Santa Clara County Needs to Adhere to Ridgeline Protection Rules

Story poles show outline of the proposed mansion on a ridgeline overlooking Morgan Hill

One of the clearest rules in the Santa Clara County General Plan is to avoid developing on a ridgeline whenever possible. Unfortunately, the County failed to follow its own rules when approving an 8,600 square foot residence at the top of a hillside overlooking Morgan Hill. In February, we wrote a letter supporting an appeal of this approved development pointing out the County’s violation of its rules for ridgeline protection.

Ridgeline Protection Rules Not Enforced

While the County is currently taking exciting new steps to protect Coyote Valley and other rural areas, its failure to follow its existing ridgeline rules is concerning. County staff is denying that, in this case, the mansion-sized house located on the top of a steep hill with a narrow, flat top, visible from the valley floor is on a ridgeline.

This location should be more than enough to qualify as a “ridgeline.” But there’s more. The line at the top of the long, linear hill also forms the boundary between the two major watersheds of Santa Clara County. The western side of the hill drains down towards Morgan Hill, where streams run south, join the Pajaro and head to Monterey Bay. The eastern side of the same hill drains into the Coyote Creek watershed, which heads north to San Jose and San Francisco Bay.

Rejecting this as a ridgeline and approval of this development raises the question of whether the County could ever adequately enforce ridgeline protection required in the General Plan.

Habitat and Woodland Protection Rules Also Not Enforced

Smooth lessingia is a rare plant species protected under the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan. The County’s authority to issue permits affecting species covered by the Habitat Plan relies on the County’s complying with the plan. However, the development footprint of the house extends into the area identified as smooth lessingia in the County staff report and disturbs or destroys nearly half of the habitat on the property. If this project proceeds, this will be the first time that lessingia will be destroyed under the Habitat Plan – all other projects have avoided their habitat.

The County staff report calls for the developer to avoid disturbing lessingia habitat, but the developer did nothing to avoid this destruction and the County is letting them get away with it. The developer will have to pay mitigation fees, but that’s not complying with the Habitat Plan rule to avoid disturbing the habitat.

In addition to all this, overhead photos clearly show many large native trees removed from the property in the years preceding the development application, without required permits. The County staff report incorrectly states that no trees will be removed as part of the project.

It is not enough to have good environmental rules – they need to be applied in practice. The appeal of this project may ultimately end up at the County Board of Supervisors. We will reinforce our support for better rules, like those being proposed in Coyote Valley, and that the rules actually be followed.

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