What You Don’t See on the Coast

When Committee for Green Foothills was formed in 1962, land speculators, Chambers of Commerce, and eager elected officials had already set their sights squarely on the San Mateo coast.  Spurred by California’s post-World War II building boom, and in keeping with the commonly held notion that development was inevitable, San Mateo County planners had created a Master Plan for coastside sprawl that would be unthinkable today.

The planners forecasted a 1990 population of some 100,000 people for Half Moon Bay and neighboring Montara, Moss Beach, and El Granada.  The Army Corps of Engineers was studying a dam and massive reservoir on Pescadero Creek to provide water for another 100,000 people on the south coast.  Five new freeways crossing from the bayside to the coast were on the drawing boards.

These projects could never be implemented now, but without Committee for Green Foothills and other like-minded conservationists banding together and opposing unwise and poorly located development, they could well have changed the San Mateo Coast forever.

By the early 1970s, the first steps of the County’s “Pave-the-Coast” Master Plan were already in place. Caltrans had approved a 7-mile segment of a new coastal freeway, known as the Devil’s Slide Bypass, and the bulldozers were poised and ready to roll.  Developer Henry Doelger had already purchased 8,000 acres of coastside hills and farmland between Devil’s Slide and Half Moon Bay and was planning 13 new neighborhoods stretching from coastal bluffs to terraces far up into the hills. Land speculators were buying up ranches that had been devoted to farming and grazing for generations.

None of these plans have come to pass. Half Moon Bay is not the Los Angeles of the north.  Instead, as you drive south from Pacifica and emerge from the Devil’s Slide Tunnel, you enjoy spectacular views of Montara Mountain, McNee Ranch State Park, Montara State Beach, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Rancho Corral de Tierra.  These now-protected scenic parklands are tangible, lasting results of the tenacious efforts of environmentalists, including Committee for Green Foothills, who time and again sprang into action, wrote letters, attended public hearings, and when all else failed, took action through citizen-sponsored initiatives.

Some of the key electoral victories that saved the coast as we know it include:

Proposition 20, California Coastal Initiative (1972)

Citizens throughout California prevailed against tremendous economic interests to legally require the legislature to develop a plan to protect the coast.  The resulting California Coastal Act of 1976 mandates that rural areas like the San Mateo coast remain rural.  A permanent urban-rural boundary around Half Moon Bay effectively killed dreams of runaway development, and Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) has purchased nearly all of some 8,000 once-threatened acres.  Since the passage of Prop 20, Committee for Green Foothills has worked tirelessly to ensure that all local coastal plans are in full compliance with the Coastal Act.

Measure A, San Mateo County Coastal Protection Initiative (1976)

When a development-friendly majority of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors threatened to discard strong coastal protections, Committee for Green Foothills, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups drafted the first-ever countywide initiative, gathered signatures, and raised money to pass Measure A, which was approved by a 63% vote.  Measure A adopted 37 key policies to protect the coastside’s rural farmlands, forests, hillsides, and beaches from sprawling urban development, and prohibit onshore facilities that support drilling offshore. It was a stunning triumph of the people over well-funded development interests.

Measure T,  Devil’s Slide Tunnel  (1996)

In 1971, Committee for Green Foothills, the Sierra Club, and coastal groups first went to court to stop the Caltrans Devil’s Slide Bypass.  However, after winning several legal battles over the next 25 years, environmentalists realized that Caltrans would eventually overcome all legal obstacles, so they turned to the voters once again for help.  Citizens gathered over 33,000 signatures and qualified the second-ever countywide initiative for the ballot, which voters approved by a landslide 74% vote. The iconic steep ridges and deep valleys of Montara Mountain are now permanently protected as part of McNee Ranch State Park.

Parks, open space agencies, and nonprofit land trusts have been essential in the decades-long effort to preserve the coast.  The creation of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District as a regional public agency and subsequent annexation of the coast has enabled protection of key coastal parcels such as Miramontes Ridge Open Space Preserve. POST has also been a key partner in ensuring that victories such as Proposition 20, Measure A, and Measure T last far beyond an election cycle.  The historic Johnston Ranch just south of Half Moon Bay and Rancho Corral de Tierra are two strategic examples of once-threatened farmland now secured by POST.

BRAVO to all the “Green Feet” for these iconic victories, and for ensuring what you’ll never see on the coast.

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