See the Op-Ed Sausage-Making!

One of the advantages of blogging is that it gives us a chance to write some more informal, behind-the-scenes information than appears elsewhere, like in our Green Footnotes newsletter or Action Alerts.

A while back I blogged about our Op-Ed on Coyote Valley that the Merc published. Spending time on an Op-Ed is a gamble, because it’s a lot of work with no guarantee of publication. The version we sent them was the seventh draft, and although I was the named author, every staff member at CGF spent time looking at it.

To give an example of the work involved, I thought it would be interesting to show the first draft. The fact that it’s very different from the final shows the work of everyone involved. The other interesting part is the effect of needing to be as clear as possible, which in practice and under the constraint of a word limit meant reducing the number of arguments from the draft below and explaining them more clearly. Anyway, I hope it’s interesting!


Suggested Title: PavingCoyoteValley Isn’t Green

Like a train that jumped its tracks yet plows uselessly forward, the CoyoteValley development process recently pushed onward with its Draft Environmental Impact Report. This proposed development between San Jose and Morgan Hill would eliminate the valley farmlands that stop at San Jose’s southern limits the urban sprawl reaching down from San Francisco. Seven thousand acres are at risk from development – the northern half, 3,400 acres, would become a new city, and the more-developed, already-imperiled southern half of CoyoteValley will have trouble surviving as working farmland.

The environmental report misses or underplays many environmental impacts, but the root problem isn’t the report – it’s the underlying project. The CoyoteValley development is an office-space project with an inadequate housing component, requiring the unnecessary, massive construction of a 80,000 person city over existing farmland. Currently the Bay Area has overwhelming office vacancies, so there is no demand for new office construction. However, if all the office space planned for development there were actually built, there wouldn’t be enough housing provided. Developing new office space this far south of the city central just exacerbates commuter sprawl further south through Gilroy, San BenitoCounty and the Central Valley.

This unfortunate legacy project of the Mayor Gonzales administration provides benefits only to the developers who own and wish to eliminate the farms. Lacking a real public benefit, CoyoteValley developers have now resorted to explanations of why destroying farmland is actually something that helps the environment.

Most prominently, they say “better here than in Central Valley” – the idea being that all the people who would live and work in a developed Coyote Valley would otherwise be forced to commute long distances by car from California’s Central Valley to the Bay Area. So many errors in such a short statement, the most prominent being that CoyoteValley development actually requires sprawl construction in Central Valley. Remember, there’s not enough housing being constructed for build-out, so where will the extra people live? Many will live in Central Valley and everywhere else hit by Silicon Valley sprawl. Suburbs will expand even further, and the car commuters will ensnarl local traffic.

The allegedly-green developers may respond that CoyoteValley will at least absorb some of the workforce that live far away and commute here anyway, but that makes sense only if CoyoteValley fails to attract additional business to San Jose. Additional business means additional workers who would not otherwise come here, so the developers contradict themselves. Either developing CoyoteValley means losing three thousand acres of farms plus additional sprawl and long distance commutes, or it provides no additional business and just destroys farms while sucking business away from the rest of the city. This is their green plan?

The other environmental claim is that it’s better to plan now than to do a rush job later. Certainly, one could point to the Coyote Valley Cisco project during the Gonzales administration as a rushed job with poor planning and environmental harm. However, if we put off development now and at a future point a developer felt a tremendous urge to rush things, then a future mayor who is competent and not in the developer’s pocket could demand more environmental protections and public benefits to accommodate the rush, not fewer. Bad past planning is no reason to destroy farmland unnecessarily.

More important, what’s the rush? The last time we felt a hurry to build more office space, we couldn’t have been more wrong and are now living with the consequences. MaybeCoyoteValley will actually need to start development in twenty years, or forty years, or longer (maybe never). But what hubris for us to claim in 2007 that we can better plan the CoyoteValley city to be constructed in the year 2027 than the next generation can in 2022. Past trends have been to expect more environmental protection over time. Locking in “protections” that may be state-of-the-art now and potentially antiquated in the 2020s doesn’t help the environment, but only sets up an obstacle that future environmentalists would have to overcome.

Right now, thousands of acres of farmland persist up to the limits of a major Bay Area metropolis. Wild badgers and elk even manage to cross CoyoteValley. These are not things to be given up cheaply. Calling the loss of all that “green” when it clearly is not, fails to hide the price that comes from filling developers’ pockets while inflicting sprawl, traffic, and pollution on the rest of us. Developing CoyoteValley is a mistake.

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