Mountain View Voice

News - October 1, 2010

Council OKs Google rec facility on owl habitat

by Daniel DeBolt

The City Council unanimously approved a 6.5-acre recreation facility that's got nearly every activity a Google employee could want. The rub is that it sits on foraging grounds for the rare burrowing owl.

The Google Athletic and Recreation field, or G.A.R.field for short, is a private outdoor buffet of recreation activities, including a soccer field, a basketball court, bocce ball courts, a horseshoe pit, a disc golf area and a putting green.

The owls, about a dozen of whom live in gopher holes nearby, use the site to hunt for mice, voles and insects at night.

Council members expressed concern about impacts on the owls and ended up requiring Google to pay $20,000 to the city's burrowing owl preservation efforts, among other things. Google must also include signs explaining why dogs aren't allowed in the area and put timers on the facility's lights so they do not disturb the owls' night-time foraging after 11 p.m.

City staff had originally proposed that Google pay $10,000 towards burrowing owl preservation, saying it was hard to link the project to a specific cost for the impact on the owls.

"Ten thousand dollars is not a lot of money," said Shani Kleinhaus of the Audubon Society, who seemed to be the owl's best defender. She has been helping to shape the owl mitigations in the project for months.

She said that Google should have its famous weed-eating goats out "every spring to make sure the grass is short so the burrowing owls can live in their burrows happily." The owls don't like vegetation blocking their view of predators.

The site is on the northeast corner of Amphitheatre Parkway and Garcia Avenue and is currently used as a soccer field by Google employees. Google purchased the property from pharmaceutical company Alza, which had council approval (now expired) for an 117,000-square-foot office building in 1995. Impacts to burrowing owls were mitigated at the time by setting aside owl habitat to the north east in Shoreline Park.

Jay Bechtel, Google's real estate and construction project manager, said Google's headquarters across the street from the site is a "world class facility" and that the recreation amenities are part of that as well as being exciting for employees. Bechtel was amenable to all of the requests from the council, even about paying the $20,000, which Google could have easily made a case against, city staff noted.

An environmental report for the city by ESA and Albion Environmental describes the project as having a "potentially significant impact" on the burrowing owls, which numbered just over a dozen last year. But it also says mitigation could make the impact less than significant.

"The loss of foraging habitat and potential nesting habitat at this site would be a significant impact but this impact has already been mitigated through the creation and management of 19.5 acres of burrowing owl habitat north and east of the project site as discussed above. However, the proposed project could have additional indirect impacts on burrowing owls nearby as a result of increased lighting and predation that could result from increased raptor perches on light poles and trees," the report states.

The report adds that the owls could disappear from the area entirely if their numbers continue to decline as they have in recent years.

"A recent population viability analysis of the three largest burrowing owl colonies in the south San Francisco Bay Area (at) San Jose International Airport Moffett Airfield and Shoreline Park showed that all three colonies have a high risk of extinction if population trends observed in the last 11-plus years continue," the report says.

Partly in response to pressures from the Audubon Society, the city also proposed Google post a sign that explains why dogs won't be allowed in the area, take"anti-perch measures" to keep other birds from preying on the owls, do an "owl occupancy survey" during construction and limit construction during owl nesting season.

Kleinhaus also requested that the barbecue be removed from the plans because the fire and smell of food could draw burrowing owl predators to the area. City staff and Google's consultant disagreed, saying that barbecues at Shoreline Park have not caused problems for the owls there. But the council decided to study the issue further before allowing the barbecue, which would not be used regularly, Bechtel said.

City staff said the facility will be temporary until an office building is built on the site by Google sometime in the future.

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