Nature lovers fight for quarry

Publisher: San Mateo Times
Reporter: Todd Brown

BRISBANE - David Schooley pauses during a hike up Owl Canyon on San Bruno Mountain. He looks in the direction of the sprawling single-family homes of The Ridge along the opposite side of Guadalupe Valley before returning his attention to the plenitude of grasses and plants underfoot.

He points to some lupine, food source of the endangered Mission blue butterfly, which gestates among the plant's roots and lays its eggs on the leaves. Nearby is a patch of monkey flower, with its bright yellow petals, and a thatch of fragrant California sage.

Farther up the trail, mint grows among willows and wild cherry trees with green fruits.

"This is the way it was 1,000 years ago in San Francisco," Schooley says. "That's rare anywhere in the Bay Area."

Schooley, who celebrated his 63rd birthday Friday, is chairman and founder of San Bruno Mountain Watch ( Since 1969, the environmental advocacy group has fought with developers who wanted to transform parts of the range into housing, high-rise buildings and shopping centers.

The most recent threat that the group perceives is a plan to turn the floor of Brisbane's century-old quarry, adjacent to Owl Canyon, into 173 housing units.

On Friday, Mountain Watch board member Jo Coffey said the group has teamed with residents to organize a "Campaign Against Housing in the Quarry" to defeat a November ballot measure to approve the development, roughly a mile from the city center.

"To build (more) neighborhoods is going to change the character of this town irrevocably," Coffey, 64, said during the hike onFriday. "They're going to have to drive to do anything. It dilutes that sense of community that the town has. This is a suburb of Brisbane."

Schooley worried that any further construction on the mountain could open the floodgates and spur more homes near The Ridge, as well as Brisbane Acres, the open space that stretches above the central city and slopes down to Sierra Point.

"The first time I started wandering here," he said. "I couldn't believe there was this little beautiful wild habitat - right next to San Francisco and the Cow Palace and Candlestick and all that."

He said instead of more buildings, he'd like to see a nature preserve in the quarry, anchored by a learning center that could focus on the Ohlone Indians who left massive shell mounds on the southeast slope of the mountain.

More than that, he said his group wants the area to revert to native habitat and hopes to re-establish a natural corridor from Sierra Point to the Daly City border; a permanent quarry development would interrupt that continuity forever.

"Anywhere they put in housing and infrastructure is going to alter the movement of not just animals, but plants," Schooley said.

Nature isn't waiting for the November vote. Schooley said Elfin and Callippe silverspot butterflies already are returning to the topmost level of the terraced walls, where vegetation is creeping back "on all the ledges coming down."

Owen Poole, the agent who represents quarry owner California Rock & Asphalt, Inc., for the housing plan, said leaving the land to its own devices is "absurd."

"People are talking like it's a pristine site," he said. "This is a piece of property that is totally defaced, marred. This comes down to a very simple question: Do you want to have residential housing there, or do you want to continue it as a quarry?"

Although the quarry doesn't have a current mining permit from the county, he said he has no doubt it will get one if the housing plan is nixed.

"The state considers it an important resource," he said. "If the owner of the property wants a permit, the owner of the property will get a permit."

He disputed the idea that a development there would cut back drastically on the city's open space, saying only a fraction of 157-acre site would be built on and that the barren walls would be re-vegetated.

"It's never going to revert," he said. "The more housing we put there, quite frankly, the better maintenance there will be of that slope. The funding will be there to do it."

Yet he admitted of the planned foliage, "It'll grow quickly, there's no question about it."

What exactly will grow is another question. During the Friday hike, Schooley worried that residents of sprawling neighborhoods will be increasingly nervous about controlled burns needed to beat back scrub brush that could overtake lupine and other native species. A 2003 burn consumed 55 more acres than planned and came within 100 feet of nearby homes.

At the same time, Schooley said the habitat's original denizens have shown unexpected resiliency, including about 12 kinds of ants that are at war with South American invaders.

"They're fighting them off," he said of the frisky native insects, demonstrating their toughness by provoking them with a stick and, moments later, frantically blowing them off his hand.

"This kind of open space in the northern part of the county is rare," said Ken McIntire, 58, of Kings Mountain, who also joined the hike. "Once the housing is put in there, it's going to be there till the next major earthquake."

McIntire is set to become the executive director of San Bruno Mountain Watch next month when Philip Batchelder, 37, steps down to pursue a degree in environmental law.

McIntire said the value of open space to the region is worth more than the benefit of housing that probably would serve mostly commuters to San Francisco.

"The people really have a psychological need to be in contact with nature," he said. "We could fill the whole area with housing and malls. Then what's our quality of life? What's the value of our civilization?"

Staff writer Todd R. Brown covers the North County. Reach him at (650) 348-4473 or