Council OKs quarry housing EIR: Brisbane project's environmental impact report gets city's thumbs up

Publisher: San Mateo County Times
Reporter: Julia Scott

BRISBANE -- The City Council took a big step Monday night toward seeing housing built in a steep quarry pit, a project that has stirred great controversy among residents.

By a vote of 4 to 1, with Clark Conway dissenting, the council approved an environmental impact report (EIR) that analyzed the effects of building housing or other options in the bottom of the still-active quarry, an eyesore carved into the side of San Bruno Mountain that generates dust and erodes wildlife habitat.

Due to a massive power outage caused by a fierce storm, much of Monday night's meeting took place under the glow of halogen lamps, as an audience of a couple of dozen people looked on.

The EIR labeled the housing plan an "environmentally superior alternative" for the site, in comparison to other options: a business complex, a greater number of homes than currently proposed, or allowing the quarry to continue operating until 2043, when its reserve would be exhausted. In approving the EIR, the City Council certified that it had been provided with the best information available about the feasibility of developing the site.

In 2001, the quarry's owner, California Rock & Asphalt, put forward a proposal to cease operations and build a housing complex, with 129 single-family units and 54 townhouses. In 2004, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the plan, and the City Council began holding public hearings on it the following year.

The 144-acre quarry began operation in 1895. Its steep walls, cut into horizontal steps, are 1,100 feet high in some places.

Conway, who has spoken out against the housing proposal in the past, found the EIR inadequate because it did not give equal weight to an analysis of other alternatives for the site that had been proposed by the community, such as a nature education center to complement the nature trails that wind through San Bruno Mountain.

Although such a project would be difficult to fund, Conway said it should still be considered. But Owen Poole, speaking for the applicant, said it would not be nearly as profitable as building housing on the land.

"It's a private property and the owner is not willing to entertain those (alternatives)," said Poole.

"He's maneuvering the EIR to find housing as the best alternative," said Conway.

Brisbane residents have disagreed over what to do with the quarry, but they have always opposed a housing project. In 2001, then-applicant SummerHill Homes withdrew its proposal under a wave of opposition. California Rock & Asphalt later stepped in.

That was the year the city passed an ordinance giving Brisbane's 3,800 residents the right to approve or veto any housing project proposed for the quarry, which will come into effect if City Council approves the necessary housing permits. The property would also need to be annexed from the county.

Dozens of Brisbane residents have testified at public hearings on the quarry plan since September 2005. They have expressed serious concerns with everything from traffic congestion and feral cats, to the homes' safety if an earthquake hits, to the impact on native butterfly habitat on San Bruno Mountain -- concerns they believed the EIR did not adequately address.

At a public hearing in early February, former Councilman Lee Panza said he did not think the that an earthquake-simulation exercise conducted by a city-commissioned geotechnical firm, which consisted of throwing large boulders down some of the steepest slopes of the quarry, effectively simulated the level of devastation a high-magnitude quake could produce above the houses lying at the bottom of the pit. "The experts are saying it's safe, but the mechanics of a progressive failure are much too chaotic to model with a computer program," said Panza.

The EIR stated that the effects of an earthquake could be reduced to "less than significant" levels, provided the developer took a number of steps, including re-grading parts of the rock wall, removing loose fill from the pit of the quarry, and adding a 130-foot "catchment basin" -- essentially a moat -- to the bottom of the quarry slopes to stop falling rocks from reaching the homes.

Several species of federally listed endangered butterfly depend on the mountain's flora to survive, such as the Mission blue and the San Bruno elfin.

At quarry hearings, representatives of local environmental group San Bruno Mountain Watch expressed concerns that construction at the quarry site would introduce invasive plant species.

Here, too, the EIR said the problem could be mitigated if several native plants were replaced, a trampled watercourse rebuilt and pets and people were prevented from walking through sensitive areas.

Many other residents raised other concerns throughout the public hearing process, and Mayor Cy Bologoff said that he had heard them all.

"I don't have a problem with putting the project to the people for a vote. It's their right," he said. "The developer with have to live with the result.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 348-4340 or at