A hero for the hills | August 28, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - August 28, 2019

A hero for the hills

Ladera's Lennie Roberts chalks up a new honor recognizing her environmental achievements

by Matthew Vollrath

There's one word that keeps popping up next to the name of Ladera resident Lennie Roberts. In 2009, Cox Communications named her the Bay Area's "Conservation Hero." In 2016, she received the Environmental Hero Award from the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club. And earlier this year, she was dubbed a 2019 "Local Hero" by Bay Nature Magazine.

Next month, she'll receive perhaps her most distinguished accolade yet. On Sept. 17, at a dinner of the San Mateo County Historical Association in Burlingame, Roberts will be named San Mateo County's 2019 History Maker in honor of her decades-long career as "perhaps the most skilled defender of the natural environment on the San Francisco Peninsula."

Roberts, ever modest, was concerned about attendance. "Are people really going to buy tables for an environmental advocate?" she wondered aloud during a recent interview with The Almanac.

Four hundred people are already signed up, Historical Association President Mitch Postel confirmed.

Indeed, Lennie Roberts is no ordinary environmental advocate. To borrow one of Roberts' own phrases, her legacy is visible all around us, "not in what you see, but in what you don't see."

Picture the serene coastal waters along Highway 1 filled with offshore oil rigs and commercial fishing operations, McMansions lining the bluffs above. Imagine the many oases of open space in San Mateo County —Windy Hill, Thornewood, Teague Hill — replaced by the concrete jungle of office parks. Think of Devil's Slide, a stretch of coastal cliffs south of Pacifica, circumscribed by a six-lane, seven-mile stretch of superhighway.

Without this one woman's 50 years of work with the Palo Alto-based Committee for Green Foothills, it's safe to say that the Bay Area would be a very different place.

Fighting for the foothills

When Roberts moved to Ladera in 1965, she was alarmed, as many were, by plans to fill and develop the shallow waters of the Bay. So in 1968, she joined the board of a local environmental advocacy group known as the Committee for Green Foothills.

The Committee had formed six years earlier, when a group of locals met in a living room in Palo Alto to oppose Stanford's plans to put "factories in the foothills." Their early efforts were less than successful, however. Stanford built an office park, which is now home to Xerox, and began expansion west of Junipero Serra Boulevard, continuing through the 1960s.

By the time Roberts joined, Committee members knew they needed a stronger approach. To truly protect open space in the Bay, they couldn't just oppose individual developments — they needed to fight for legislation that would preserve these areas forever.

As the Committee's legislative advocate for San Mateo County, Roberts would quickly prove indispensable on this front.

One of her first, and greatest, contributions was the creation of a public land trust in the county.

The idea, which Roberts says originated with former Palo Alto Weekly editor Jay Thorwaldson, was simple: "If you want to protect the hills, you should buy them." So in 1972, Committee for Green Foothills sponsored Santa Clara County Measure R, or the "Room to Breathe Initiative," which led to creation of the Midpeninsula Open Space District.

But while Santa Clara County was on board, San Mateo County, with its many acres of foothills and forests, was not. As the advocate for San Mateo County, Roberts led the effort to change that.

The Board of Supervisors was less than receptive, however. "We had some significant opposition (from them)," Roberts recalled.

So Roberts and her colleagues took the next step: They put it to the voters. At the ballot box, they found their support. In 1976, the county entered the Open Space District with the successful passage of San Mateo County Measure D.

The district has since bought and preserved over 63,000 acres of land, including Windy Hill in Portola Valley and Russian Ridge Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Because of her instrumental role in its formation, Roberts is often considered to be one of the Open Space District's founders.

Campaigning for the coast

Then, there was the decades-long battle to save the California coast.

In 1972, a statewide effort began for Proposition 20, a ballot measure that would establish the California Coastal Commission to regulate new developments along the coast. "Everybody has their eyes on the prize for the coast," Roberts asserted. "There was a real need to do very good land use planning — to preserve the rural areas, concentrate development in cities, and provide for maximum public access to the shore."

Roberts helped collect signatures to get Proposition 20 on the ballot, and wrote "a strong letter to the editor" of a local paper exposing the large sums being spent by oil companies to try to defeat the measure, she said. The proposition passed that year, resulting in the California Coastal Act four years later.

In response, San Mateo County drafted its own coastal plan to align with the state act in 1980. Thanks to input by Roberts and others at the more than 40 public meetings, that plan, she noted, was extremely robust, establishing a permanent coastal zone with strong anti-development protections.

This victory would be short-lived, however. By 1986, the Board of Supervisors wanted to dismantle the plan and institute a new one that would be more lenient to developers.

To stop this, Roberts adopted the same approach she had taken 10 years before.

"We thought the best thing would be to go to the voters and get them to approve the key policies of the coastal plan," Roberts explained. "The voters (would be) put in charge of the coast."

So Roberts helped draft county ballot Measure A, which did just that. With her colleagues' help, she got the 30,000 signatures necessary to add the measure to the ballot. It passed that year by an overwhelming 64% vote.

But the battle still wasn't over. Six years later, a Half Moon Bay developer tried to use the same process in reverse — it submitted Measure D, which would pave the way for a hotel, golf course, and condo development on land that the coastal plan was protecting.

The developer had a $600,000 budget for its campaign, Roberts said. She and her colleagues had $40,000. But their message to voters was the same as before. "(We told them,) 'They're trying to take away your voice,'" Roberts said. "'You already voted to protect the coast, and now they're trying to take this property away.'"

Measure D failed with an 88% "no" vote. The county's coastal plan is still in place today, and its impact, Roberts says, has been enormous. "It's probably the most effective body of law anywhere in the world, as far as coastal protection goes," she asserted.

The absence of numerous dams and seawalls along the coast — not to mention oil mining operations — is the direct result of the county's strong and enduring coastal plan, she said.

The duel for Devil's Slide

Perhaps Roberts' biggest claim to fame, however, is her 30-year fight to stop development around the cliffs of Devil's Slide.

In the 1950s, Caltrans began drafting plans for what Roberts called "a devastating freeway" down the coast, from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. Much of this devastation would be the result of the planned building of a seven-mile stretch of road that would bypass the portion of scenic Highway One known as Devil's Slide, where landslides were already leading to frequent road closures.

By the early 1970s, Caltrans was ready to break ground. Roberts and two other local women, however, had no intention of letting them.

They started by taking Caltrans to court. The National Environmental Policy Act, which had recently been passed by the Nixon Administration, required an environmental impact statement for new developments that used federal money. Since Caltrans had not drafted such an impact statement, the court ruled that it couldn't proceed with construction.

But the agency soon returned with its impact statement in hand. So the advocates found other things to challenge. "We kept playing Whac-A-Mole with them," Roberts said. The two sides went back and forth for nearly 25 years, with Roberts and her lawyers leveraging every policy and regulation they could think of to keep the project in limbo.

By 1996, things were looking grim for Roberts and her supporters. "We finally realized our legal options were about to run out," she said. "They'd satisfied all the court's orders to do various things."

And so, in a move that was by now becoming her calling card, Roberts wrote up another ballot measure.

The 1996 Measure T would require Caltrans to build a tunnel through the unstable portion of Devil's Slide instead of the highway bypass it had planned. This was what a team of geologists and engineers had recently recommended, prompting an infamous response from Caltrans spokesperson Greg Bayol: "We'll reevalutate (that report) and say a tunnel is too expensive."

His agency wouldn't have a choice, however. That year, Measure T passed by a landslide.

In 2013, the Tom Lantos Tunnel opened for use, named after the local congressman who supported the effort to build the tunnel but died in 2008 before its completion. The slide and the surrounding mountains are now permanently preserved by the Peninsula Open Space Trust. A section of the former highway has been redesigned to support hiking and biking trails, where, according to the Committee For Green Foothills website, keen-eyed passersby can spot "Peregrine Falcons, California golden poppies, (and) wild strawberry plants."

Lennie's legacy

What has made Lennie Roberts such a powerful voice for the voiceless —the trees, the birds, the hills and wetlands? The answer, her colleagues say, is a confluence of qualities.

One, says county Supervisor Dave Pine, is her remarkable ability to grasp and communicate a large body of environmental law, despite a lack of any formal legal training. "She knows the facts of the situation, and presents them in a straightforward and compelling way," said Pine, who also served with Roberts on the Committee for Green Foothills for a number of years. "So you'd better have a good argument if you're going to oppose her."

Another, says Postel of the county Historical Association, is her "relentlessness." "She's so doggedly determined," he said. "She's not afraid to face down (her opponents)."

But perhaps Roberts' defining feature, says Portola Valley resident and historian Nancy Lund, is her capacity for just the opposite. "I see a calm reasonableness in her," Lund said. "She's so skilled at making people not be adversaries, but work together on issues."

Indeed, says fellow Committee for Green Foothills member Margaret McNiven, even Roberts' would-be enemies regularly come to her for advice.

A striking example of this is Cargill, the owner of the salt flats near Bedwell Bayfront Park, where controversy over possible development plans was recently reignited. When the battle began 10 years ago, Roberts said, the company's local representative immediately sought her input.

"I said, 'My advice is not to pursue this,'" Roberts recalled. "'You're going to invest a lot of time and money, and it's not going to work out for you.'"

So far, that's exactly what has occurred.

Roberts' work with Committee for Green Foothills continues to this day. She is still involved full time as a legislative advocate for San Mateo County, working, as she has for 50 years, entirely as a volunteer.

But as this much lauded woman enters her 80s, the question in many people's minds is this: Will there ever be another like Lennie Roberts?

McNiven and the Committee for Green Foothills board fully intend for her legacy to continue. Several years ago, they launched the Lennie Roberts Advocacy Fund, a $2 million campaign to "ensure that there will be perpetually advocacy for open space" when this "environmental hero" eventually retires.

Like many great heroes, though, Roberts sees herself as just one part of something much bigger.

"It wasn't me; it was so many people," Roberts was quick to clarify of her accomplishments. "It was real lucky happenstance to be in this moment when so many things were possible — when things were changing, and people took action at the right time to really make a huge difference."


Lennie Roberts will be honored by the San Mateo County Historical Association as it "2019 History Maker" at a Sept. 27 dinner at the Burlingame Hyatt Regency Hotel. The evening will begin at 6 p.m. with a hosted cocktail reception, followed by dinner, a brief live auction, a special film created by the Historical Association as a salute to Roberts and then comments by the honoree. Reservations are required and can be made at historysmc.org or by calling 650-299-0104.


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