Local environmental group mulls open space district

Publisher: Independent Newspapers
Reporter: William Chiang

BRISBANE - The seemingly perpetual fight among environmentalists, property owners and developers over open space is about to get uglier, more complex and more expensive. In addition, the battle lines could expand well beyond Brisbane on the east side of San Bruno Mountain and spread to include South San Francisco, Colma and even Daly City.

The time has come for "creative, proactive solutions," said Philip Batchelder, project coordinator with San Bruno Mountain Watch, which for three decades has struggled against burgeoning urban encroachment onto the mountain.

"We all have to work together," he said. "And to that end we're looking at the possibility of forming an open space district, an independent governmental entity with an elected board of directors. Its primary role would be preserving as much as possible of the remaining privately held open space on the mountain."

And because the mountain borders on multiple cities, he said, such a ballot measure would likely involve neighboring communities.

The idea of an open space district on San Bruno Mountain, he explained, is based on recent City Council passage of adjustments to Brisbane's zoning regulations governing development in Brisbane Acres.

Councilmembers approved earlier this year a program granting property owners the right to transfer development rights to another landowner. The receiving property can receive up to three such transfers, establishing a development density of four homes per every 20,000 square feet.

Brisbane Acres' previous limit was one house per 20,000 square feet.The original land would remain as open space. Any financial considerations would be a private transaction between property owners.

Carole Nelson, Brisbane's director of community development, said currently no one has applied to take advantage of the new program. Approximately 20 parcels of the 138 acre Brisbane Acres are developed, she said, with some 50 residential units in 32 buildings.

"What the city was trying to do was to encourage people who own property with very strong open space and environmental values to transfer density to another property that was less (environmentally) sensitive," she said. "For most properties (higher up on the mountain) there are no roads, no sewer, no water and no electricity. Infrastructure is very expensive to bring in."

In addition, she said, there are the "environmental constraints, the endangered species, the slopes are very steep, with canyons and water courses."

Batchelder said his group holds nothing against density transfer, which he described as a "well-regarded planning technique," ecologically sound in terms of grouping development to protect open space. He also commended City Hall's preservation efforts, such as its purchase of some 19 parcels in Brisbane Acres for preservation.

"But we don't want to start with the premise of housing development in Brisbane Acres." he said. "We're looking at open-space preservation first."

To be successful in creating an open space district for all of San Bruno Mountain, Batchelder will likely have to persuade voters to pass some sort of property tax to provide the district with operating funds as well as money to pay for land. Approval would require a two thirds majority by voters within the proposed district's boundaries.

As a comparison, the Mid peninsula Regional Open Space District, first formed in November 1972 on a 65 percent ballot landslide in Santa Clara County, became the only such district in San Mateo County in 1976 when south county residents voted to join. It now covers northwest Santa Clara County, southern San Mateo County and a small piece of Santa Cruz County.

Residential and commercial property owners in San Carlos down to Los Gatos pay 1.7 cents per $100 of assessed value, said spokesperson Kristi Webb. The district collected nearly $17.2 million for fiscal 2001-02. and boasts more than 48,300 protected acres.

Batchelder conceded it would be a next-to-impossible project to achieve something similar for northern San Mateo County.

"Some believe this is total pie in the sky." he admitted. "But ultimately we would want to have a lot of mixed jurisdiction. The crux is that in the greater context, it's incumbent upon those interested in protecting open space to come up with long term solutions."

Contact William W. Chiang at 652-6739 or wchiang@smindepen- cfent.com