Opinion: Open Space District Wants to Destroy Mount Umunhum Tower

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Let there be no confusion about it: the … including the iconic and historic radar tower.

Call it what you want, it’s a landmark and a part of the South Bay historical heritage and tearing it down is a selfish act by the Open Space District.

The district will tell you they don’t have the money to save the tower, but don’t let it fool you. It has it. And it's spending it on any way it can to campaign to tear down the historic landmark tower. It claims to take a neutral stance, but it inflates the cost of keeping the radar tower to a now-estimated $1.1 million, to keep it. That number includes a 30 percent contingency fee and many other aspects to make it look like its taxpaying constituents will be paying exorbitantly to save the tower. It states a $750,000 cost to maintain the tower over the next 40 years. Oddly, it's owned the tower since 1986 and hasn't spent a dollar on maintaining it, yet it still stands proudly as our landmark. 

District board President Curt Riffle claims he had to explain what Mount Umunhum is to his ward constituents because they don’t even know what or where the mountain is. That’s a very shortsighted statement when geographical data shows Mount Umunhum is plainly visible from most all of his ward.

For fiscal year 2011-12, district property tax revenue totaled $28.7 million, a 4 percent increase over the midyear forecast of $27.6 million, and expenditures totaled $37.1 million, 13.7 percent below the midyear budget of $43.0 million.

Do the math. That’s an unforecasted (and unexpected) $7 million windfall. Where is it? That’s more than enough to save the Mount Umunhum radar tower and have plenty left over to really “do it right” on this mountaintop.

In a July 15, 2011 Mercury News article, district property tax revenue from 2001 to 2008 was reported up 64 percent. In another July 19, 2012 article, the Bay Area median housing sales price rose 6.4 percent and was at its highest since 2008. That means more money in district coffers. Where’s all this money going?

Taking a look at some recent district board agenda packets and project reports on the website can easily lead to a revelation that the district has money and is spending it rampantly.

-- the district board requested more “visual” representations on what the site would look like with and without the tower. So the district agreed to spend another $97,000 with its design contractor to produce additional conceptual drawings, displays, and a paper form core model of the Umunhum summit.

Last month the district’s PR staff requested the board to amend an existing contract with an outside firm by $60,000 for a total contract amount of $77,500 to help the district inform and involve the public regarding the three different tower options. Also last month, yet another contractor was paid $101,000 to help the district with its overall “vision plan.”

Where does it end? What’s the bottom line here? In 2014, the district plans to put a bond measure on the ballot to raise even more money for more land acquisition. Yet already almost half of the district’s 60,000 acres are not publicly accessible. 

Cost is clearly not the real driver of this Mount Umunhum decision. The Open Space District would have more than enough money to keep the radar tower if it approaches the call prudently. Saving the tower should be weighed in the same way as providing access to the summit. It’s a fundamental cost of doing business. By tearing down the tower the district eliminates all the creative possibilities for reusing or re-purposing the structure. Not only will keeping the tower honor our past, it will make Mount Umunhum a far more interesting destination. 

If you feel the tower should remain, please show your support by signing the online petition at https://www.change.org/petitions/save-the-mt-umunhum-radar-tower.

By Basim Jaber, historian/archivist, Almaden Air Force Station; founder, USAF 682nd Radar Squadron Veterans Association, www.AlmadenAFS.org

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