April 2018 Tower Preservation Update

As you know the historic Radar Tower atop Mt. Umunhum has been spared the wrecking ball for now, but it has not yet been preserved. More work remains to make sure that it will be around for the future.  Last night (April 25, 2018) the MidPeninsula Regional Open Space District’s Board of Directors was asked to take the first step towards such preservation, and unfortunately did not do so.

The Tower belongs to the MidPeninsula Regional Open Space District (MidPen).  In 2016 the Tower was declared historic by Santa Clara County; as a result MidPen agreed then to “retain and seal” the Tower.  The first step in this plan, as defined by MidPen management, is to perform an engineering assessment of the Tower to identify what repairs the Tower requires; once the necessary repairs are identified they can then be implemented.

On April 25 2018 the MidPen Board of Directors was asked by MidPen management to approve the high level goals for the project. Not to approve or fund specific repairs, just to approve the overall goals.  The goals that their management proposed were:

  • Ensure safe visitor experience near and around the structure
  • Minimize long-term maintenance
  • Provide safe conditions for interior and exterior maintenance, and
  • Adhere to the Board’s decision to retain and seal the structure

The Umunhum Conservancy believes these are appropriate goals for this project, and supports the proposal by MidPen management.  The Conservancy also believes that two additional goals must be considered for this project:

  • The historic integrity of the Tower must not be degraded by work performed
  • The aesthetics of the Tower repairs must be considered

MidPen staff presented their board with examples of problems that need to be solved to achieve these goals.  Water and animal incursion into the Tower are significant issues (the Tower is “sealed” only well enough to keep humans out, not to keep water or animals out).  Another significant concern for MidPen staff is the lack of basic safety equipment to allow them to safely enter the building for inspections or maintenance … the roof railings and staircase safety equipment having all been removed by MidPen during earlier phases of construction.

The MidPen Board of Directors was asked by district management only to approve or modify the goals for the project … not to authorize or fund any specific repairs.  Unfortunately the Board didn’t approve the goals proposed by management, and didn’t propose modifications to them. Instead the Board failed to approve the project at all.

There are seven members on the MidPen board. Five were present at the meeting on April 25.  Of those, one (Harris) voted “no” on the entire project, and one (Siemens) abstained. The other three (Riffle, Cyr, Hassett) voted “yes”.  Two (Kishimoto and Hanko) were absent. Unfortunately a majority of the board (4) must approve any action, and thus the motion failed completely.

It is difficult to understand which of the proposed goals of the project the board found objectionable, since no amendments were proposed.  Again, the goals that were not acceptable to the board were:

  • Ensure safe visitor experience near and around the structure
  • Minimize long-term maintenance
  • Provide safe conditions for interior and exterior maintenance, and
  • Adhere to the Board’s decision to retain and seal the structure

These seem eminently reasonable, so it’s not at all clear why they are controversial.  

The Umunhum Conservancy fully supports MidPen management’s desire to maintain their building in a safe manner that minimizes their long-term maintenance costs.  We fully expect that the full MidPen board of directors will quickly reconsider this item and will approve it expeditiously. We hope that the additional items we proposed (not compromising the historic integrity of the building and considering aesthetics in the repairs) are also included in the project goals at that time.

MidPen staff gave compelling examples of problems with the Tower that need urgent attention.  Despite this setback we hope that MidPen’s board will move rapidly to begin the effort to truly preserve our local historical landmark.

To contact MidPen, use the links on this page:  https://openspace.org/contact-us

To contact the Umunhum Conservancy, see https://umunhumconservancy.org/contact-us/

As always, thank you for your support!

…Sam Drake / President / Umunhum Conservancy