As the pandemic drives more people outdoors, cyclists, hikers and environmentalists are in a war of words over who can use two popular trails.
There’s a neighborhood on the Peninsula where the nature access is almost too good to be true. On one side of Hallmark Drive in the Belmont hills is one of the best cross-country running courses in California, the Crystal Springs Cross Country Course, and on the other is Waterdog Lake, a publicly accessible open space that offers trails for dog walking, stroller-friendly hiking and single-track mountain biking.
Access to both is now under scrutiny. Over the past year and a half, a small group of people has been lobbying hard to restrict who can use these open spaces, triggering a battle between the group members, who describe themselves as environmental advocates, on one side and mountain bikers and runners on the other.
The environmentalists’ persistence has led the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns the Crystal Springs land and has for decades offered permits to the San Mateo County Community College District to manage local schools’ cross-country events held there, recently gave a warning to the parties involved to resolve the conflict by the end of the year or face losing the permit to hold races. In Belmont, the group’s work has also triggered a new analysis that could reshape who can access recreation at Waterdog, a mecca for mountain bikers because of its terrain and proximity to where people live and work.
These political processes are unfolding during a time of unparalleled popularity for parks and open spaces, and they raise questions about how Peninsula communities should manage them: They must weigh the recreational and health benefits these spaces provide against the concerns of neighbors and the need to protect the plants and animals that live in them.
Waterdog offers scenic vistas of the Bay and San Mateo Bridge, trails to challenge hardy hikers, runners and mountain bikers alike, and inclusive access for people pushing strollers or strolling with pups. The Crystal Springs course provides high school athletes from around the state the opportunity to compete on a long-standing world-class course overlooking some of the Peninsula’s most scenic geography. Plus, it’s open to the public the rest of the time.
Upon initially visiting Waterdog, tucked into a serene canyon with a small manmade lake, the accessibility was on display as families of mountain bikers zipped past couples on slow strolls. That busy Saturday afternoon, I spent more time during the run with my dog waiting on the side of narrow trails for mountain bikers to pass than expected.
But by the end of the run, any annoyance turned to curiosity over how this place came to be, where nature lovers can congregate alongside cyclists of all ages. Little did I know that my curiosity would take me right into the middle of a battle brewing in Belmont over not just the future of mountain biking at Waterdog, but a larger debate unfolding on the Peninsula over what the idea of inclusion in the outdoors means to different people.
The group fighting to limit access has a couple of specific requests: to turn Waterdog into a nature preserve and restrict mountain bike use there, and to reduce the number of participants and spectators and the frequency of the cross-country races held at Crystal Springs.
Waterdog Open Space – a mountain biking “haven”
Waterdog Open Space is one of the Midpeninsula’s few mountain biking havens, a popular destination for people to ride before or after work or on weekends. It’s also one of the few dog-friendly hiking areas in the area. (Waterdog doesn’t, as its name suggests, refer to dogs at all, but a local species of salamander.)
This year, the city of Belmont began to update its master plan for the city’s parks and open spaces and lay out what should change or be updated over the next 15 years or so, including at Waterdog Open Space, which the city owns.
Currently, only the draft recommendations for a section of the new master plan, covering plans for Belmont’s official “parks” rather than open spaces, have been released. (People can submit feedback here.)
The process has triggered calls for additional environmental analysis and restrictions for some recreational users at Waterdog from several leaders of the Friends of Waterdog Open Space group, Deniz Bolbol and Kristin Mercer, as well as Bolbol’s husband, Pat Cuviello, who runs the group.
Their group would, in short, like to see the open space turned into a preserve, with a greater emphasis on nature conservation.
In response, another group has organized to push back on the claims against the mountain bikers, and now there are two groups with contrasting websites, each making their case for whether mountain biking should or should not be permitted at Waterdog.
Cuviello, Bolbol and their supporters run the Friends of Waterdog Open Space group, which has a website and blog titled “Stop the Destruction of Waterdog Open Space,” while Waterdog Open Space Stewards represents a group of hikers, cyclists and dog walkers who wish to continue to use the park as is currently permitted.
The tension between the groups has ultimately affected how Belmont’s parks plan is unfolding. Most recently, on top of continuing to work on developing the parks plan, the Belmont City Council agreed on Dec. 14 to approve spending more than $125,000 on a consultant to develop an open space management plan, opening the door to further possible changes to the trail network and recreational uses at Waterdog. That plan is set to begin in mid-January, according to Belmont Parks and Recreation Director Brigitte Shearer.
Among the things the consultant will be evaluating are “options for new or modified open space policies and guidelines” for groups like hikers, runners, cyclists, dog owners and bird watchers and for the trail network itself, according to city documents. Those recommendations are likely to come out in the spring, Shearer says.
Conservationists: Waterdog’s trails have deteriorated
“We’re the only city stupid enough to allow this.”Kristin Mercer, former planning commissioner, Belmont
Bolbol and Mercer explain that, from their perspective, converting the open space to a nature preserve would further align with the conservation goals that came with some of the properties that form the open space, such as the John Brooks Preserve.
That preserve, given to Belmont in 1977, was intended to be kept as an “unspoiled wild area” to preserve trees and the natural environment, the group says on its website. Another piece of Waterdog Park, the Hidden Canyon property, was designated as open space in 1992 and is intended for the “protection of vegetation, creeks, soil and wildlife habitats,” according to the website.
Bolbol and Mercer also believe that the city of Belmont has not been enforcing regulations it created to protect wildlife there, such as shutting down trails that have been created illegally, and want to see mountain bikes restricted to fire roads at Waterdog.
Cuviello made restricting mountain bike access in Waterdog Park part of his campaign platform when he ran for the Belmont City Council in 2020. He was defeated, earning about 7% of the votes. Bolbol also ran unsuccessfully for the Belmont City Council in 2018. The couple has a long history as animal activists, and worked for years to advocate for the humane treatment of elephants and other animals in the Ringling Bros. Circus.
Mercer, a former planning commissioner in Belmont and a self-described avid hiker in the area, said that she’s seen the condition of the trails in Waterdog Open Space deteriorate in recent years.
She said she’s done research to compare Belmont’s policy of permitting mountain bikes at Waterdog to what other neighboring communities and districts permit in their open spaces, and noted that very few allow mountain bikes on single-track trails.
“Belmont is a clear outlier in my data,” she says. “People say they will drive here long distances just to bike our trails because there’s nowhere else in the Bay Area that allows this. … We’re the only city stupid enough to allow this.”
Cuviello’s organization, Friends of Waterdog Open Space, commissioned an environmental assessment of the recreational trail system in April by Scott Cashen, a consulting biologist. The study recommended that Belmont permanently close at least seven trails or trail segments at Waterdog Open Space, build bridges instead of permit stream crossings, and develop and implement a plan to manage the trails and prevent impacts to “special status” plants and animals, among other recommendations.
Trails that are at particularly steep grades can trigger soil loss and erosion, Cashen wrote, and there are a number of trails at Waterdog with grades that are steep enough to make them particularly susceptible to such impacts.
Cuviello also authored a separate 81-page report about environmental impacts of mountain biking in the open space that presents a clearly antagonistic perspective toward the mountain biking community. For instance, his report states that, “Hiking is about humans in nature and biking is about human versus nature.”
The report uses section headers such as “Mountain Bikers’ Ownership Mentality is Part of the Problem” and argues that because ruts on some of the trails are deeper than at neighboring parks and open spaces, it must be due to the presence of mountain bikes.
“Mountain biking is significantly more environmentally destructive to (Waterdog) than hiking or rain runoff,” he writes, without explaining, for instance, why mountain biking is worse for trails than runoff. (A 2003 report by American Trails states that, “A body of empirical, scientific studies now indicates that mountain biking is no more damaging than other forms of recreation, including hiking.”)
Cuviello also criticizes the trail maintenance efforts by the mountain biking community to clear poison oak, stating, “The ignorance and arrogance of this person to think he can flippantly determine the needs of wildlife in (Waterdog Open Space) based on his selfish desire to be free from a poison oak rash is unconscionable.”
Reluctantly fighting for the right to bike
“This was a patch of dirt that didn’t have trails until mountain bikers built it.”Scott Hill, mountain biking advocate
For a number of members of the local mountain biking community, the advocates’ approach feels unnecessarily hostile. The Six Fifty spoke with three mountain bikers who are loyal users of the Waterdog Open Space: Scott Hill, Paul Sheng and Thad Block. They are residents of Belmont who have reluctantly become politically involved in the topic, mainly with a goal of providing a counterbalancing voice to the anti-mountain bike sentiment being voiced by this small group of advocates, they said.
From their perspective, limiting all mountain bikes to fire roads, as the environmental advocates have pushed to do, would restrict trail access to only about 1.5 miles of the 10 miles of trails there and have an effect akin to enacting a mountain bike ban.
Waterdog is a rare place on the Peninsula that doesn’t require mountain bikers to go up to Skyline Boulevard to access trails that feel remote, they explained. “You can feel like you’re not in the middle of town suddenly,” Hill says.
They also push back on the notion that the open space has been a pristine wilderness area. It was formerly a barren hillside, and the trail work of the mountain biking community – in consultation with the city of Belmont – brought to life the recreation opportunities that exist there now, Hill explains, adding that he’s been involved with trail work there for going on 20 years or so.
“This was a patch of dirt that didn’t have trails until mountain bikers built it,” he says.
In the past, the mountain biking community has proposed trail construction or maintenance projects, and the Belmont parks and recreation department has paid for the materials while the mountain biking community has put in the labor to complete the projects. Many of the park’s single-track trails, those that the mountain bikers say are the most fun, have been built in the last 30 years or so. Those trails provide more technical opportunities with more complexity than what’s offered on the wide fire roads of an open space like Arastradero Open Space Preserve in Palo Alto, one of a handful of trail systems where mountain biking is permitted on the Peninsula east of Skyline Boulevard, according to Sheng.
That said, it’s not necessarily a regional mountain biking “destination” as the environmental advocates claim it is, Sheng adds. The entire open space has about 10 miles of trails, which is not enough to keep mountain bikers busy all day, he says. Waterdog is more of an “after work ride type of place,” he says, noting it still has some unique and quality technical challenges.
“I moved here in large part because I love Waterdog,” Hill says. “It’s wonderful to have it so close and available.”
Belmont’s mayor, Charles Stone, regularly runs at Waterdog and has trained for half-marathons and Tough Mudder races there.
“I’ve lived here for 17 years now and in those 17 years, I’ve never had a problem with a bicyclist,” he said.
“The last thing I would want to ever see us become is like that park in Palo Alto that was locals only … Public resources are public resources no matter where they are … If anything, we need more places like this on the Peninsula that allow folks to come and recreate in different ways.”
The Crystal Springs Cross Country Course
The Crystal Springs Cross Country Course has operated for upwards of 50 years through a partnership between the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns the land, and the San Mateo Community College District, which is responsible for permitting events there – the majority of which are now high school racing events. The course is open to the public from sunrise to sunset and hosts 20 to 30 cross-country races a year, usually during the fall, including regional events that can draw more than 1,000 participants and many more visitors.
There is a significant overlap in the members of the group pushing to restrict mountain bikes at Waterdog and the group seeking to limit cross-country access. Both Bolbol and Mercer of the Friends of Waterdog Open Space group are also among the leaders of the Belmont Heights Civic Improvement Association (BHCIA), a resident group and unofficial homeowners association representing the Belmont Heights neighborhood. Bolbol is president of the group and Mercer is a director.
A few members of the Belmont Heights group, including Bolbol and Mercer, have been pushing to reduce the size and frequency of cross country events at Crystal Springs. They say they dislike the traffic and street parking the running events bring, raise concerns about impacts to wildlife and worry about whether, as residents, their exit from the neighborhood would be impacted if a wildfire were to break out during a cross-country event. Bolbol says that the events, which can bring up to 4,000 people to the course in one day, had never undergone an environmental review process.
Discussions over the cross country trail emerged in earnest in April 2020, when College of San Mateo announced that it planned to relinquish its permit and hand it off to another organization to manage, which would have also eliminated public access to the open space, according to the BHCIA website.
In response, the association contacted the city of Belmont to explore options to “keep the Watershed open to the public and continue limited events for local schools while addressing neighborhood concerns,” according to its website. From there, meetings were held between various stakeholder groups, with the BHCIA group, as its website states, pushing for a “community-based solution” to manage “the scale and number of the events” in response to “neighborhood concerns.”
By January 2021, College of San Mateo had agreed to renew its permit, while the BHCIA demanded that it wanted to see no more than 17 races per year and no more than 300 runners – with the exception for one event per year up to 1,000 runners.
In a San Mateo County Community College District hearing on Aug. 25, tens of fans of the Crystal Springs cross-country course and the races there spoke in favor of the cross-country course, while several neighborhood residents said they’ve been impacted by the cross-country races and wanted to see the size and frequency of events decreased.
Ultimately, the district board directed the chancellor, Michael Claire, to move forward with recommendations to restrict the number of meets held at the Crystal Springs course to 20 per season and the number of large meets to no more than five.
Claire, chancellor at the community college district, summed up the dispute from his point of view: “The actual dispute is between the high school cross country community and some residents. We hold the permit and we are simply trying to help the two groups move forward. In fact, we hired a third party professional facilitator at District expense to help the two groups get to some kind of resolution.”
“Unfortunately, the facilitator was not able to get agreement between the parties,” Claire wrote in an August memo to the board. “The District has made every reasonable attempt to bring the parties together to resolve this matter,” he added.
While several BHCIA members spoke at the August meeting, including Bolbol and vice president Bill Kurtz, about why the events should be restricted, many others – including other residents of the Belmont Heights neighborhood – pushed for the course to continue to be used as it has for the last 50 years or so, describing the importance of the course for student athletes and residents alike.
Andreas Wolf, College of San Mateo’s athletic director, told the community college district board that the school had been assured by SFPUC that the environmental impact of the events was “minimal.”
“Otherwise they would basically shut the course down,” he said.
Supporters of the continued use of the facility by cross-country programs spoke about the racing course in glowing terms.
“The Crystal Springs cross-country racing facility is one of the finest, if not the finest course in the state of California,” said David Grissom, former principal of Mountain View High School and current commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation, a high school sports governing body. “Generations of student-athletes have had the opportunity to run here over the years … it is truly a unique opportunity that our students and families are afforded.”
Since that August meeting, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission received an update from staff that said, “If an agreement is not reached among (San Mateo County Community College District) and the various stakeholders by the end of this calendar year, then we will take steps to revoke the existing license.”
According to a recent op-ed by Stone in the San Mateo Daily Journal, the push to restrict the size and frequency of cross-country running events at the Crystal Springs course began about a year and a half ago.
On a recent trail run at the course, I passed lush, grassy fields that overlooked the Crystal Springs Reservoir, and several families of deer enjoying the tall grasses alongside the trail. As a former cross-country runner, I can see why cross-country runners today say they value the course’s rolling hills and the trail’s width, which makes it easier for runners to pass by without having to jostle one another.
“This is a regional resource,” Stone said. “It’s one of the best cross-country courses and maybe the best in the state of California. There are not many like it.”
He also says he has problems with one of the proposals that course opponents have put forward: restricting use of the course to locals only, calling it a “pull-up-the-ladder mentality way of looking at things that’s pretty awful.”
The best cross-country races are those where there are many teams competing, he says. To curb the number of students who can participate would “degrade the quality of the meets,” he says. “That would be a tragedy in my mind.”
He also argues that allowing nonresidents to access Belmont’s outdoor recreation amenities can be good for the city’s economy.
“Whether it’s the cross-country runners that come for meets or mountain bikers that come from other cities to use our resources, where do people think they go after they finish?” he said. “They go out to lunch, breakfast, or dinner, or stop at our gas stations. This is actually good for the Belmont economy.”
Other neighbors to the cross-country course said the benefits of the cross-country events outweigh the impacts. Resident Rich Wood called the impacts of the cross-country races “minor inconveniences compared to the benefits accruing to thousands of kids” and compared the experience of being a neighbor to the course to living near a school.
“I don’t expect a school to reduce enrollment just for me,” he said. “The racing was here before me and I hope it will be here long after I am gone.”
A threatened ‘regional resource’
Demanding agreement from all parties or revoking a permit that has been in effect since the early 1970s, Stone said of the SFPUC report, is “neither fair nor reasonable.”
The SFPUC’s discussion at its Oct. 26 meeting did suggest openness to a more nuanced consideration of the permit decision, but it’s not yet clear what the commission will decide.
Commissioner Ed Harrington said, “It does seem like there’s a relatively small group that is pushing to not have this – and would be almost impossible to satisfy, one would imagine, if they don’t want it to work. Speaking for one commissioner I do not want us to revoke that permit based on only that.”
To encourage the SFPUC to renew its permit with the community college district and continue to allow cross-country events at the Crystal Springs course, the city of Belmont recently passed a resolution in support of the action. Stone says he hopes other communities will join Belmont in expressing their support.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors is poised to consider a similar resolution at its Jan. 11, 2022 meeting, according to Sheng. Whether the humans who have to share these open spaces with each other and wildlife will figure out how to comfortably coexist in them is still up in the air.