Bear Creek Redwoods: A Special Property with A Complicated Past

Photo by: Frances Freyburg

Once threatened by golf courses, timber harvesting, and luxury homes, the near 1,500 acre Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve is now permanently protected and will be open to the public starting June 2019. After years of advocacy by Committee for Green Foothills and others, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) and the Peninsula Open Space Trust were able to purchase and permanently protect the property in 1999. Now, Midpen is preparing for the initial phase of public access set to begin this summer.

A particularly wild and beautiful preserve, Bear Creek Redwoods is located in in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Clara County, three miles south of Los Gatos.

What Makes it Special

Bear Creek Redwoods is home to some of the largest second-growth redwood forests remaining in Santa Clara County. Some redwoods on the property are believed to be 800 to 900 years old. In addition to redwoods, the property is home to dense Douglas fir forests, with bay, madrone, and coast live oak. It also features meadows, riparian corridors, grasslands, and freshwater ponds.

With its diverse landscapes, the preserve provides critical habitat for a number of species including the western pond turtle, the Santa Cruz black salamander, and at least 7 other species listed either by the state or federal government as requiring special protection. Overall, 90 species of birds, 32 species of mammals, and 22 species of reptiles and amphibians are known to occur on this site. Large mammals–such as mountain lions, bobcat, coyote, and grey fox–also call this area home.

Bear Creek Redwoods is adjacent to Lexington Reservoir County Park and the planned Bay Area Ridge Trail will someday traverse the site. With its close proximity to these and other publicly accessible natural areas, the property’s location provides a key linkage for wildlife and recreation.

Thanks to these unique features, Bear Creek Redwoods was considered the second highest priority open space preservation site in Santa Clara County’s Open Space Preservation 2020 Report, which was released in 1987.

The Early Years: A College, Failed Purchase, and Luxury Homes

The majority of what is now Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve was sold to the Jesuits in 1934, who established the Jesuit theologate Alma College. When the College closed in 1969, despite a few buildings, the property remained mostly undeveloped. In the 1980s the California Department of Parks and Recreation attempted to purchase the property from the Los Gatos Novitiate. The Novitiate didn’t accept the appraised value and denied the offer. The property remained in the Jesuits’ possession until 1989, when the Novitiate sold it to Hong Kong Metro Realty. While Metro Realty hoped to eventually build luxury homes there, the property sat dormant until 1995 when Pietro Denevi obtained an option on the lower 210 acres.

The Real Fight Begins

After obtaining his option in 1995, Denevi submitted a proposal for a golf course and country club on the lower 210 acres of the property. In response, Committee for Green Foothills with other environmental groups and local residents, led the effort to form Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods Regional Preserve. The goal of Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods was simple: fight the upcoming proposal to develop the property and lay the groundwork for the land to be purchased and permanently protected in its natural state as a preserve for future generations to enjoy.

Working with our newly formed Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods, Committee for Green Foothills urged the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to deny Denevi’s proposal. We cited the property’s important wildlife habitats, the potential risk for contamination to the reservoir from fertilizer that would be used on the golf course, and the large amounts of water that would be needed to maintain it in an area with a growing population and prone to drought, as just some of the reasons the board should deny the proposal. Furthermore, we pointed out that the county general plan had policies severely restricting commercial uses in the hillsides within this watershed area, and the proposed athletic club and restaurant were not consistent with these policies.

Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods and Committee for Green Foothills spoke at numerous Board of Supervisors hearings and organized other environmentalists and community members to do the same.

In 1996, thanks to advocacy of Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods, Committee for Green Foothills and others, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors denied the use permit for Denevi’s golf course and country club. While this was an important victory, the property was still at great risk.

One Last Attempt to Develop

A year later, in 1997, Arlie Land and Cattle Company of Cottage Grove, Oregon – owned by John Musumeci – bought the property from Hong Kong Metro Realty. Musemeci was planning a timber harvesting permit on the upper 900 acres. When Arlie bought the property, Pete Denevi still had an option on the lower portion of the property.

At this time, Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods and Committee for Green Foothills were supporting an effort by POST, Midpen, and other environmental groups to raise funds to purchase the property from Arlie, who was open to negotiating a sale.

A True Public, Private and Community Partnership

In March 1999 a deal was reached between Midpen and Arlie Land and Cattle Company. The deal stated that Midpen could purchased the upper 806 acres to be preserved in its natural state if the owner, Arlie, was able to obtain permits to develop the lower 260 acres with at least 40 luxury homes. Midpen paid $10.5 million for the upper portion of the property. The agreement also included an option to buy the lower portion of the property for an additional $14.5 million by June 30, 1999.

With the help of many, Midpen and POST met the June 1999 deadline and were able to acquire the lower 260 acres of this preserve for the additional $14.5 million. To make it happen POST, for the first-time ever, borrowed commercially and contributed $10 million to the purchase. POST initially held the title for the lower acres while Midpen leased the land from them. Eventually, after Midpen was able to secure grant funding and POST was able to raise enough donations to recoup their costs, the title was transferred to Midpen.

By the time the deal was finalized, Denevi’s option was no longer valid, putting an end to his plans for a golf course and country club once and for all. Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve was finally a reality. The site was saved from development and would be permanently protected for future generations.

Many People and Organizations Made This Happen

Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve is a testament to partnerships and perseverance. From the local advocacy organizations including Committee for Green Foothills and Friends of Bear Creek Redwoods who worked together to lay the foundation for POST and Midpen to partner in the purchase and permanent protection the land, to Senator Byron Sher who was instrumental in getting state funding for the purchase. It was a community effort that made the dream of protecting Bear Creek Redwoods and turning it into an open space preserve a reality.

We are thrilled to be celebrating the opening of Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in June 2019 and proud to have played a part in ensuring this special place will be open for all to enjoy for generations to come.

(from East Bay Times article by Paul Rogers in 2016:

Courtesy of East Bay Times

Map Key:

Phase 1: Western Zone

Phase 3: South Eastern Zone

Phase 2: North Eastern Zone

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