Helen Chapman fights to save San Jose’s open space
Helen Chapman understands the value of Coyote Valley. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Growing up, Helen Chapman was surrounded by acres of nature in Orinda. That’s when her passion for preserving open space began.

    And now, as the chair of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, Chapman is its steward and Coyote Valley is her crown jewel.

    Being in harmony with the land is in her blood. Chapman’s German father and English mother grew up on farms and lived off the land. As a teenager, she found solace jumping a fence and going for a walk. She finds that same comfort in Coyote Valley.

    “I come out here and see the land and immediately, I’m centered,” Chapman said. “Everybody should be able to have that renewal.”  

    Chapman, 63, was inspired by the strong women in her life. Her grandmother, an avid gardener, was a councillor in England and a nurse during World War II. Her mother was involved in Save Gateway Valley, a grassroots campaign to prevent a highway from plowing through the top of an East Bay hillside.

    As a San Jose Parks and Recreation Commissioner from 2001-2007, Chapman was part of an effort to raise fees paid by developers to fund park projects throughout the city. 

    Chapman served as a member of the Coyote Valley Task Force, as board member of Green Foothills and now works as legislative policy advisor for San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, focused on environmental policies. 

    “It’s been a journey of following my passion for the environment,” she said, “and giving everyone access.”

    The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, a special district created by the state legislature in 1993, encompasses 28,000 acres of open space, watersheds, farms and wildlife habitat. The majority of its funding comes from a $24 per year parcel tax, which generates about $8 million per year, according to its website.  

    Chapman also oversees the group’s grant program to help fund projects like trails and community gardens to bring people closer to nature.

    “Part of our mission is to conserve and protect, to encourage local food sources and to get people out in nature,” she said. “Having open space is intrinsic. You can’t put a value on it.”

    Saved from development

    Coyote Valley, which Chapman fought to preserve, is a critical wildlife corridor between two mountain ranges, the Santa Cruz mountains and Diablo range. Its aquifers provide groundwater for agriculture and its valley collects runoff, helping to mitigate flooding downstream. Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve is a recreational space for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

    “To be able, 10 minutes from South San Jose, to come out here and hear the birds sing, breathe clean air, see the trees and the wildlife; we want everyone to experience that,” Chapman told San José Spotlight. “To be able to bring that to future generations is an absolute gift.”

    Coyote Valley could’ve become housing. In 2002, a city plan proposed developing 25,000 homes and 50,000 jobs there. The recession and cost of infrastructure halted it in 2008.

    Facing threats of development again years later, San Jose partnered to preserve the land for wildlife, farmland and climate resilience. In 2019, it allocated $46 million to conserve 937 acres of open space. 

    “She’s so good at uplifting other people and being the kind of leader that brings everybody along,” said Alice Kaufman, policy and advocacy director of Green Foothills. “Her work has really been instrumental in moving forward the open space protections that are so important.”

    Andrea Mackenzie, general manager for Open Space Authority, said Chapman brings a sense of fairness, equity and community to board discussions.

    “I’m extremely grateful for the strong leadership she brings to our board,” she said. “Helen is a consummate professional. She brings a lot of passion and dedication to everything she does, in particular improving the health of the environment and communities.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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