Frank McCormick: Fighting city hall until the cows come home

Frank McCormick: Fighting city hall until the cows come home

20 October 2012

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USA– “You can’t fight city hall,” the saying goes. But maybe you can — if you keep at it until the cows come home.

Cows have been grazing in the Acalanes Ridge Open Space — 178 acres in Walnut Creek just east of Pleasant Hill Road — for as long as anyone can remember, probably going back to Spanish days. And they have done an excellent job holding down the grass level and hence the danger from grass fires.

But last year, relatively low-level Walnut Creek city staff decided to make a substantial change in the long-standing status quo by ending cow grazing in that open space.

Why was this done? The reasons have changed over time, but they include: a person was supposedly injured by a cow, cows cause trail erosion, and cows eat little oak trees. The bureaucrats placed little or no consideration that this decision would seriously increase the fire danger to the five surrounding communities — Summit Ridge, Beacon Ridge, Quail Ridge, Secluded Valley and Summit Road.

No careful comparison of costs and benefits was done. In particular, the bureaucrats never asked the firefighting authorities whether removing the cows from the open space would increase the fire danger to the surrounding neighborhoods. They were only concerned that they met the minimum fire protection standards of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District.

In contrast, many residents of the five communities surrounding the open space are very concerned about
the increased fire danger. They vividly recall the Berkeley-Oakland Hills Fire in 1991 that started as a grass fire and wound up killing 25 people, destroying almost 3,800 homes and apartments, and causing $1.5 billion of property damage. These residents immediately protested the removal of the cows by sending emails to the city — all of which were dismissed with a form email.

Then 137 residents from Summit Ridge and 71 residents from Quail Ridge signed petitions asking that the cows be returned. In addition, the board of directors of the Summit Ridge Homeowners Association passed a resolution to that effect.

The city responded by hiring goats to graze seven acres of the open space immediately east of Summit Ridge — at a cost of $5,800. But the city did nothing about the high grass in the other 171 acres, particularly the areas bordering the other four communities. (It would cost about $145,000 for goats to graze the entire open space. In contrast, the rancher whose cows grazed the whole area paid the city $2,000.)

The residents of the surrounding communities next took their case to the Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Commission. In a 21/2 hour meeting, 23 citizens spoke in favor of returning the cows versus eight who were against. Nonetheless, all four (of the seven) appointed commissioners who attended the meeting voted to keep the cows out.

The residents then asked the Walnut Creek City Council to consider the issue, but the council refused. So this year the residents have gotten involved in the electoral process, contacting all four candidates for the three open seats on the council. Three of the four were sympathetic to our fire concerns: Justin Wedel, Barry Grove and Loella Haskew. Only Mayor Bob Simmons favored deferring to the staff.

This dust-up raises a fundamental question: who is running the city — the bureaucrats and appointed commissions, or the people through their elected representatives? It is clear that the bureaucrats — by their disdain for the opinions of complaining citizens — think they do.

Can you fight city hall? Yes, if the 600-700 Walnut Creek voters in the five communities surrounding the open space keep at it — until the cows come home.



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