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News + Politics Developer allies fail to take over Sierra Club

Developer allies fail to take over Sierra Club

Attempt by SFBARF to win control of local board goes down overwhelmingly





DECEMBER 21, 2015 — An effort by pro-development forces to take control of the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club failed miserably after local club members organized to protect the group as a progressive force in city politics.

The challengers sought to limit the local club plays as a foe of overdevelopment and a critic of giant projects, particularly on the waterfront.

The Sierra Club endorsement, which is a significant factor in local elections, has tended to go to progressive politicians who don’t support he build-anything-anywhere agenda of SFBARF.

In a post-mortem on the SFBARF Google group, members of the pro-development slate complained, in the words of Donald Dewsnup, that

They ran a regular public government office style campaign vs a private hiking club campaign.

That’s a complete misunderstanding of what the Sierra Club is and has been. The Club stopped being a “hiking club” in the 1960s, when David Brower took over and turned it into a highly political operation that pushed the limits of environmentalism in the US.

There have been ups and downs since then, and the Club has moved in a more moderate direction on the national level – but in San Francisco, it’s never been a “hiking club.”

It’s no surprise that people who care about preserving the club’s role as part of a larger political movement in this city worked hard – yes, in a “government office style campaign” – to prevent the takeover.

And now that the developer slate has lost, overwhelmingly, it will continue for the moment as a part of progressive San Francisco.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. THIS RIGHT HERE. This is whats wrong with San Francisco and its so called progressivism. we have thousands of people living on the streets, thousands more crammed into over crowded housing to be able to afford the rents, and yet thousands more displaced to the far hinterlands of our region in order to be able to afford a place to live…..and “progressives” have no problem with that tragedy whatsoever and are happy to see it continue, so long as their views are preserved.

  2. thanks for reposting that for me here. It pretty much explains exactly what I have been telling everyone who would listen. Others including many fauxgressive heroes du jour were for enthusiastically for it. Shrug. I guess people like the giants, what can I say. It seems like a waste of space to me 🙂

    Regarding the breakdown of the Sierra Club vote by age… I’d be keen to see your special inside information regarding that 🙂

    Troll ya later alligator

  3. well it’s certainly following it in shady money from the mainland being funneled into building developments outside the mainlands

  4. I have listened to them and what you claim is not what they say. They want to build as much high end rentals and condos that will be bought by out of town investors and are built with out of country money. None of that will help the actual citizens of SF. Also SF is not Tokyo, not even close.

  5. It’s a crisis for folks without a lot of ability to influence politics.

    Cut-off building offices or allowing new jobs? Then you’d have phone calls being made.

    This is why the Vallco initiative in Cupertino is so fascinating– the locals in Cupertino are threateing to to submit a referendum to require all zoning changes to be approved by voters, including office buildings. I’m interested to see if this will be a South-Bay version of Prop. F.

  6. Excect in your bubble, many in SFBARF were convinced you would sweep the election this year.

    There were plenty of younger people who voted for the Sierra Club slate and older people who voted for the SFBARF slate.

    And it isn’t as if there won’t be new Sierra Club members who oppose SFBARF over the next few years.

    And you opposed SFBARF endorsing the Giants project because among other things you wanted to:

    Put everyone in the city on notice – If you want our help, you need to include us in negotiations early and often, and at an equal level with the community groups and non-profits. As we continue our exponential growth into our full audience and clout over the next few years, I think this stance will serve us well.

    Your full email:

    Why I don’t think we should endorse the Mission Rock ballot measure

    Aug 19

    Jon Schwark

    Honestly, I don’t think as a group we should be endorsing Mission Rock but I don’t think we have to oppose it either. 

    First, let me get out of the way that on the pro side, I like the development. it has good neighborhood amenities, and I know the people in that part of D6 have fought hard to get them. I also know the forces of NIMBYism and Eastern Neighborhoods have put lots of obstacles in the way of doing ANYTHING here, and have to a large degree already succeeded…

    I dislike the idea that it even has to get ballot box approval for its zoning, so I may just vote for it on those grounds. 


    On the other hand, if we do the math, it adds 4x more jobs than housing. Will this make rents go down? No. Is it pouring more fuel on the flame? YES

    If this were a station area plan in any of the office park suburbs on the Peninsula, we would be complaining about that ratio. 

    Even on the affordable housing front, it is a clear loss.  Even though Jane Kim has been proudly displaying her 40% Affordable Merit Badge every time she speaks, the truth is, Mission Rock probably only satiates around 8% of the affordable housing demand the development itself creates at current market conditions. 

    (I’ll explain those numbers later in a sub post here for those interested.)

    This is a GIANT TRACT that was designated as mixed use. It is reasonable to expect the uses to balance out to some degree.

    Just because it is a cool development and a handful of tall buildings might survive the decades long effort to block them doesn’t mean we have to endorse it. 

    Are we a developer group or a renter group? On the issue of housing Mission Rock is NOT a win, and I think we should reserve our clear “YES” endorsements for things that are… 

    …or for projects where negotiations involved us and offered us concessions.

    I suggest that our 2015 endorsement card is EXACTLY the right place for: 
    1) making our case that Jobs:housing ratio is more important than affordable% and 

    2) Putting everyone in the city on notice – If you want our help, you need to include us in negotiations early and often, and at an equal level with the community groups and non-profits. As we continue our exponential growth into our full audience and clout over the next few years, I think this stance will serve us well.

    My suggestion is that in addition to YES or NO, we have a “decline to endorse” option (with a clear explanation), and use that liberally.

    It keeps us honest to our core mission and who we claim to represent. 


  7. again… if we add that many votes every year, it will be a massive change by 2017. SFBARF has only been more than a handful of people for ONE YEAR.

  8. Hey, if we can add a couple of hundred votes a year, it will only be 3 years till we force a leadership change. 🙂 It shouldn’t be hard, considering that its mostly a generational issue. Younger people overwhelmingly support the smart-growth/smart-density agenda we brought to the table ofer the head-in-the-sand sprawl-icies of the current leadership. Hold on tight, we will be back till the job is done 🙂

  9. That comment was directed at Sue, not you. She seems very happy with her rent controlled protections and blissfully unaware, or she just doesn’t give a damn, about how it impacts everyone else.

  10. Jonathan, I share your frustration and enthusiastically welcome your perspective. I have been near homelessness thanks to a sudden job loss, and saved my place by fortune of having a loved one to stay with and a friend to sublease and pay my rent while I couldn’t. I often see and hear some strong and vicious sentiments labeled “progressive”, but they seem to come from perspectives that are out of touch with their own privilege. It’s easy to curse all development and want things to stay as they are when you own a home, or rent control works for you, or you are white and have job skills that are in demand, etc. They don’t seem to know how bad this really is right now and voice concerns about shaded yards or neighborhood character more often than concerns over homelessness and affordability. Economic change has been rapid and I guess it’s difficult for people in more comfortable places to know about the growing class of people in the bay area with no job or housing guarantees.

    I am glad you are working on it. If I can finally get passed my obstacles and finish school in Urban planning, I will be working on it with you.

  11. I think it’s quite a stretch to make a comparison to Hong Kong… Adding a few stories and some tall buildings in a quaint city like San Francisco does not a Hong Kong make.

  12. Having been homeless, I now work to house homeless and low income folks, and to fight evictions and dissplacement, so no, I don’t believe in selfishly being satisfied with what I have and screw everyone else .

  13. The leader of that effort was definitely imperfect, which is why he received the fewest votes. But calling the slate “developer allies” seems unfair. All three ladies had environmental non-profit experience; and none of them had any visible ties to developers.

  14. And SFBARF in their post-morrem takes the same view (though he does write a lot).

    He was the focus of or quoted in all the articles on their Sierra Club campaign.

    The only story that mentioned the other candidates on their slate was the Chron which (amid a couple of photos of Donald) included this:

    Adding a tinge of surreal to the election, one of the five candidates endorsed by the pro-development group said he neither asked for the support nor does he plan to vote for the other candidates on the slate.

    “They have not been active and they haven’t fought for all the things that are important, and all of a sudden they think there is an opening to control a good organization,” said Howard Strassner, who has been a member of the chapter since 1961. “That’s not a good deal — even if they support me.”

    Strassner attributed the group’s support to the fact that he has been relatively receptive to development projects. His name also appears on the competing, five-person slate being put forward by longtime Sierra Club members…

    The elephant in the room (and the most surreal aspect of the campaign) they haven’t mentioned is at least 30 of their own supporters didn’t vote for him despite the evil NIMBYness of tne Sierra Club

    (they always leave out that the SC did support the Pier 70 development and the endorsement was used in mailers and tv ads while they did nothing to oppose Giants project beyond a small listing on their mailer – both projects passed by overwhelming margins under the evil SC supported ballot box planning which actually made both projects better)

    and at least 70 fewer votes than the other 3 candidates who chose to be part of the slate.

    I guess we’ll know if SFBARF learned anything if they decide to include Donald on the slate next time or support him for anything else in the future.

  15. what about their constant objection to infill TOD housing in san Francisco in favor of the nice bay views enjoyed by their hill top dwelling members. hmmm? Their short sighted self serving opposition to housing in this city has forced thousands of mostly low income workers into the hinterlands of this region and into long, costly and polluting commutes. But hey, you can still see the bay from Bernal Heights!

  16. The way I have been witnessing it, The development model of SF wants to be closer to Hong Kong… And I think that would be a tragedy.

  17. So its progressive and environmentally sound now to oppose the construction of transit oriented infill housing on top of vacant parking lots? really? The Sierra Club is a NIMBY shell organization and has nothing to do with progressive or environmental values.

  18. “encourage folks to listen to SFBARF and not simply discount them” & “we all need to be humble and listen to each other”. Excuse me, but these statements are the polar opposite to the MO of SFBARF, as they are confrontational and activist in their approach, and disruptive at minimum. Trauss has been quoted as saying – “if you’re tired of getting drunk at the local bar, go invade local city politics”. For many, their approach is counterproductive to their objective, and it may be SFBARF has its own agenda ahead of the regions best interests.

  19. To be honest, I don’t believe one person should define the organization–it is Donald’s idea sure, but rather than focusing on the antics of one person I think people should be looking at the bigger picture. Of course, if you already oppose most development from the onset (and it does seem to me that 48hills takes that position, though they would probably phrase it as only wanting “smart development” which seems euphemistic about preserving views) then I guess you are free to focus on anything to support that position. Just saying that I would rather talk about anything in this issue besides Donald, because I’d like to think I made some good points that haven’t been acknowledged at all.

  20. By failure, I mean it’s unfair because there’s no vacancy control and means testing. I could never afford a rent controlled unit at the going market rate, whether it was 25 years ago, 10 years ago, or now. I ended up being an under the radar roommate because I could never afford an apartment in my name, and i became homeless three different times…so for me, rent control never helped. It only helps if you can afford the initial market rate rent, and you never, ever move, and the owner doesn’t do an Ellis Act eviction. Thankfully, I now own a land trusted limited equity one bedroom apartment, and it’s far cheaper than renting.

  21. Rent control has not failed me. If were not for rent control, neither I nor 100,000s more would be able to stay in San Francisco.

  22. I don’t know about the controversies regarding Dewsnup, but I did check his Linkedin profile. The only mention of environment was in terms of lighting design. Under “opportunities” he was looking for he listed “Joining a nonprofit board.”

  23. Nonsense. If this was truly a crisis we would have both short-term plans (halting all building of offices – reducing the demand) and long-term plans (a rigorous plan to grow San Francisco’s population with smart development, increasing the supply).

  24. Tim wrote a short update on something he had written about before for people who might not have seen the results on Twitter.

    It wasn’t an indepth analysis.

    On the gmail list, it was clear they really thought they could elect their entire slate and take it over and get lots of press.

    This is what Sonya wrote on Nov 19 (I’ll edit it – you can see the whole thing in the vice thread:

    Donald worries me because he is very aggressive on social media. Luckily he was kicked off nextdoor, so that problem is taken care of. I and another slate member talked to Donald about cooling off on Twitter and he agreed to chill. So far he has abided by that agreement and I am happy.

    [He didn’t chill – after the Vice article appeared, he posted on Hoodline, Sfist, Facebook, and other places saying Fuck NIMBY’s and attacking people who questioned him – he seemed particularly obsessed that I don’t have my photo on my social media profiles]

    I had many long talks about this with the rest of the people on the slate, and with people who are experienced in local politics. The overwhelming feedback I got was to keep Donald on the slate, despite the fact that he is a troll on the internet. There were a few reasons for this, but 3 stand out

    (1) We have a really strong argument. Sierra Club is off mission, and they have No Answer for this criticism. Even before anyone realized Donald is too mean on the internet, or he probably voted somewhere he didn’t live, the Sierra Club Incumbents were already hysterically attacking us as developer shills. We could cut Donald, but because the SC incumbents have no answer for our actual concerns, this trash would be coming in our direction in any case.

    (2) We are going to be voting as a block. Donald, though not a perfect person, is perfectly qualified to be on the Sierra Club Executive committee. He’s pro-infill, sincere about environmental causes, and he wants to be on the committee.

    [They didn’t vote as a bloc – at least 30 SFBARF people were troubled enough they didn’t vote for him]

    (3) Getting involved with Sierra Club was Donald’s idea, and he did all the work to get himself on the ballot. Local politics is carried on almost entirely by volunteers and low paid workers. As frustrating as it is that Donald allowed Kevin to write a bad article about him (Keep in mind, Donald just gave Kevin most of the info Kevin has), Donald also has exhibited incredible initiative and follow through. Our job, as a political group, is to appreciate and accept the man-hours volunteers dedicate to our shared cause, and help each other become better activists. In other words, I don’t want to throw Donald away.

    Donald has a lot going for him as a volunteer. Even with the bad press, his contribution to SFBARF is still, as of today, a net benefit. Take a moment to think about how I must feel about his efforts to feel that way. For any given reader, imagine yourself being the subject of as much public criticism as Donald is, then think about your contributions to club. I’m Not saying this because I want anyone to feel they’re not involved enough, I’m trying to give you a sense of how much benefit I feel Donald has brought to the club.

    I also considered what Donald is being accused of – trolling on the internet, being difficult in person, voting somewhere he doesn’t live, and not wanting people to know where he lives…

    I thought about it a lot, my roomates got really tired of hearing me talk about Donald. Based on what I realized was my own feeling of loyalty to Donald, and also based on the advice of experienced people I trust, I decided not to withdraw support for Donald’s Sierra Club candidacy.

    I know it’s stressful to have to defend a flawed community member, and it’s only going to get worse. Not because of Donald, but because the bigger and more effective we become, the more desperate and aggressive our opponents will become. This is real politics…

    I’m not particularly surprised that Donald, who has volunteered to be the target of internet and online trolling, is also an unusual person in other ways…Even though he pisses some people off, I do not believe he is malicious or a con man…

  25. San Francisco is not Tokyo or Singapore (which both have a higher cost of living in many other aspects).

    And build, build, build is not the answer anymore than drill, drill, drill is on energy.

    Many of us have listened to SFBARF a lot, didn’t discount them, and found lots of flaws both individually and as a group.

    Just because people want solutions to the housing crisis doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look critically at SFBARF.

  26. ⦿ I’m one of these people who leaves the Sierra Club in disgust now and then. I’m currently not a member (though I recognize that it has improved greatly since the departure of Carl Pope), but this particular struggle did not prompt me to rejoin. This is due in large part to the idea that one of our supposed saviors against the onslaught of development is a man whose political career began with putting a green veneer over a 1,000-car parking garage in Golden Gate Park. Somewhere along the line we have completely lost the plot.

    Nor have I found the development-is-good side arguments compelling, and the takeover approach is odious. The solution to sprawl isn’t just all and any development, it’s transit-oriented development, not something I’ve seen SFBARF bother to articulate. Those actually interested in the environmental angle on this should be pushing for prioritizing living space by demanding zero accommodations for cars, and improved transit (by which I mean real transit, not car- or ride-sharing schemes).

  27. Great – because I couldn’t even read the endorsements of the SF DCCC, which has been taken over by Republican views, so good to hear the Sierra Club is still its progressive self…

  28. i encourage folks to listen to BARF, not simply discount them. We do face a housing crisis of epic proportions and we need to come up with some new solutions, ie… maybe we do need to build build, build, rather than just fight fight fight for anything but our ideologically correct position. I say this having experienced homelessness on streets of San Francisco, and as someone who has traveled, and I am unable to understand how Tokyo rents can only be $803 per month, while SF rents are $3500 to even as high as $10,000 per month in Mission district, or how a city like Singapore can have 90% homeownership, with 85% percent of low income folks owning their homes. In the face of what other cities and countries are doing, I have to say San Francisco housing policies have utterly failed the people, including sacred rent control and the well intentioned but woefully inadequate CCHO policies. People want solutions to this crisis. They don’t want ideological purity and politics, they want and need housing desperately, so we all need to be humble and listen to each other, and engage in dialog to find a way forward.

  29. I guess my point about the numbers is that the article could either provide data (and indeed that data does indicate a sound defeat) instead of just editorialization on that data. Obviously Tim has an editorial stance here but you can make that point without making it seem like your obfuscating things, which is what it seemed like to me when I read it.

    The allegation I was referring to was not a matter of deadlines or fundraising, but that the data necessary was withheld unfairly. As a member of Sierra Club before getting involved with SFBARF, the prospect is more than a little disappointing, and apparently they are trying to resolve it with the national chapter.

    As for the rest, well, yeah there were a lot of mistakes in this, some acknowledged by SFBARF. I’m not a regular reader of the forums but I do keep in touch with several members through other means. It seems like their main takeaway is that they need more numbers, which is basically the M.O. of any activist organization.

    It might be for the best that SFBARF lost this, though. Even though I support their goals, and I think urban development vs suburban sprawl make sence within the ecological policy of Sierra Club, there do seem to be a sizable amount of people opposing this. When voting, I was envisioning less of a hostile takeover and more of a righting of course for a club afflicted by apathy. Hard to know how much effect news articles and circulars had in spurring people into action, but the membership doesn’t seem as apathetic as I thought.

  30. Those tallies were apparently only the online votes. There were another 50 or so ballots which probably skewed non-SFBARF.

    A roughly 400 vote margin is pretty overwhelming especially when SFBARF says they signed up about 200 new members.

    Perhaps if they had more people who had been members before 2015, they would have realized how much they would have had to raise to do a mailing and when the deadline was for doing a mailing.

    But I’m not sure it would have changed the results much.

    The biggest mistake was putting Donald on the slate and having him be the only member named for months until the day voting began. And then sticking by him after articles raising questions about him.

    it is probably for the best Tim focused just on two words. Donald’s posts on that thread (and every discussion of the SFBARF slate) are pretty uniformly bad and in denial. People can read them and decide for themselves.

    As well as here!topic/sfbarentersfed/Skr1ZoQn4YY

    He came in last and only got 170 online votes (and he writes in the thread he voted for himself online twice – not sure if both were counted). He got over 70 less votes than the other members of the slate.

  31. The results were 650 votes for incumbent candidates versus 250 for SFBARF candidates, curious how these numbers were not posted and instead we get an editorialized “overwhelming defeat.” Also curious that the article here choose to focus on two words used in a forum post rather than what those words were representing. Alleged by SFBARF is that the club membership roster was not given out for campaigning purposes, before the incumbents promptly sent out campaign mailers themselves warning about the SFBARF takeover. The comparing of Sierra Club to a “hiking club” is an admission of naivety–Dewsnup and company made many mistakes in their opposition, but the biggest one was assuming this was going to be a level playing field, which is a dangerous assumption in politics.

  32. The Club has moved in a more radical direction in the past five years, with endorsement of civil disobedience, support for BLack Lives Matter, excellent work on climate and fighting fossil fuels–and its longstanding environmental justice work in places like New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward are commendable too. Oh, and members elected the Club’s first black president this year. So moderate isn’t really accurate…..

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