Brisbane approves San Bruno Mountain development, outraging butterfly supporters

Publisher: San Mateo County Times
Reporter: Julia Scott

Brisbane approves San Bruno Mountain development, outraging butterfly supporters

By Julia Scott

Posted: 02/17/2010 07:32:37 PM PST Updated: 02/17/2010 08:31:26 PM PST

BRISBANE — The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow a developer to build a new neighborhood in the midst of prime habitat for the endangered callippe silverspot butterfly on San Bruno Mountain.

The controversial vote capped off three emotionally charged public hearings on the issue and left two women from Brisbane sobbing in the audience. Moments before the vote, a man disrupted the proceedings by standing up and walking toward the council with a thick binder in his hand, his finger jabbing at a page.

"You're making a mistake!" he cried, lifting the binder above his head as police removed him from the meeting.

The debate over the 80 homes destined for the mountain's Northeast Ridge was framed by opponents as a life-or-death decision — for the endangered butterflies, who survive today only on sequestered parts of the mountain, for the environment, and for the soul of Brisbane.

"If the callippe silverspot vanishes, all levels of government will be at fault," declared David Schooley, co-founder of San Bruno Mountain Watch, a Brisbane group that may decide to sue the city and the county for allowing the project to go forward. The group bombarded the City Council with an intense letter-writing campaign and collected hundreds of signatures on a petition. They urged the council to deny the development and order a new environmental impact report that would contain more accurate, updated information about the callippe's whereabouts and ability to breed despite obstacles such as homes and roadways. The last environmental review was conducted in 1983 and may not account for the effects of development that have taken place since then.

To a certain extent, the council's hands were tied by the fact that a 579-unit development was approved for this part of the Northeast Ridge back in 1989. Many of those homes have been built, although this particular subdivision faltered when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the callippe silverspot as an endangered species in 1997. The callippe, one of several sensitive butterfly species on San Bruno Mountain, relies on native plants that grow along the project site.

The Fish and Wildlife Service approached developer Brookfield Homes about reducing the building footprint, and Brookfield agreed to cut the subdivision down from more than 108 units to 80 units. Brookfield also agreed to sign over its development rights to Callippe Hill, a nearby 20-acre site that hosts an even richer population of the butterflies. The land will be protected by the county.

Finally, the developer offered a $4 million endowment to strengthen the county's Habitat Conservation Plan, a management tool that funds county efforts to remove invasive plant species such as coastal scrub that crowd out the plants used by the butterflies throughout San Bruno Mountain. About 1,250 acres of native grasslands remain, down from 1,800 acres in the 1930s. About 5 acres of grasslands disappear each year, biologists say.

Brookfield also offered Brisbane $1.8 million to pay for city services and projects, including a new library.

"If we requested a new EIR, the developer would do the 1989 project. To me, I don't see that as an option," said Brisbane Mayor W. Clarke ¿Conway. "I think it's the better project. I know a lot of people will disagree with me."

The Fish and Wildlife Service gave its stamp of approval to the revised project in May, saying that it would not cause irreparable harm to the callippe silverspot based on the agency's review of biological studies. That set the stage for an unusual situation in which environmentalists lined up against an unprecedented opportunity to restore San Bruno Mountain at the expense of losing some butterfly habitat.

Meanwhile, many speakers who opposed the project accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of being a shill for development and sacrificing an endangered species for money.

Cay Goude, assistant field supervisor in the agency's Sacramento office, denied the charges.

"We would not have issued this permit if we did not think it was the best mechanism for the long-term survival of the butterfly on San Bruno Mountain," Goude said. "Without funding of that site, I don't think it would persist over time."