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Google’s proposed park threatens rare owls

By Priyanka Sharma | 8 Oct 2010

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Burrowing owls, a "species of concern," live at Shoreline Park in Mountain View.

Google, the search-engine behemoth, may have met its match in the tufted face of a small, yellow-eyed bird.

The Mountain View City Council has unanimously approved  the company ‘s plan to create a 6.9-acre recreational park for Google employees, who will be able to play tennis, disc golf, shuffleboard and other activities there. But the council made one thing clear: Although Google has the right to develop land it owns near the city’s Shoreline Park, the site is on foraging grounds for the nearly extinct Western Burrowing Owl and the birds must be protected.

Known around the world as home to Google, Mountain View is one of only three areas in California still home to the Western Burrowing Owl, designated as a “species of special concern” because of the dwindling population. “The owls used to be in almost all counties in the Bay Area,” said Shani Kleinhaus, an Audubon Society representative. “Now there are only 30 pairs left in the Santa Clara region and just a few in other places.”

Under conditions set by the City Council at a Sept. 28 meeting, Google must bring in experts to survey the site for potential nesting or foraging owls no later than two days prior to construction. Signs will be posted to warn that no pets are allowed on the property. And Google is paying the city $20,000 as compensation for any impact the project might have on the owls.

In addition, outdoor lighting must operate on automatic timers that shut off by 11 p.m. to reduce light pollution in the neighborhood.

Mayor Ronit Bryant and the Mountain View City Council discuss Google's proposal to construct a a new recreation facility near Shoreline Park.

A key, unresolved issue is that Google wants to build a barbecue pit. The Audubon Society objects, fearing that “predators will be attracted to the smell of food and that the smell of fire will deter the owls,” Kleinhaus said. The Mountain View council advised Google to hold off on creating the barbecue pit until experts report back on possible dangers to the owls.

Google has owned the land since 1995 and originally planned an office building on the site. The City Council’s approval was needed now to change the zoning for recreational use.

“One of the things we love about Mountain View is that we have built a world-class environment for our employees for their work and their recreation,” said Jay Bechtel, Google’s Real Estate and Construction Manager. Earlier this year , Google was named the fourth-best company in the nation to work for by Fortune magazine.

While Google’s leaders are excited about providing a new playground for their employees, Kleinhaus would like to see the company play a continued part in the city’s owl preservation efforts. She suggested that Google consider bringing in goats or sheep every year to “make sure the grass is short and that the owls can inhabit the land happily.”

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