reprinted with permission:
Carolyn Jones — Staff Writer
Lea Suzuki — Photographer
San Francisco Chronicle
published September 13, 2013
During the Pleistocene age, the Pacific Ocean lapped at the edge of an island not far from present-day San Francisco. There were sand dunes, wildflowers, wind and fog - all the usual trappings of the California coast.
Fast-forward 125,000 years. The sea level dropped and the island became San Bruno Mountain. Most of those dunes are covered by houses and shopping centers now, but a 10-acre stretch in Daly City remains, an ancient beach landlocked by suburbia.
The Daly City dunes have escaped development so far, but those days could be numbered. A private K-8 school called Hilldale purchased a slice of the dunes - less than an acre - in April and is considering building a soccer field, parking lot and classrooms on it.
Conservationists are trying to stop it, circulating petitions and lobbying Daly City and San Mateo County politicians. Ideally, they'd like to see the dunes become part of the adjacent San Bruno Mountain State Park, and provide a trailhead to open space for the densely packed Blossom Valley and Hillside neighborhoods.
Sprouting in those dunes - a good 5 miles from the coast and about 300 feet above current sea level - are some of the rarest plants in the region. The dunes are home to half the world's population of San Francisco lessingia, a spiky yellow wildflower that's on the state and federal endangered species lists. The only other place where the plant grows is the Presidio.
"You don't have to travel 1,000 miles to see an endangered species. You have one right in your backyard," said Del Schembari, who sits on the board of San Bruno Mountain Watch and has been working on local open-space issues for 40 years. "It's an open-air museum. For educational purposes alone, this is a no-brainer."
School officials say that their plans are better than the alternative: homes. The school bought the property from a developer who planned to build eight houses at the site, which worried residents and environmentalists alike because the property is near a reservoir that in 2012 saw a pipe rupture, causing a river of water to flow through the neighborhood.
The school has not yet decided what to do with the property, but officials said the 64-year-old campus desperately needs more parking and play space for its 100 or so students. Officials also wanted to prevent homes from being built on the site because those blocks are already overly congested, said the school's business manager, John Sittner.
"It'd be nice to put this land in the public domain, but at this point that's not realistic," Sittner said. "We felt if we didn't buy this land, we'd be losing an opportunity we'd never get back."
The rest of the Daly City dunes are owned by the city and other private landowners, but the school's portion is the only segment facing an immediate development threat.
"This is about saving an endangered species, but it's also about open space," said Ken McIntire, director of San Bruno Mountain Watch. "That part of Daly City is very crowded, and people work really hard. The dunes is someplace you can go that's very, very peaceful."