Why is this Important?


Land use decisions have far-reaching effects on the long-term sustainability of a community, impacting the location of new housing, businesses, schools, and parks. Land use policies influence everything from the diversity of the local economy to how much residents drive and how healthy their diet is.

With many towns and cities in San Mateo County fully built-out under current zoning, the focus on future development will largely be on designing more sustainable in-fill projects that bring new residents and businesses into already developed areas. To simultaneously meet the needs of a growing population and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, planning officials must decide where to site new commercial, industrial, government, and residential uses to make our communities more livable and allow residents and workers to get to school, work, and daily activities by walking, biking, and taking public transit.

Planning officials also need to determine the location and size of parks and open space lands. These valuable community assets are a place for people to enjoy outdoor exercise and experience the natural world, and they provide important linkages throughout the Bay Area where native habitat and wildlife areas can be preserved and protected.

Land use decisions also impact local agriculture. In San Mateo County, every dollar of agricultural production creates between $1.60-$3.50 of economic activity, and sustainable farming practices protect the land while providing residents with healthy, locally grown food. With the high price of real estate in the county, agricultural lands are continually at risk for development.


What is a Sustainable State?


In a sustainable state, land use policies accommodate growth while protecting public and ecological health by directing development to areas that provide easy access to services, jobs, and transit. Parks and open space are abundant, of good quality, and readily accessible to all residents, and agriculture lands are preserved.


Key Findings

  • Of San Mateo County land, 68% is non-urban and 32% is urban.
  • The cities and unincorporated county have taken numerous steps to create more sustainable land use policies. As of May 2016, each area has adopted a Complete Streets resolution, 71% had an adopted Climate Action Plan (CAP), and the remaining 29% were in the process of developing a CAP.
  • San Mateo County has the second highest percentage of total land protected in the Bay Area (42%). Marin has the highest (64%).
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Land Use Breakdown


Land Cover, San Mateo County, 2011


*Geographic data and land categorizations definitions provide by the National Land Cover Database.

  • Developed, Open Space: a mixture of some constructed materials, but mostly vegetation in the form of lawn grasses. Impervious surfaces account for less than 20% of total cover and includes: large-lot single-family housing, parks, golf courses, and vegetation intended for recreation, erosion control, or aesthetic purposes.
  • Developed, Low Intensity: a mixture of constructed materials and vegetation, where impervious surfaces account for 20% to 49% percent of total cover, usually consisting of single-family housing.
  • Developed, Medium Intensity: a mixture of constructed materials and vegetation, where impervious surfaces account for 50% to 79% of the total cover, usually consisting of single-family housing.
  • Developed, High Intensity: highly developed areas where people reside or work in high numbers, where impervious surfaces account for 80% to 100% of the total cover, such as apartment complexes, row houses and commercial/industrial.
  • Barren Land (Rock/Sand/Clay): bedrock, slopes, sand dunes, and other accumulations of earthen material, where vegetation accounts for less than 15% of total cover.
  • Deciduous Forest: areas dominated by trees generally greater than 5 meters tall, and greater than 20% of total vegetation cover. More than 75% of the tree species shed foliage simultaneously in response to seasonal change.
  • Evergreen Forest: areas dominated by trees generally greater than 5 meters tall, and greater than 20% of total vegetation cover. More than 75% of the tree species maintain their leaves all year.
  • Mixed Forest: areas dominated by trees generally greater than 5 meters tall, and greater than 20% of total vegetation cover. Neither deciduous nor evergreen species are greater than 75% of total tree cover.
  • Shrub/Scrub: areas dominated by shrubs; less than 5 meters tall with shrub canopy typically greater than 20% of total vegetation.
  • Grassland/Herbaceous: areas dominated by grass or plants, generally greater than 80% of total vegetation. These areas are not subject to intensive management such as tilling, but can be utilized for grazing.
  • Pasture/Hay: grasses, legumes, or grass-legume mixtures planted for livestock grazing or the production of seed or hay crops, typically on a perennial cycle. Pasture/hay vegetation accounts for greater than 20% of total vegetation.
  • Cultivated Crops: areas used for the production of annual crops, such as vegetables, and also perennial woody crops such as orchards and vineyards. Crop vegetation accounts for greater than 20% of total vegetation, and includes all land being actively tilled.
  • Woody Wetlands: areas where forest or shrub vegetation accounts for greater than 20% of vegetative cover and the soil or substrate is periodically saturated with or covered with water.
  • Emergent Herbaceous Wetlands: areas where perennial plants accounts for greater than 80% of vegetative cover and the soil or substrate is periodically saturated with or covered with water.

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Sea Level Rise and Flooding Projections

Sea level rise is the result of thermal expansion (water temperature increase) and the melting of vast bodies of ice. These phenomena, as well as high intensity storms are a result of climate change. The combination of sea level rise, high tide, and wind caused by storms pose a major threat of flooding in low lying areas along the coast and the bay side of the county.

According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sea level remained stagnant until the 20th Century. Since 1900, sea level has risen 0.04 to 0.1 inches per year, and an alarming 0.12 inches annually since 1992. Though these numbers may not seem immediately threatening, many analysts believe San Mateo County will experience up to 55 inches of sea level rise by 2100. An estimated 10% of San Mateo County’s population will be directly affected by a sea level rise of 36 inches. According to SPUR, 40 percent of the state’s land drains its water into the San Francisco Bay.

The Bay Institute reports that flooding from storm surges is the greatest threat to developed areas along the bay’s shoreline. Intense waves and sea level rise will result in erosion of the county’s coastal bluffs and beaches. The 2013-2014 San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report on sea level rise estimates the cost to repair buildings and other infrastructure in San Mateo County will exceed $23 billion along the bay and $910 million on the coast.

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Evaluation and Preparation Projects

  • The San Mateo County Office of Sustainability in collaboration with the Coastal Conservancy is conducting a Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment set for completion in March 2016. The project utilizes sea level rise projections combined with storm scenarios to evaluate the risk to assets including infrastructure, wetlands, and wild life habitat. Learn more at the Sea Change San Mateo County website.
  • In 2013, SFO began its Airport Shoreline Protection Feasibility Study to determine areas of improvement in preparation for sea level rise and a 100-year flood. This resulted in the establishment of the Shoreline Protection Program (SPP) in 2015.
  • The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority is conducting a feasibility study to restore marshlands, create recreation trails, and protect against flooding and three feet of sea level rise. The project has secured funding from three city governments, a local business, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Learn more about the SFJPA‘s projects on their website.
  • In 2014, FEMA revised its flood and wave data for the San Mateo County Flood Insurance Study report and Flood Insurance Rate Map, which are used to determine flood insurance rates.

Flood Risks from Sea Level Rise in San Mateo County


Flood Risks from Storms in San Mateo County

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Parks and Open Space

Protected open space is land restricted from new development and construction and generally kept available for wildlife habitat, scenic views, farming, or low-impact public access. Major protected land in the county includes land owned by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and the Peninsula Open Space Trust; California State Parks; San Mateo County Parks, and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission watershed lands.


  • San Mateo County has the second highest percentage of total land protected in the Bay Area (42%). Marin has the highest (64%).
  • The majority of the County’s protected land lies west of Hwy 280.

City Parks: In 2011, there were over 2,200 acres of city-owned parks in San Mateo County, translating to a county average of just over 3 acres of city parks per 1,000 residents. Most city parks include both active and passive recreational activities such as playing fields and sitting and hiking areas.

San Mateo County Parks: Our county parks are much larger in size than city parks and usually have regional trails and picnic and recreational areas. They also generally need more vegetation management for habitat preservation and fire protection at the urban/rural boundaries.


Acerage of Parks 2014

  • As of 2014, there were over 17,000 acres of county parks (a 6% increase from 2010).


Trail Miles San Mateo County 2014


Pedro Point Restoration

The California Parks and Recreation Department has recently granted $1.5 million to the Pacifica Land Trust to restore trails along the Pedro Point Headlands. Currently, the trails consist of rough, steep trails damaged by motorcycles in the 1980s, and many invasive plant species. The restoration project plans to convert the older bike trails into narrow foot trails with more native plant species. The restored trails will be apart of the bigger network of continuous open and accessible trails connecting Pacifica State Beach to Devil’s Slide. The Pedro Point Headlands restoration project begins in 2016.


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Food and Agriculture


  • In 2014, total agricultural production in the county was at $152 million, a 3% increase from the year prior. Agricultural production value has declined 34% from 2004.
  • Floral and nursery crops are responsible for 78% of total agricultural production value in the county.

The HEAL Project

One of the best ways to grow and sustain our county’s tradition of local agriculture is to engage and encourage the next generation of farmers. The HEAL (Health Environment Agriculture Learning) Project’s School Farm offers free visits to San Mateo County K-12 students. Classes visit the School Farm twice during the school year” in the fall for planting and then in the spring for harvesting. The San Mateo County Health Department sponsors the project as it helps children learn about healthy eating and lifestyles. To learn more, visit www.thehealproject.org.

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