California Millionaires, Mountain Lion Protection, and Affordable Housing: a NIMBYism Story
In an apparent attempt to sidestep high-density housing, Woodside, California, a wealthy neighborhood just outside Silicon Valley, claimed it was habitat for mountain lions. The backlash was swift.
What happens when blatant NIMBYism contains a shred of truth?
It’s a question at the heart of a story that has embroiled California’s wealthy community of Woodside, on the western edge of Silicon Valley.
Last week, Woodside became an internet punchline after it unsuccessfully tried to sidestep a statewide law promoting affordable housing by declaring its leafy streets and secluded cul-de-sacs to be habitat for mountain lions, and thus exempt from the rule.
The eyebrow raiser, of course, is that Woodside also boasts one of the highest average home values of any community in the country, at $5.5 million (according to realtor.com). Fans of big tech have likely heard Woodside mentioned alongside the names of the industry’s seminal entrepreneurs: Steve Jobs lived in a 14,500-square-foot Spanish-style villa there for more than a decade, and Oracle founder Larry Ellison still maintains an estate there that’s modeled after a 16th-century Japanese imperial palace, complete with a lake house and koi pond. Last year Woodside even leapt into the Bay Area’s real estate headlines with the priciest home in an already booming market: this 74-acre estate—which, yes, does have its own coliseum-size pool and multiple Jacuzzis—listed for $135 million (qualified buyers, it’s still on the market).
Enough people recognized Woodside as a home for the megarich to call B.S. on its declaration to also be mountain lion habitat. Multiple outlets picked up the story, thousands of angry comments flooded Twitter, and by the end of the week Woodside was splashed on websites across the country. Reporters pointed out that Woodside had passed several ordinances to weaken the housing rule prior to the mountain lion declaration. On Sunday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta released a testy statement to the Woodside town council telling it to “Act in good faith, follow the law, and do your part to increase the housing supply.”
“If you don’t, my office won’t stand idly by,” Bonta wrote. That night the town council held a closed-door session and agreed to reverse the decision.
But the damage to Woodside’s reputation was already done. Twitter commenters and newspaper columnists teed off on the town, and it has now become the new standard for NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) behavior. Even the locals acknowledged the true thrust of what the town was trying to accomplish.
“That’s NIMBYism in Woodside—it’s everywhere, it’s not limited to Woodside, but the wealthy can hire lots of attorneys and push this thing for a long time,” one local told a TV reporter.
He’s not wrong, and other enclaves for the super-rich across the state have sought creative ways to sidestep the new law. Approved in September 2021, the rule—called Senate Bill 9 (SB 9 for short)—allows homeowners to divide their property into two lots and then build two homes on each.
Thus SB 9 is likely to bring more people into communities of soaring estates and megamansions, and it will undoubtedly lower home values and change the overall look and feel of suburban neighborhoods. But the rule could also provide a housing lifeline for millions of Californians caught in the state’s dire housing crisis.
But lost somewhere in the discussion about NIMBYs, high-density building projects, and Woodside’s unsavory new reputation is a pretty basic question: Do mountain lions actually live there? Is a tiny neighborhood filled with coliseum-size swimming pools and soaring mansions actually habitat for one of the state’s most threatened predators?
Two mountain lion experts told me that the cats most certainly do live there.
Chris Wilmers, a professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, is currently tracking 124 different mountain lions in the Silicon Valley area. His website, santacruzpumas.org, shows the cats regularly going in and around Woodside.
“A lot of Woodside is pretty rural—you’re talking about houses on a few acres of land—and we see mountain lions using that terrain all the time,” Wilmers says. “At 2 A.M. when there aren’t a lot of people out, that’s when they come into neighborhoods.”
Wilmers says sparsely populated communities like Woodside become ideal hunting grounds for mountain lions when deer and raccoons venture down to nibble on green lawns, healthy shrubs, and garbage. The lions make their kill in town and then take it back into the mountains, where they tend their young in seclusion.
Quinton Martins, a mountain lion expert with the conservation group True Wild in Sonoma County, said the animals will flee areas where there is too much noise or human activity. But if the area is quiet, mountain lions will feel comfortable.
“They have no problem going onto people’s porches, hanging out near the hot tub, or cruising through your backyard at night,” Martins says. Martins showed me pathways of mountain lions traveling in and out of similar neighborhoods near Santa Rosa. One map showed Strava running routes in a local park, and the routes were nearly identical to location trackers for multiple different mountain lions.
Both Martins and Wilmers believe increasing the population density in Woodside could chase the mountain lions out. The animals tend to flee areas when noise from human activity increases. And mountain lions are often killed when traffic increases on roads.
“As the housing density gets higher, you become less likely to see them,” Wilmers says.
And therein lies the real problem with Woodside’s attempt to have the entire town designated as mountain lion habitat. Blatant NIMBYism makes nuanced conversation much harder to have.
The town council did contact Wilmers prior to its declaration, and it also reached out to California Fish and Wildlife for guidance. But it still went forward with an attempt to label the entire town as habitat, rather than just designating specific areas as protected, while allowing others to be open to development. It sure looks like the town council got greedy.
Both Wilmers and Martins told me that protecting Woodside’s forested neighborhoods from building, while allowing it to commence in the areas with less tree cover, would have been a tremendous help to mountain lions. And I have to wonder if a more targeted approach would have saved Woodside from the bad press, angry statements, and grumbling tweets about NIMBYism.