bbach@mercurynews.com

MT. UMUNHUM -- Calling the site of a future parking lot "magnificent," "heavenly" and "inspiring," elected leaders gathered near Mt. Umunhum this week to mark a milestone in the effort to open the peak overlooking Silicon Valley to the public in 2017.

"We're opening the door to what we call access for everyone," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto. She was among dozens of officials who gathered at the trailhead to Bald Mountain, a grassy knoll east of the summit, on Wednesday to commemorate the groundbreaking for a path that will lead to Mt. Umunhum's peak and its distinctive concrete "cube" that once kept watch for Soviet bombers.

Construction will start later this year on a paved 24-car lot, which should open in 2015, said Meredith Manning, acting planning manager for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the government agency that owns the mountain property. Now, only about three vehicles can squeeze in to a small turnout off the road.

The parking lot is the first step in a multiyear project to allow the public onto the upper reaches of the mountain, which formerly housed the Almaden Air Force Station, one of a chain of radar stations active during the Cold War. It closed in 1980 and the open space district bought it six years later.


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The district has since purchased more than 18,000 acres around the summit to create an area named the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, with trails for hiking, biking and horse riding. But the summit remains behind locked gates. The district in 2011 removed lead paint, asbestos and other hazardous matter from the dilapidated buildings.

Now, the district -- buoyed with the enthusiastic support of Reps. Eshoo, Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Mike Honda, D-San Jose -- is striving to open the peak to the public, an effort that depends, in part, on funding from Measure AA, a $300 million bond measure that will appear on the June 3 ballot.

"We are so blessed to live in a region," Eshoo said, that "has some of the most magnificent land of anyplace in the world."

"I think I'm preaching to the choir when I say, 'Go, Measure AA,'" Eshoo said.

The measure would add an annual tax of up to $3.18 per $100,000 of assessed property value to properties within the district, which extends from San Carlos to Half Moon Bay and south to Sunnyvale and Los Gatos. It would finance a variety of projects, including a visitors center at the district's most visited preserve, Rancho San Antonio near the intersection of Interstate 280 and Highway 85, and pay for additional land purchases. The measure requires a two-thirds majority for approval. Marc Landgraf, director of the Yes for Open Space campaign, said preliminary polls show majority support for the measure, but approval levels still hover below that steep threshold.

"We don't want to miss this opportunity to expand public access," said Landgraf, who also works at the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Midpeninsula district's longtime nonprofit partner.

Critics including taxpayer advocates have argued homeowners shouldn't be burdened with even higher levies for remote parks that few may use.

The Midpeninsula district, headquartered in Los Altos, was created in 1972 and currently receives $17 per $100,0000 of assessed property value.

Steve Abbors, the open space district's general manager, said it is counting on the bond measure to provide the $3 million needed to pay for repaving and adding safety features to Mt. Umunhum Road, which winds about five miles from Hicks Road to the summit.

The old radar tower from the former Almaden Air Force Station, atop Mount Umunhum.
The old radar tower from the former Almaden Air Force Station, atop Mount Umunhum. (Frank Sweeney)

The measure would not pay for restoration of the cube, a former radar tower. In 2012, the district's board of directors gave the tower a temporary stay of demolition, giving supporters five years to raise the $1.2 million needed to stabilize the building. The district also pledged about $400,000 for repairs, a project that is in the planning stages, Abbors said.

Tower supporters still need to raise another $1 million, said Sam Drake, president of the Umunhum Conservancy, a nonprofit organized to save the tower. He said he remains hopeful that larger donors will join existing supporters. The measure would also not pay for new district staff members.

The ceremony Wednesday included an invocation and song by Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Costanoan/Ohlone Indians, which considers the mountain sacred. The final project will include a circular ceremonial space for tribal members and others to pray. But until the summit is opened to the public, it remains illegal to climb to the top.

Contact Becky Bach at 408-920-5862. Follow Becky Bach at Twitter.com/troutbach.