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New park in Silicon Valley opens Saturday, rekindling debate over future of Coyote Valley

By Paul Rogers

SAN JOSE — For years, developers and environmentalists have battled over Coyote Valley, a bucolic stretch of orchards and farms along Highway 101 between San Jose and Morgan Hill that — depending on one’s viewpoint — is either a prime spot for job-producing industries or a natural gem that should remain untouched in a region choked by sprawl.

But starting this weekend, the area also will be known for something else: Silicon Valley’s newest public park.

On Saturday afternoon, crews will open the gates to the Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, a 348-acre expanse of oak trees, grassy ridges and trails for hikers, mountain bicyclists and horse riders that open space advocates hope will be the first of many similar acquisitions in the area.

“This is a wonderful place for people to get in touch with nature and see the beauty of the area so close to where they live,” said Marc Landgraf, external affairs manager of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, a San Jose-based government agency that owns the property.

“There are 1.8 million people who have access to the last vestiges of the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” he said. “And we want to keep it that way.”

The authority bought the property, which sits at the end of Palm Avenue next to Cinnabar Hills Golf Course, for $3.48 million in 2010. The previous owner, a group of South Bay investors known as 353 Palms LLC that included former Saratoga mayors Paul Jacobs and William E. Glennon, had an option to sell the property to Palo Alto developer Charles “Chop” Keenan. But that arrangement ended in 2009 when the crashing economy and local political opposition stalled Coyote Valley development efforts.

Since then, the open space authority has built fences, a restroom, parking lot and 4 miles of trails on the land, which is home to golden eagles, mountain lions and the endangered bay checkerspot butterfly.

“It’s so busy over there,” said Derek Neumann, the agency’s field operations manager, standing on a breezy ridge and looking toward downtown San Jose 15 miles away. “Everyone needs places like this where you can get away and clear your head and rejuvenate.”

Politically, however, the neighborhood has rarely been quiet.

In the 1980s, Apple and Tandem considered building new headquarters in Coyote Valley. Then, in 1999, San Jose-based Cisco Systems proposed building a 6.6-million-square-foot campus for 20,000 employees just down the road from the new preserve.

The Sierra Club, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and even nearby cities like Salinas that were worried about traffic filed suit. Opponents collected 54,000 signatures to put a measure on the ballot. But the administration of then-San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, a project supporter, successfully blocked it from going to voters by claiming the ballot language was legally inaccurate.

By 2002, however, Cisco dropped its plans after the tech bubble burst.

Today, much of the property in north Coyote Valley remains zoned for light industrial use under San Jose’s current general plan, meaning that new development proposals could be back.

But the open space authority, which owns 17,500 acres across the county, will be eyeing Coyote Valley for more possible deals.

Because of limited budgets in years past, only about 40 percent of the agency’s land is now open to the public, mostly in the Rancho Cañada Del Oro preserve just south of Cinnabar Hills Golf Course, and the Sierra Azul preserve, off Sierra Road in the foothills east of San Jose.

Last November, however, voters passed Santa Clara County’s Measure Q, a $24 annual parcel tax that tripled the agency’s budget from $4 million to $12 million a year. And with the new funding, agency leaders say, they plan to eventually connect the Coyote Valley preserve to Calero County Park, Almaden Quicksilver County Park and 20,000 more acres of open space around Mount Umunhum and Lexington Reservoir.

One noteworthy feature of the new Coyote Valley preserve: It has several dozen cattle grazing to keep down fire risk and invasive plants such as star thistle.

And that has won over neighbors like Janet Baird Burback, whose family has owned the 2,900-acre Tilton Ranch since 1917. The property abuts the reserve to the south.

“I’m pretty skeptical of open space — all the agencies, county parks, state parks, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club,” Burback said. “I don’t like when they take a piece of property and remove all the cows. They increase the fire risk for everybody.

“But this open space agency is the only one I work with. They like agriculture. They like having cattle on it. They have done a great job with the trails. They have been good neighbors.”

Five hundred people have already signed up for a midmorning grand opening ceremony on Saturday, featuring dignitaries such as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. The ceremony is closed to any more people, but beginning at 2 p.m. that day the park will be opened to the general public for free.

Environmentalists hope that visitors to the reserve will gain a new appreciation for Coyote Valley, an area not only important to agriculture but also as a corridor for wildlife that moves between the Diablo Range and Santa Cruz Mountains.

“The more people who recognize what a treasure Coyote Valley is on so many levels, the more political support we’ll have to make sure we’re not developing it,” said Michele Beasley, regional director for the Greenbelt Alliance. “That’s how you create future stewards of the land — by getting people out on the trails.”

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.

This article was originally published on June 24, 2015 by the San Jose Mercury News.

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