By Alice Kaufman, Legislative Advocacy Director
On Wednesday, we celebrated the historic deal to preserve 937 acres of North Coyote Valley with a unanimous vote by the San Jose City Council! Thanks to everyone who joined us at the press conference at San Jose City Hall with Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez, Magdalena Carrasco, Sylvia Arenas, Pam Foley and Johnny Khamis; Walter Moore with Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST); Andrea Mackenzie with the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority; and State Senators Jim Beall and Bob Wieckowski. The mood was jubilant as every speaker mentioned the importance of this moment and took time to thank the hundreds of people who made it possible.
As we celebrate, it’s important to remember how we got here. It took much more than finding the necessary funding for the purchase — it took decades of hard-fought battles. Throughout the decades, Committee for Green Foothills persevered even when most insisted that the development of Coyote Valley was inevitable. So as we rejoice with our partners at the permanent protection of a significant expanse of the land, we take a look back at some of the key efforts that brought about this wonderful achievement — and remember that there’s more work to do.
Fighting for Coyote Valley Through the Decades
Committee for Green Foothills has been engaged in the future of Coyote Valley since the mid-1970s when the proposal for the IBM campus first arose. Since that time, we consistently advocated for the preservation of lands in Coyote Valley and opposed proposals for sprawl development including those brought by the ROLM Corporation in 1981, the Tandem Corporation in 1983, Cisco’s Coyote Valley Research Park in 1999, the Coyote Valley Specific Plan in 2005, Gavilan College in 2008, and the Panattoni warehouse project in 2016.
Despite our best efforts, the IBM and Gavilan College campuses were built, but none of the other proposals ever came to fruition. To be sure, the state of the economy sometimes played a part in deterring development, but our steadfast advocacy ensured that the environmental arguments were front and center in the debate over the future of this invaluable natural landscape.
The Infamous Coyote Valley Specific Plan and Gavilan College: Standing our ground
Of all the development proposals Committee for Green Foothills has opposed, the Coyote Valley Specific Plan (CVSP) was the most trying and the most egregious. This plan addressed both North and Mid Coyote Valley, envisioning not only sprawling tech campuses but an entire new residential community with schools, retail centers and full urban services. The Plan proposed 50,000 jobs and 25,000 homes — basically a new city, with a population the size of Cupertino or Mountain View, where there are now acres of fields and farmland. From 2005 to 2007, we were the active voice of opposition to the CVSP. We pointed out the conflict of interest with the consultants who were previously hired by the developers and then hired by the city in no-bid contracts, the inconsistency in the financial analysis with regard to housing and incomes, and the misrepresentation of environmental impacts. With strong opposition coming from the environmental community and residents alike and a recession on the horizon, the plan was withdrawn in 2008.
The next threat came from Gavilan College’s proposed North Coyote Valley campus. Here again, we strenuously voiced our opposition, as the chosen site on Bailey Road across from the IBM campus was located on a restorable wetland. Despite our best efforts, we lost this battle. Today, the access to the Gavilan College campus floods during heavy rains, proving that building on a former wetland can be extremely problematic.
In the wake of these two development proposals, the City of San Jose undertook an update to their General Plan. Through this process, we successfully advocated for the designation of mid-Coyote Valley as an urban reserve ensuring no urban development could be contemplated in this section of the valley until the year 2040. We were also able to have new policies and actions included that recognized the ecological value of mid-Coyote Valley and the need to study and protect wildlife movement there. However, North Coyote Valley, which contained some of the most ecologically sensitive land, remained available for industrial development.
Wildlife or warehouses: The Protect Coyote Valley campaign begins
In early 2016 the Panattoni Company submitted a new development proposal for North Coyote Valley. Unlike the sprawling, ambitious tech campus proposals of the past, this application was for a 30-acre warehouse and distribution center that would have created only a few, low-paying jobs — the first sign that the City’s vision of 50,000 tech jobs was never going to come true. As soon as we learned of this proposal, we raised the alarm. We deluged the San Jose Planning Department with phone calls and emails; we called then-Councilmember Ash Kalra’s office; and of course, we appealed to our environmental advocacy partners and warned them that the fight over Coyote Valley was back again. Our efforts paid off, first in an agreement from the Planning Department that a full environmental review would be conducted, next in the outraged response from the environmental community to the proposed warehouse. Together with other environmental groups, we met with Councilmembers, taking many of them on tours of Coyote Valley to show them its beauty and explaining its important natural value. After a community meeting in late 2016 at which over 100 people showed up to oppose the development, the Panattoni Company abandoned its warehouse plans and agreed to sell the land to the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST).
Despite this victory, it was clear that this development proposal would not be the last. So we kept up the pressure, forming the Protect Coyote Valley coalition with ten other environmental organizations to help spread the word among local residents of the beauty and significance of Coyote Valley. Believing that if people knew how special Coyote Valley is, they would fight to protect it, we embarked on a broad public information campaign. We created the Stand Up For Coyote Valley effort, knocking on doors in San Jose neighborhoods near Coyote Valley to tell residents about the issue. We brought the issue to social media, we gave presentations to community groups, and we continued to raise it with the City Council and City staff at every opportunity. It was our goal to change the perception of Coyote Valley from a place that was either unknown to San Jose residents, or if known, was assumed to be nothing more than the site for future industrial development, into a place that was loved and cherished.
Measures B, C and T: Victory At the Ballot Box
In late 2017, an unexpected threat raised its head: the Evergreen Senior Homes Initiative, or Measure B. This ballot measure, while purporting to be about affordable housing for seniors and veterans, would in reality have rewritten San Jose’s General Plan to encourage suburban sprawl — including in North Coyote Valley. An unprecedented coalition formed to oppose Measure B, including both Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and pro-business advocates, and every elected official in the San Jose area. We were part of the leadership of this campaign — a scrappy, grassroots group composed almost entirely of volunteers who tirelessly walked precincts and phoned voters to get the word out. The San Jose City Council, recognizing the danger Measure B posed to the City’s plan for infill growth, put Measure C on the ballot to severely restrict any residential sprawl of the sort facilitated by Measure B. When it came time to vote in June 2018, San Jose residents overwhelmingly voted against Measure B and for Measure C — thus proving that the $6 million spent by the Measure B billionaires on their campaign wasn’t enough to fool San Jose voters.
In November 2018, we had an opportunity to take a positive step towards protecting Coyote Valley. Measure T, San Jose’s infrastructure bond measure, included $50 million to conserve land in Coyote Valley for flood and groundwater protection. Once again, we turned out volunteers for this campaign, and the measure passed by a wide margin.
This proved to be the puzzle piece that was needed. The City of San Jose, no longer pushing development in Coyote Valley but now fully on board as a partner in the efforts to preserve it, entered into discussions with POST, the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, and two of the largest landowners in North Coyote Valley. The result is the historic land acquisition announced this week — 937 acres to be preserved from development in perpetuity and managed by the Open Space Authority for habitat, floodplain and wetland restoration, farmland, and public access.
Our Work Is Not Done
Although this transaction covers the largest portion of North Coyote Valley, it doesn’t include all of it — including some areas that are prime farmland and others that form part of the historic freshwater wetlands. Since the 1980s, San Jose’s General Plan has slated North Coyote Valley for industrial development and Mid Coyote Valley for eventual residential development. We are seeking the re-envisioning of this old and outdated paradigm as the City undertakes a review of its General Plan. The County of Santa Clara will play a role here as well, as Mid and South Coyote Valley fall under County jurisdiction. So while our effort to change the conversation about Coyote Valley has been successful, there is still work to do.
We thank everyone who has had a hand in bringing us here, and we are prepared to undertake the next phase of work with the help of our partners and supporters. Every donation you’ve made to Committee for Green Foothills, and every email you sent to the City Council, has made a difference. Let’s keep up the great work!