The Good Fight

This refers to two long-term local controversies from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The first surrounds the Granada Islamic School, which occupies a building in an industrial area of Santa Clara, CA, across the street from a large semiconductor fabrication plant operated by the LSI Logic Corporation. The plant has been there for years; the school had been started recently, over the protests of LSI, which argued that a school should not be permitted in an industrial zone in which toxic chemicals are regularly used for manufacturing operations. Although the zoning laws supported the LSI position, an environmental impact report declared the area safe and the city government granted a variance to permit the school to operate. The entire thing eventually ended up in court and the ensuing brouhaha included charges of anti-Muslim bias and political pandering. As far as I know, when I left the area it had still not been resolved.

The second controversy, which is described fairly completely in the letter, surrounds the Reid-Hillview airport, which the FAA (and local pilots) consider a crucial link in overall traffic management around the San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose air corridor. The most notorious accident at Reid-Hillview involved a plane which crashed into the Eastgate mall, which sits at the end of the airport approach; although it could easily have been otherwise, no one on the ground was injured in the crash.

This letter was submitted to the San Jose Mercury News, but not published.

31 October 1996

As sometimes happens when ideas are loosed from their moorings and allowed to drift together in the stream of consciousness, a recent pair of letters from the Mercury News opinion pages (10/29 and 10/30) have, together, provided insights on their respective subjects that neither could provide in isolation.

The first letter concerns the efforts of the LSI Logic Corporation to oust the Granada Islamic School from their current location in the industrial area next to an LSI manufacturing facility. Why is LSI fighting so hard against this school when the risks, according to the environmental impact study, seem so small and the support so strong? Certainly there are better ways to spend what little public regard remains for corporate America than in opposing a popular and socially beneficial neighbor.

The immediate liability exposure LSI faces in the event of an industrial accident is, of course, the most obvious reason: eliminating potential victims eliminates potential claims; and, even if they lose in the end, their strenuous and well-publicized efforts to prevent the school from operating may mitigate any claims that do arise. It is also a reasonable bet that the presence of a school next-door will make it more difficult to obtain permits for expanding their operations in the future, especially if those expansions involve new or larger hazards. It may even be — despite the popular image of “evil corporations” so often depicted in popular culture — that the managers of LSI are actually decent people, concerned about the possibility that a large number of children could be injured by an accident involving toxic chemicals.

But behind all this is another, less easily articulated but equally compelling, reason for their concern.

Which brings us to the subject of the second letter: the Reid-Hillview airport.

It seems the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors is again performing their annual ritual of trying to close down Reid-Hillview. That is not really news but the history of this saga is illustrative. In the beginning, Reid-Hillview was an airport in the middle of orchards and fields. There was no problem of public safety, because there was no one and nothing close enough to the airport to be at risk. In effect, the area was “zoned” for airports. Then the building boom hit the Valley and buildable land became scarce; developers discovered that the area around Reid-Hillview was prime real-estate. Santa Clara County and San Jose concurred, allowing homes, and then a shopping center, to be built along the approaches to the airport. All this was, of course, vigorously opposed by those interested in the airport as an operating airfield but the risk assessments said there was no problem. Many people were willing to buy the houses (at a reduced price, because they were, after all, neighbors to an airport), and the developers prevailed. People knew the airport was next-door, and were willing to live and shop there anyway — what was the big deal?

Twenty years later, after a small number of inconsequential-but-well-publicized accidents, Reid-Hillview wages an annual battle for its very existence, victim of a new generation of shoppers and schoolchildren and homeowners and politicians who have found they can use the power of government to raise their property values (and a few votes) by decrying this public menace in their midst.

Even if all parties agree today that the risk of accidents at the LSI plant is small enough to allow non-industrial neighbors, like the Granada School, to coexist with it, who will guarantee that in five, or ten, or fifteen years the same spirit of “reasonableness” will prevail when a new generation of shoppers and schoolchildren (and homeowners?) and politicians suddenly discover this “public menace” in their midst and wage war on the “evil corporation” which is inflicting it upon them?

LSI has chosen to fight the battle now, rather than later. It is the good fight.

© Copyright 1996, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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