San Jose council debates Coyote Valley with developers, environmentalists

Coyote Valley – the 7,000 acres of mostly undeveloped land in south San Jose – has been a topic of contention for city planners for decades. And it was no different at Tuesday’s San Jose City Council study session.

City Manager David Sykes called the issue a “balancing act” as councilmembers looked toward experts to try and decide how to spend Measure T funds in the area. Last August, the City Council placed Measure T – a $650 million bond for disaster preparedness, public safety and infrastructure – on the Nov. 2018 ballot for voter approval

A month later, city staff presented a plan to use $50 million of those funds for environmental protection in areas like Coyote Valley. But before any decisions are set in stone, the council – led by District 10 Councilmember Johnny Khamis – asked to hear from environmentalists, landowners and developers about possible economic development.

The Envision San José 2040 General Plan, adopted in 2011, designated part of North Coyote Valley for industrial use with the possibility of accommodating 35,000 new jobs. And according to Chris Burton, the deputy director for the office of economic development, that land could provide an “opportunity for a full-range of employment” for residents.

“When we think about the importance of industrial land, it’s really about access to employment,” Burton said.

With less than a mere 8,000 acres of industrial land left in San Jose, the North Coyote Valley area could provide industrial work opportunities for those without college degrees, Burton noted.

But environmentalists asked lawmakers to consider the impact of something that some San Jose residents are all too familiar with: flooding. In Feb. 2017, 14,000 residents in the Rock Springs and Olinder Park areas were forced from their homes as water spilled over from Coyote Creek.

Andy Collison, a consultant for the Open Space Authority, said that although some of the waterways in the valley — like the Laguna Seca — have been modified or drained over the years, they protect San Jose residents from flooding. And if the council allows development in certain areas in the valley, Collison said, “that water has to go somewhere” and infrastructure, like levees, would need to be built and maintained.

But the environmentalist panel wasn’t the only group advocating for the protection of the area. Dozens of residents carrying “Protect Coyote Valley” signs rallied outside of City Hall prior to meeting asking for the full $50 million to go toward the conservation of the area.

“The city of San Jose needs to champion Coyote Valley for its environmental and recreational values that it provides to San Jose,” said Megan Fluke, director of the Committee for Green Foothills.

Councilmember Sergio Jimenez – whose district includes Coyote Valley – voiced support for protecting the land.

“The reality of the situation is if the developers have money, they have lobbyists, they have consultants, they even have attorneys,” Jimenez said. “But now if you think about it, who does the land have? … It’s up to us to lift up the importance of Coyote Valley for all to see, for all to appreciate.”

Jimenez acknowledged that the area has been in the “crosshairs of development for years.” And Helen Chapman, who currently works on Jimenez’s staff, knows that all too well.

While debate over Coyote Valley dates back to the 1960s, one of its more recent surges occured in 2002 when the council created a 20-member task force for a Coyote Valley Specific Plan.

According to city documents, the plan was meant to guide the possible development of 50,000 new jobs and 25,000 housing units in the north and mid-Coyote Valley areas, while preserving South Coyote Valley.

Chapman, who was a Parks and Recreation Commissioner and a part of the task force at the time, said the plan worked for around seven years. But when the housing market started to crumble as it neared 2008, so did the plan.

“Toward the end it was becoming very clear that in the environmental review there was significant concern about the cost of infrastructure,” Chapman said.

The Coyote Housing Group, which funded potential development in Coyote Valley, pulled out and that was the end for the time being. But for Champan, not all of that time and knowledge was lost.

“It’s exciting because I think there’s an opportunity to use the land for what it naturally should be afor,” she said. “Now time has passed and you got more of the science that backs up the reasoning. It made the time spent on the task force worthwhile because the information is still relevant today.”

Contact Grace Hase at grace@sanjosespotlight.com or follow her @grace_hase on Twitter.

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