April 2005 Archives

Passover comes this Sunday, a rite from the Biblical story of Exodus, wherein the enslaved Israelites win their freedom from Pharaoh. It seems a fitting context for a discussion of The Acres, an indentured ecosystem on the wildland-urban interface.

These substantial and privately-held native grasslands rise between the town of Brisbane and the state and county park of San Bruno Mountain. A walk here is like a page from the California history book -- steep hoary stands of melic and fescue athwart canyons of buckeye and oak, and vast savannahs of butterfly sage punctuated by johnny jump-up, silver lupine, and broadleaf stonecrop, the larval food plants of rare and endangered butterflies.

Carved into jigsaw-puzzle pieces by an "unrecorded subdivision" (i.e. illegally) in the 1930s, with titles now held by hundreds of individuals, The Acres live in a state of bondage. Houses already cover twenty of the original 111 parcels (all on the lower slopes), and developers have mapped routes for possible roads and building envelopes throughout the remaining 120 wild acres. Opinions among owners radically diverge: some would like to preserve their land as open space, while others want to build. One fellow proposed turning his one-acre parcel into an Indian casino. Where is Moses when you need him?

The near-horizontal pitch of these slide-prone grades would appear to discourage your average builder -- but the Bay Area real estate market is anything but average. Already the narrow private roads on the lower, comparatively gentle slopes "typically do not meet fire code standards," according to the City of Brisbane. Some of the proposed new streets in the steeps are merely drawn on paper; others follow the mad path of Virgil Karns, an eccentric local landowner from decades ago who joyrode his bulldozer up and down these sheer ridges in his spare time.