Noe Valley Voice November 2009

The view from Billy Goat Hill is improving day by day. Neighbors are holding work parties, and the city plans to spend $50,000 on trail and habitat restoration at the park along 30th Street.
Photo by Sally Smith

Billy Goat Hill Finds Friends and Funding for Trails

By Heather World

Billy Goat Hill at the southwestern tip of Noe Valley is one of those quiet parks that even locals sometimes miss, but thanks to doting neighbors, the 3.5 acres of steep terrain will get $50,000 for trail and habitat restoration.

The money is part of the Measure A Parks Bond passed by San Francisco voters in 2008. The $185 million bond included $5 million to restore trails in the city's protected natural areas.

"Getting the money is huge," says neighbor Lisa Ghotbi, who moved to nearby Fairmount Heights in 1999. Ghotbi and her husband organized three cleanups in 2009, resurrecting the moribund Friends of Billy Goat Hill to tend to the park.

"They said if Friends hadn't been advocating, then it probably would have been overlooked," she says.

From the bottom of the hill along 30th and Laidley streets, Billy Goat Hill is dominated by golden grassland, craggy rocks, and two large eucalyptus trees, one of which holds the tatters of an old rope swing. Hikers and dog walkers can take any of several winding dirt paths up to the peak, from which they have a commanding view of the homes of Noe Valley and downtown skyline in the distance.

At the top of the park at Beacon Street, the ground flattens out to a scrubby plateau. Finches nest there, rare butterflies perch there, and raptors like the American kestrel dine by following ultraviolet "urine highways" left by voles and other small animals.

The city acquired the land in 1976, and it became part of the Natural Areas Program--an arm of the Recreation and Park Department--in 1995. Natural areas in San Francisco are remnants of the city's wilder youth, and the program seeks to restore and enhance the areas using community-based stewardship.

The money will go toward removing troublesome plants, such as non-native species, and creating trails to replace what is dangerously steep and decrepit, says Lisa Wayne, NAP program director. Safety concerns put the site high on the list of funding priorities, but the community presence is another factor, she says.

" What's really great about the Billy Goat community is that they're really excited about doing some of the trail work with us," she says. "That's exactly the kind of involvement we want to use to leverage the bond to make it go further."

Once a Goat Pasture

Billy Goat Hill's history is as remarkable as its view. Nestled below one of three hills that comprise Diamond Heights, the space was probably named for the goats that grazed on its steep hillside, says local historian Greg Gaar.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a rock quarry stretched from the bottom of the hill up to Walter Haas Park. The quarry, which supplied gravel for construction of Noe Valley roads, was one of three owned by the infamous Gray Brothers.

Reviled across the city for their careless detonations and substandard products, the brothers accumulated vast wealth but sometimes failed to pay employees. One, Joseph Lococo, confronted George Gray at the Diamond Heights site and shot him dead in 1914. Lococo was acquitted five months later, and the public in the courtroom cheered, says Gaar.

The quarry then closed, and the land became a prime spot for picnics and play. In the ensuing years, Gaar and his friends explored the checkered landscape, hiding in abandoned Victorians, reading old newspapers from World War I, and dodging reclusive neighbors packing guns.

Paul "Buck" Tergis, born and raised in the house his mother built on Beacon Street, rode his bicycle in the abandoned quarry as a child and later spun his 1944 pickup around in the mud with other teens.

"People dumped old cars and stoves there," he says. "Sometimes they drove the cars off what is now Diamond Heights Boulevard."

By the 1950s, the San Francisco Housing Agency designated Diamond Heights a redevelopment zone eligible for federal funds. Neighbors saw the area as open space and disagreed with the designation, taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, says Gaar. The court would not hear the case, and the higher land was developed with homes and apartment complexes.

Redevelopment advocates took pride in the projects, but Gaar was horrified when he returned home from Navy service in the early 1970s.

"I came home and I saw so much of this land where I'd played as a kid was now scraped away," he says. "That's when I evolved into an open space advocate."

Friends of Billy Revived

Now Billy Goat Hill is protected from hot-rods by a fence along the Beacon Street side, but years of neglect took a toll on the hillside. By the time Ghotbi began visiting at the turn of the 21st century, she found it necessary to bring garbage bags to clean up trash.

She and her husband, Muhammad Ghotbi, started asking neighbors if anyone looked after the park. They learned that years ago a resident started Friends of Billy Goat Hill but left off the work when he became ill.

So the Ghotbis started it again. Their first cleanup in March attracted more than 25 neighbors. With the help of the gardeners from the Natural Areas Program, residents cut back massive trees, restored trails, and pounded in railroad ties so hikers could gain traction on the steep and sometimes slippery hill.

"The lower part turns into a big mud river," Ghotbi explains. The work continued in June and September when neighbors and staff cut back more brush to make room for switchbacks and drainage.

Not all invasive vegetation or non-native plant species will be removed, says Lisa Wayne, NAP program director. Each site is evaluated based on the biology of the plants and the needs of the wildlife.

Oxalis, also known as sour grass, is the biggest concern right now, she says. It threatens the rare native California saxifrage, which was important enough for the NAP to record its presence on a global positioning system. The weed also threatens the plants that support the protected mission blue butterfly.

The invasive blue gum eucalyptus, on the other hand, will stay because it doesn't threaten the biological diversity of the site in any major way, Wayne says.

"It's really situational," she says.

The NAP is currently designing the plan for the site and will host at least one community meeting to present it to neighbors. Barring any resistance, the plan will then be put out for a bid. Construction may be complete by 2011, Wayne estimates.

Meanwhile, the Friends of Billy Goat Hill will plant trees with Friends of the Urban Forest on Saturday, Jan. 16, from 9 a.m. to noon. Visit to join the team.

With advice from the park's neighbors, the city will shore up trails and weed out invasive plants at Billy Goat Hill.
Photo by Sally Smith