Umunhum Conservancy Response to MidPen Proposal 5/31/2017

This material was submitted to MidPen for their 5/31/2017 meeting. An item on the agenda for this meeting was to propose shifting the burden for all funding for Tower repairs to the Umunhum Conservancy, and to also shift 90% of the burden for funding the engineering assessment of the Tower as well.

While written as a speech, the material was submitted in writing.

Meeting information is here.

Details of the specific proposal are here.

At that meeting MidPen’s budget committee decided to fund the engineering evaluation themselves, though they would also investigate other sources of external funding beyond the Conservancy.

Over 80 members of the public submitted comments in favor of preserving the Tower on very short notice.  Thank you very much for your support! Those comments (redacted) are available at the first link above.


31 May 2017

My name is Sam Drake; I am the President of the Umunhum Conservancy.

We appreciate you inviting us here today to discuss partnering opportunities.  However, we are quite surprised by the context.

Our discussion with District management last year, as well as the District’s public comments immediately following the Tower’s historic designation led us to believe that we had a basic understanding of what would happen going forward, to wit:

  • The engineering assessment of the Tower would be conducted and paid for by the District
  • Once a specific list of urgent repairs was available, the District would be responsible for making them
  • Once needed repairs were identified, Conservancy funds might be appropriate to help with the repairs in cases where:
    • They could allow urgent repairs to be performed sooner than MidPen alone would do them, or
    • They could allow repairs to be performed to a higher level than MidPen alone would perform them.

Both in the District’s public comments and private conversations there was no indication that the District intended to entirely abdicate its responsibility to assess the Tower’s condition and to repair and maintain it.  We aren’t aware that a building owner can simply refuse to maintain their structures.  

We’re quite surprised by the District’s proposal to put the entire fundraising burden for the engineering assessment and repairs on the Conservancy.  In my conversation with District management in August, future fundraising by the Conservancy was discussed.  The District felt at that time that there was little need for it going forward, since, to quote, “we have POST to do that”.  POST certainly seems like a much more natural place to do major fundraising.

Indeed, since there were no specific projects to fundraise for, the Conservancy ceased active fundraising activities for now after our August 2016 meeting.  We have trusted the District to act as it said it would, and awaited the engineering report anxiously but silently.  We are ready to start up again as required once the assessment is complete.

Certainly until an engineering assessment of the Tower is complete none of us can know what repairs it needs and how they should best be funded. However, certain principles can probably be stated now.  For example, it’s reasonable to expect that the District will pay to repair any damage done by the District’s previous work on the Tower.

We are certain that private fundraising can be engaged to accelerate specific repairs as discussed previously, but only after the engineering assessment is complete. As we discussed with District management last year, private fundraising is much easier for specific well defined repair projects than for broad goals or paperwork.  “The roof leaks, help us fix it” is a much easier fundraising goal to reach than “the public agency that owns an historic structure refuses to assess its condition, please help them pay a consultant to take a look at it”.  

As a practical matter, it’s important to note that the Conservancy is a very small volunteer organization with 6 volunteer board members, no employees and no budget.  While we are happy to help in the future on targeted projects as discussed before, we do not and will not have the capacity to raise millions of dollars. Neither do we have funds on hand today to fund 90% of the engineering assessment, or anywhere close to it.

For the District to put the entire burden of Tower funding on the Conservancy, then, is tatamount to saying that the Tower will not be repaired, nor even assessed to determine its condition…and will be left as it is to let “nature take its course”.  Perhaps this is your actual goal, though the District General Manager assured us of the exact opposite in August 2016.  

We note that MidPen’s plan is to fund its part of the engineering assessment using monies from the General Fund.  This is surprising, since Measure AA funds can also be used for the assessment.  As a reminder, note that prior to the vote on Measure AA the district included the Radar Tower on the list of projects that Measure AA would fund.  The engineering assessment certainly qualifies as part of “determine and carry out plan for Radar Tower”.

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On another note, if we are to discuss partnering opportunities between the District and the Conservancy, we will also need to revisit the topic of donor recognition and signage that the District Board rejected back in 2015.

Finally, I want to note a constructive step that MidPen and the Conservancy can take together which will make funds available for Tower repairs.  As you know, Santa Clara County has placed the Tower on its inventory of historic structures.  This is the lower of two levels of historic recognition that the County has; the higher level is Landmark status.  

The County makes funds available annually to assist in preservation of Landmarks.  Naturally it would be great to have some of those County monies flow to the project.  Given that, you might ask “Why did the Conservancy only ask the County to list the Tower at the lower level?”  Simply because Landmark status requires the approval of the building owner, while listing on the Inventory does not.  

We ask MidPen to join with us to ask the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to grant Landmark status to the Tower, and can help prepare the paperwork for that and for the appropriate County grants once it is approved.  We think this is a constructive step that the MidPen Board can take to secure funds for the Tower’s preservation.

In summary, the Conservancy:

  • Urges the Committee to vote “no” on the proposal before you today
  • Looks forward to celebrating the opening of Umunhum this fall without this cloud hanging over it
  • Looks forward to working with the District on securing Landmark status for the Tower

Thank you for your time.

…Sam Drake / President / Umunhum Conservancy