About one year after the San Jose City Council took action to shield more than 300 acres of Coyote Valley land from development of massive distribution warehouses, several landowners are now proposing a major energy facility.
Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed represents a group of three property owners pushing early plans to accommodate an electricity transmission facility or storage system on approximately 128 acres.
The preliminary proposal could pit the city and state’s goals of achieving a carbon neutral power supply against ongoing work to preserve open space for wildlife, flood control and water supply safety.
Environmental groups are raising alarms over the potential project.
Alice Kaufman, a policy and advocacy director of preservation group Green Foothills, said the city council’s action in 2021 to rezone a large swath of Coyote Valley from industrial to agricultural made it clear major development isn’t welcome.
“What these landowners are doing is asking the city to roll back the environmental protections they just put in place a year ago,” Kaufman told San José Spotlight, adding “green energy” is a good idea but not in Coyote Valley.
Reed says the landowners are simply doing what they can to maximize the value of their land under the constraints placed on it by the city.
“The warehouse project went poof when the agricultural zoning was approved,” Reed told San José Spotlight.
The state is currently holding a bidding process for developers to determine who will build a high voltage power transmission line to connect into the PG&E Metcalf Substation in San Jose near Coyote Valley.
Reed said the landowners are responding to the needs for that kind of project.
“What they’re trying to do is within the scope of what the city and state have said they want to have done with energy,” he said.
The agricultural zoning designation of the land could allow for a power facility with a special permit from the city, Reed said. But he also submitted a request for a preliminary review to the city’s planning department, aimed at getting the city’s input on the potential rezoning of the land to a “planned development” designation.
Michael Brilliot, the city’s deputy director of planning, said the city has not yet seen any detailed proposals and still has questions. In general, he said energy facilities don’t typically fit with land designated for agricultural use, and go against the council’s previous action.
“If there was a proposal to build most if not all of the site with some big utility, that’s not really consistent with the vision for Coyote Valley,” Brilliot told San José Spotlight.
What could happen next?
The city may ultimately not have a decisive say on the project. Under a California law passed earlier this year, AB 205, new major non-fossil fuel energy facilities can also be considered for approval by the state’s energy commission.
The law requires the state “consult” with local authorities like the city, but Reed said the group is still not sure which avenue they will pursue.
Brian Schmidt, another policy and advocacy director with Green Foothills, thinks the state will take San Jose’s input into consideration.
Because the city has done good work with its in-house electricity company, San Jose Clean Energy, there’s no reason for the energy commission to overrule the city’s views on where green energy facilities should be placed, he said.
The energy facility proposal comes against a backdrop of a lawsuit the landowners—the Benson, Lester and Foster families—have pending against the city. The group sued San Jose earlier this year over the rezoning, arguing it devalued the land unfairly.
The suit also demands the city buy the land for fair market value, as it did in conjunction with preservation groups in 2019, when it helped purchase 937 acres of neighboring Coyote Valley land settling at $96 million.
Schmidt questioned whether the new development proposal is just a negotiating tactic to put pressure on the city to buy up the land.
“We need to react as if something might happen,” he said.
Attorney Edward Burg, representing the families in the lawsuit, said it’s not a negotiation tactic, and it offers a winning compromise for the city and the landowners.
“My clients, the property owners, would have their rights protected and realize some value in the property they’ve held for many many decades,” Burg told San Jose Spotlight. “And the city can take steps toward meeting their clean energy goals and carbon neutrality goals.”
Kaufman, of Green Foothills, doesn’t see it that way.
“Putting this kind of development in Coyote Valley is taking a step back on the very climate resilience goals that green energy facilities are trying to move forward,” she said. “If we destroy our open space, then we are taking a step back on achieving our climate goals.”