Coastside Cultural Resources of San Mateo County

An Approach to Developing A Protection Program for the San Mateo County Coastal Zone.

Prepared by the Department of Environmental Management, Planning Division, San Mateo County, Redwood City, California. September 1980.

This project is supported by a grant from the National Endowment For The Arts, Washington, D.C. a Federal agency.

Introduction I

The Physical Setting of San Mateo County And Its Impact on Development

San Mateo County is part of the San Francisco Peninsula: a narrow strip of land with the Pacific Ocean on the west and San Francisco Bay on the east. The densely forested Santa Cruz Mountains, a portion of the Coastal Range, extend north and south thrugh the middle of the County, forming a backbone for the Peninsula. This ridge separates the County into two distinctive parts--the Bayside and the Coastside. Each part has different physical characteristics, climates, flora, and fauna. This geography, which impresses itself so dramatically upon the eye, has also made a profound impression upon the history of the area.

On the warm, relatively dry Bayside, people could move freely over the wide flatlands with little more than an occasional creek to ford. Ships were safe in the tidal sloughs; roads and railroad tracks could be laid without major problems of terrain. As transportation lines spread along the Bayfront from San Francisco to San Jose, settlements appeared and in time grew and molded into the mass of urbanization we see today.

The Coastside is quite different. It is a region of wild rugged beauty isolated physically and culturally by the Santa Cruz Mountains. These mountains create barriers to the construction of major transportation arteries. They also capture the ocean fog when it spreads over the undulating coastal plain, making the Coastside a cool, damp, gray place. The Coastside's narrow fertile valleys are separated from one another by steep ridges, making travel along the coast by land difficult. The ocean provides no easy alternative. Precipitous coastal cliffs, treacherous currents and reefs threaten the sailor. Although the Coastside was settled early in the American period of San Mateo County, physical isolation and climatic conditions slowed its social and economic development. The entire coastal region remained sparsely settled until the early 1970's when urban growth began to develop in the Mid-Coast area of Half Moon Bay and the small communities of Montara, Moss Beach and El Granada to the north.


Public alarm in the early 1970's about the deterioration of the California Coastline caused by inappropriate and unplanned development resulted in the approval of the Coastal initiative (Proposition 20) in 1972. This Initiative established a temporary commission to plan for the future of the coast and, on an interim basis, control new development.

In 1976, the State Legislature approved the California Coastal Act. The Coastal Act established a permanent Coastal Commission and a Coastal Zone ranging in width from several hundred feet in urban areas to up to 5 miles in rural areas in San Mateo County. It mandated that every jurisdiction in the Coastal Zone prepare a Local Coastal Program (LCP) to guide development and protect coastal resources.

The San Mateo County LCP, scheduled for final adoption in late 1980, provides comprehensive policies and implementation programs for the overall protection of this dramatically scenic and historically rich segment of San Mateo County. The main emphasis, however, is on the protection of agricultural, open space, and scenic resources. The impact of new development on historically or culturally important resources is not addressed. Furthermore, the Coastal Act encourages the concentration of new development in already developed areas. Beacause of this, the authentic character of small rural villages such as Pescadero and San Gregorio may be endangered unless measures are identified and a program implemented to assure that new development is compatible.


In response to this situation, the West Coast Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation encouraged the County Planning Department to develop a model program for the preservation of cultural resources in the Coastal Zone which would work in concert with the preservation of scenic resources through the Local Coastal Program. For this program, cultural resources are defined as significiant (l) historic, (2) architectural, (3) community design, (4) developmental history, and (5) natural structures, sites or features which are important to the cultural development of the Coastside.

To fund this project, the County received a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Without this grant, the development of this program would not have been possible.

The major parts of this preservation plan are: (l) the identification of the regions's historical functions(s), (2) criteria for determining cultural significance, (3) an inventory of cultural resources, and (4) an implementation program for their protection.


Due to the physical characteristics of the Coastside, transportation routes are restricted to the narrow coastal terrace and the few places where the mountain ridge can be crossed. It was along these limited coastal routes that the early settlements and buildings were concentrated. Many buildings still remain in the same simple pastoral setting in which they were originally built. It is important that this total environment be preserved, for once the essence of a place is lost, it can never be replaced.

The combination of three factors--(1) a limited roadway system, (2) a sparsely developed, scenic area, and (3) the existence of many cultural features visible from the roads provide the basis for the unique preservation program presented here: protecting cultural resources through the establishment of scenic corridors along coastal roadways. This program is a bold planning approach, encompassing both the structural and natural elements of the region in the preservation process.

Before delving into the program, however, it is important to first review the historical setting of the Coastside in order to more fully understand the relationship of present day cultural resources with their past.

Chapter 2, Developmental History Of The San Mateo Coastside
This material provided by [email protected] (june morrall)