Butterflies vs. builders: The San Bruno compromise

Publisher: San Francisco Business Times
Reporter: Adam Feuerstein

The steep pitch of Owl Canyon on the north side of San Bruno Mountain is a dense carpet of knee-high wild grasses and native plants like lupine, mission bells, wallflowers and California sage. On a strand of grass, two Bay Checkerspot butterflies mate, while Mission Blue and Elfin butterflies, both endangered species found only on the mountain, flit through the air.

The 3,300 acres that comprise San Bruno Mountain are some of the most natural and untouched in the Bay Area. A grove of live oaks halfway up Owl Canyon is more than 500 years old, predating the Mexican explorers who founded missions in what is now San Francisco.

Yet standing on a ridge line, hikers can look back over their shoulders and see San Francisco skyscrapers peeking over the hills just a few miles to the north. To the east, cars zoom by on Highway 101, past the San Francisco International Airport and Candlestick Point.

And at the mountain's base, bulldozers have cleared large sections of earth to make way for new commercial and residential development, continuing a slow encroachment by developers that began in the mid-1980s.

Sunchase, a Phoenix-based developer, is currently building a 720-home subdivision in South San Francisco on the mountain's south side. When completed, TerraBay will include single family homes, townhouses, a hotel and a small commercial development.

On the mountain's Northeast Ridge in Brisbane, Brookfield Homes has built roads and poured the first foundations for what will be a 500-home development. Similar projects are completed or under construction in Daly City and the Cow Palace section of San Francisco.

Homeowners and endangered species like the Mission Blue butterfly share San Bruno Mountain because of a 1982 amendment to the federal Endangered Species Act. Under that amendment, a coalition of environmentalists, government officials and private landowners formed the country's first-ever Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). Designed as a compromise between landowners and environmentalists, the San Bruno HCP allowed developers to destroy the habitat of endangered species if nearby lands were preserved as a kind of substitute habitat.

Developers are required to pay fees and set aside land to create the new preserves, which are monitored by outside consultants.

Fifteen years after the creation of the San Bruno HCP, the verdict is still out on its success. Some environmentalists call the San Bruno HCP a failure that has robbed endangered species of vital habitat and caused non-native plants to invade the mountain. They claim that HCPs, which now number 30 in California alone, are an environmental sellout that give developers a legal loophole through the Endangered Species Act.

Developers disagree. They say the HCP represents a successful accommodation between the economic needs of a fast-growing community and the preservation of endangered plants and animals.

David Schooley, a founding member of San Bruno Mountain Watch, calls the compromise that created the San Bruno HCP "great for politics, but unfortunately, compromise is not so great for the environment."

Schooley has been leading hikes up and down the mountain since the late 1960s, and is one of its most vocal supporters. He was at the negotiating table when the HCP was drafted, but says its implementation has been a "disaster."

While leading a hike up Owl Canyon, Schooley looks back at the Northeast Ridge as an example of why the basic premise of HCPs are flawed. In the early 1980s, developers like Brookfield Homes favored the gradual slopes of the ridge as the best place to build much-needed new housing for Brisbane, which, like most of the Bay Area, is suffering from a housing crunch. Unfortunately, the grasslands on the ridge were dotted with lupine, a squat, grassy plant that plays host to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly.

Under the HCP, the builders were able to "take" -- bureaucratic legalese for "destroy" -- this butterfly habitat after agreeing to set up and pay for a new habitat higher up the mountain's northwest side in an area known as the Saddle.

Today, the top of the Northeast Ridge has been flattened for houses. The only evidence of the butterfly are street signs like Mission Blue Drive that commemorate their existence.

Schooley says tens of thousands of dollars have been spent by San Mateo County and its environmental consultant, Thomas Reid Associates, to recreate the Mission Blue habitat with little or no success. The main hurdle is that the Saddle is riddled with non-native plants like gorse and eucalyptus that choke off more fragile lupine plants. Without lupine, Mission Blue butterflies have nowhere to breed, he said. In addition, the area is too windy and damp from ocean fog for the butterfly and other native plants.

"The motives of the county and Thomas Reid Associates are good, but it is impossible to recreate a habitat that took nature several hundred years to perfect," he said.

Victoria Harris, a consultant with Thomas Reid Associates and a co-author of the original 1982 San Bruno HCP agreement, lauds Schooley's enthusiasm, but rejects his conclusions.

Specifically, Harris says the HCP can take credit for preserving the best habitat to ensure the butterfly's survival. Of San Bruno Mountain's 3,300 acres, only 360 acres have been developed or will be permitted for development.

"Including the state and county park, approximately 2,700 acres on San Bruno Mountain -- much of it the best habitat -- will be preserved," says Harris.

The HCP is funded by $70,000 collected annually from developers and homeowners, who are required to pay annual assessments on their property. The money is used to protect and enhance the habitat, which includes removing non-native plants, replant-ing native species and monitoring butterfly activity.

Harris admits that efforts to eradicate non-native plants like gorse have been difficult, but said volunteer assistance from groups like Friends of San Bruno Mountain is turning the tide.

"The butterflies don't seem to mind the development as long as the plants they need are healthy," she said, adding that surveys of the butterfly populations show no significant decreases.

The debate over the San Bruno HCP is destined to drag on for years because development of the mountain's base continues. Cities like South San Francisco, already penned in by San Francisco Bay but in need of more housing to accommodate job growth, have approved new construction, according to Marty Van Duyn, head of South San Francisco's economic development office.

"We have a lot of job growth here that is putting pressure on us to come up with ways to provide additional housing," he said, referring to Sunchase's plan for the development of TerraBay on San Bruno Mountain's south side.

Three hundred units of housing are already under construction in phase one. Phases two and three will be built next, adding additional housing as well as a hotel and a small office complex. The hotel plans have particularly riled environmentalists like Schooley because it will be constructed on top of one of the oldest Native American shell mounds in the Bay Area.

"While the city welcomes this development, it also recognizes the importance of the mountain's habitat and the need to adhere to the HCP," said Van Duyn, adding that only two-thirds of the TerraBay site will be developed, and no other project will be allowed to encroach on the mountain's southern slope.

Developers and environmentalists from other parts of California and the nation are also eying San Bruno Mountain with interest. The Clinton Administration has pushed the formation of HCPs, resulting in more than 500 separate proposals since 1992. In California, more than 30 HCPs have been approved, including an agreement between the federal government and the Irvine Co. to develop 325 square miles in Orange County. Another HCP in San Diego is also being set up.

"I don't like to discourage the restoration work that's being done on San Bruno Mountain because every little bit helps," said Schooley. "But the whole HCP process sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the United States. It's allowing developers to destroy endangered species and their habitats without proving they are actually recreating this habitat elsewhere."