Board approves development on San Bruno Mountain despite threat to endangered butterflies

Publisher: San Mateo County Times
Reporter: Julia Scott

Board approves development on San Bruno Mountain despite threat to endangered butterflies

By Julia Scott

Posted: 09/22/2009 06:00:21 PM PDT Updated: 09/22/2009 08:30:11 PM PDT

REDWOOD CITY — Ignoring protests from environmentalists, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to award a permit that would allow development of a section of San Bruno Mountain known to contain endangered butterfly habitat.

The controversial vote was one of the final hoops Brookfield Homes will have to jump through on its way to breaking ground on a 71-home subdivision on the Northeast ridge of San Bruno Mountain in Brisbane. The county, which protects and restores parts of San Bruno Mountain, was asked to amend its Habitat Conservation Plan to allow some endangered Callippe silverspot butterflies to be killed to make way for the single-family homes. The permit next goes before the Brisbane City Council for final approval.

Opponents of the project have fought hard to protect the butterfly and its habitat, the final known remaining habitat for the Callippe silverspot on earth. An extensive letter-writing campaign orchestrated by San Bruno Mountain Conservancy resulted in 180 letters to the county, and many Brisbane residents spoke with great passion at Tuesday's meeting (one Brisbane resident was in favor). Nevertheless, no one seemed surprised by the Supervisors' vote.

"It's just another major chip away at the habitat of an already severely imperiled species," said Philip Batchelder, a board member of San Bruno Mountain Conservancy, speaking after the meeting.

The project has in fact been planned for years and is part of a much larger development on the mountain's Northeast ridge, a development environmental advocates have fought tooth and nail since the 1980s. The listing of the Callippe silverspot as a federally endangered species had the effect of cutting the planned development down from 151 homes to 71 homes on 20 acres, which will be built as one neighborhood instead of two. Another 20 acres next to the construction site where more homes would once have been will be conserved as butterfly habitat.

Those concessions seemed to influence the supervisors' decision to approve the special permit, as did a promise by Brookfield Homes to give a $4 million endowment to the county for natural habitat restoration elsewhere on San Bruno Mountain. The endowment would triple the amount of money the county could spend each year on habitat maintenance.

"There's been inadequate funding in the past to protect the butterfly — I believe this funding will help us do that (better)," said Supervisor Mark Church. "This is a compromise. We're giving up a lesser habitat and gaining a significant habitat."

Kevin Pohlson, vice president of Brookfield Homes for the Bay Area, reaffirmed his funding commitment at Tuesday's meeting and seemed anxious to gain approval after more than a decade of delays. "Our developments have been reduced in half. The process has been lengthy, very difficult and has affected our property greatly," he said.

A total of 476 Callippe silverspot butterflies were counted on San Bruno Mountain in 2008 by a firm hired by the county to monitor their population. Project opponents dispute the scientific process used to reach those conclusions, just as they dispute a finding of "no significant impact" issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this May — the equivalent of their stamp of approval for the development plan, notwithstanding any effects on the butterflies.

Batchelder and his group want a full environmental review of several questions they say were glossed over in all the reports prepared for Tuesday's meeting, and they are prepared to sue to force the county to conduct one. Paul Carroll, the attorney for San Bruno Mountain Conservancy, submitted a letter to the county on Tuesday that asserts the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not ordering a full Environmental Impact Report based on new evidence that suggests the development could destroy a crucial pathway for the Callippe silverspot by fragmenting it with homes.

Batchelder said the group is discussing whether or not to mount a lawsuit against the county over the matter. If so, they have 30 days to file a notice of intent to sue.

"What we're really trying to draw attention to is that the development as proposed would severely encroach on the ability of the butterfly population on the Northeast ridge to migrate to the rest of the habitat on the mountain," said Batchelder.

County planner Sam Herzberg said butterfly advocates are making a big deal over a development that would remove no more than 1.7 percent of Callippe silverspot habitat.

"We know what significant habitat we need to protect, and we're dealing with the habitat restoration we need to do. The Callippe silverspot is doing well on the mountain overall," Herzberg said.

Herzberg added that people often forget that 2,828 acres of San Bruno Mountain are protected as permanent conserved parkland thanks to the county's Habitat Conservation Plan, which was created in 1982.

"Before the HCP was adopted, the entire mountain was proposed for development," he said. "Other mountaintops in the Bay Area have been completely developed."