will not have adverse impacts on the flora or fauna of the area.” This is demonstrably false.’
So, that’s pretty damning, IMHO. And it again raises a question worth follow-up: Why does a Mitigation Negative Declaration (MND) process EXIST? I’m relatively new to the MCC, but every… single… one I’ve seen has had material errors of fact and/or omission, and subcontractors hired by the applicants have been markedly deficient in their work, essentially paid to say what the applicant wants, without regard to real due diligence, or the truth. It appears this process was created to ram corporate developments and population expansions in for profit, and ignore the sustainability and quality of life concerns of existing residents (including non-human residents). I have a hard time believing the County is turning into a real estate tax production factory, because I haven’t see that they’ve had the financial management expertise to do that math. Could campaign contributions be so powerful an inducement that elected officials ignore their role as public servants? I haven’t sensed that at our County level (let me know if I’m naive, Dear Reader). I suspect the problem is higher, at the state level, and yes, up there I can see Undue Influence (to use the Pharma term) playing a role.
This State publication states that “the [MND] process was never specifically part of the law until 1993“ and “If there are no adverse effects, or if the potential effect can be reduced to a level that is less than significant through project revisions, a Negative Declaration or MND can be adopted (§21080).“ However, getting a fair study of potential effects when the developer hires the ‘experts’, and then getting a post-project audit of effects and remediation and/or restitution for damages seems even harder.
In fact, there is even an argument that a fuller EIR is a better approach for all parties:
In sum, EIRs typically take longer to prepare and cost more than Negative Declarations and Mitigated Negative Declarations. But EIRs are much easier to defend when challenged, and that initial expenditure of time and money for an EIR can be sound insurance against the much greater delay and cost associated with having the project approval and Negative Declaration or Mitigated Negative Declaration set aside because an interested party presented a fair argument of a possible significant adverse environmental impact.”
So, what to do now? Well, here are some follow-up items:
- Find out: was the applicant allowed to hire the consultant who did such a shoddy job?
- Does the County vett such vendors before an applicant can use them? So, is that flawed impact evaluation a fault of County Planning, or a bias from the applicant?
- What will the Montara Water and Sanitary District say about any impacts to their watershed, which includes parts of Montara Mountain?
- What (if anything) will the California Coastal Commission say about this project? The MND implies the applicant has an existing Coastal Development Permit, but does it apply here, and/or is it being violated?
- Should the entire MND process be cancelled, because in a mega-drought and with massive wildfire danger for years to come, we don’t need any more building unless it improves our safety and sustainability? – which this project does not do. And/or because the MND process is routinely abused, without sanctions on the offenders to deter further abuse?
I’ll follow up immediately on the first four items, but I welcome your comments on item 5, because I might not have sufficient context to reach a valid conclusion.
For those wishing to examine the details, here is a Link to the Mitigated Negative Declaration and a Link to the MCC letter of concern for the subject cell tower project. Here is a link to a slide show of the JillGrant_MCC Montara Mountain Presentation.
 MND Abuses
SFPUC chopped several feet off the top of Montara Mountain without mentioning it in their NegDec. Cypress Point/MidPen’s environmental consultant on that affordable housing project: a) misspelled the name of the town and b) did not provide correct plot numbers, making it unsurprising their database search did not turn up any warnings about toxic chemicals at what had been a secret WWII Army base.
Mr. Dieguez is a native San Franciscan, longtime San Mateo County resident, and semi-retired entrepreneur who causes occasional controversy on the Coastside. He is a member of the MCC, but his opinions here are his own, and not those of the Council. In 2003 he co-founded MIT’s Clean Tech Program here in NorCal, which became MIT’s largest alumni speaker program. He lives in Montara. He loves a productive dialog in search of shared understanding.