The public finally will be allowed to visit the top of Mount Umunhum, the scenic peak in South San Jose that was home to Almaden Air Force Station, but not for another two years, and then only with special permits and docents.
Full, open access to drive to the summit -- which boasts panoramic views of Monterey Bay and San Francisco yet has been off limits for 30 years -- won't come until 2016. That's because old military buildings need to be removed and the 5-mile road to the top repaved, and all the funding for the $13.1 million job hasn't been secured yet.
The dates and details are part of a new report from the staff of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. The government agency, based in Los Altos, owns much of the land on Mount Umunhum. The district's board is scheduled to vote on the report Thursday at a public meeting, the first time it will weigh in on specifics for the future of the peak that has been called the South Bay's version of Marin County's Mount Tamalpais.
"My preference on public access is the sooner the better," said Pete Siemens, a district board member who represents Los Gatos. "We've discussed this at great length. If we can do it sooner, we probably will. But we don't want to be promising more than we can deliver."
The 3,486-foot-high mountain, named for the Ohlone Indian phrase "resting place of the hummingbird," towers above South San Jose and Los Gatos on chaparral ridges. Almaden Air Force Station operated on its summit from 1957 to 1980. Gazing at screens in dark rooms 24 hours a day, technicians scanned the skies for Soviet bombers that never came.
The mountain is known to many South Bay residents for its box-shaped radar tower building, which servicemen called "the cube," visible across Santa Clara Valley. The new report doesn't make a recommendation on whether to tear down the radar building.
In 1986, the open space district purchased the summit for $260,000. For more than 20 years, the district insisted that the Defense Department pay to demolish the old buildings. But the Pentagon did little, arguing that the district had purchased the site "as is."
At one point, 120 Air Force personnel and their families lived at the base, which had homes, a gymnasium, garages, even a bowling alley. Today, more than 80 crumbling 1950s-era buildings, some with trees growing through them, sit on the summit, behind locked gates, a ghost town frozen in time.
After the open space district's new general manager, Steve Abbors, made opening the summit a priority, U.S. Reps. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, and Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, secured $3.2 million in funding last year toward the cleanup job. Honda and Campbell have requested another $3 million this year as part of the defense budget that is expected to be finalized by the end of this month.
Crews are using the original money to remove asbestos, lead paint and other toxics. They plan to strip the buildings down to the wooden framing. That work should take until mid-2012, and then the public will be allowed to visit for the first time -- but only after making reservations and riding a district shuttle to the top, according to the draft plan that will be presented to the open space board Thursday.
The district plans afterward to make repairs to Mount Umunhum Road, and allow people to drive to the top in 2014 after securing a permit, or to hike, ride horses or bicycle there without a permit, said district spokeswoman Leigh Ann Maze. Finally, after the road is resurfaced, open access for everyone -- with no permits, but a possible admission fee -- is expected by 2016.
The board still could change the plan Thursday, and a final vote isn't expected until August.
Some observers say they wish the process could go faster, but they understand the timetable.
"Generally speaking, I'm always for more access sooner," said Josh Moore, secretary of Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers, a bike advocacy group based in Cupertino. "But it is a government agency, and they have budgetary concerns. They aren't going to lay off rangers so they can accelerate these kinds of things."
Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.
For more, go to www.mtumunhum.com. The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Del Monte Building, 100 South Murphy Ave., in Sunnyvale.