Santa Clara County shut down a local, privately-owned park in 2019 over a number of land use and permit violations. The property owner is now claiming county officials are delaying and stonewalling his efforts to fix these issues.
For several years, South Bay resident Keith (Kiet) Ngo watched thousands of people from all over the world flock to his park in Milpitas to hike, gather and share a meal together every weekend.
It has been his dream to open a public space where the Vietnamese diaspora could find peace within nature and celebrate its rich culture and history. In 2014, that vision came to life when he bought 360 acres of land by Ed R. Levin County Park and Spring Valley Golf Course. He invested millions of dollars into the park and named it The Dragon Mountain, or Thiên Long Sơn.
“We have many residents come up here for lunch or after work. On the weekends, some stay for the whole day,” Ngo told San José Spotlight in Vietnamese. “Not only Vietnamese people, but people from all walks of life come up here.”
People describe Ngo’s park as “a hidden gem” and “a sight to behold” in their online reviews, mesmerized by the serene hiking trail overlooking Silicon Valley and the many statues of religious figures in Buddhism, Catholicism and Vietnamese history.
On a gloomy October afternoon, standing amongst statues of Vietnamese heroic figures and goddesses, Ngo questioned whether his property would ever see another visitor again. It has been closed to the public for the past two years and county officials are dragging their feet.
In early 2019, Santa Clara County officials ordered Ngo to shut down The Dragon Mountain, citing dozens of building and land use violations such as lacking permits to build a driveway and alter structures. The county cut the property’s electricity and is fining him at least $1,000 each day for the violations, Ngo said.
Ngo claims the county is stonewalling him as he tries to fix the citations. Ngo has hired consultant firms and lawyers to work with the county on an abatement plan and obtain the required permits, but after two years, little progress has been made.
“When we asked to meet, they wouldn’t even respond,” he said. “When we came up with an abatement plan, they came back with even more issues. I don’t know what to do.”
County officials with the parks and planning departments declined comment, citing pending enforcement actions. County Executive Jeff Smith did not respond to an inquiry about the case.
Supervisor Otto Lee, who represents the district where The Dragon Mountain is located, said he doesn’t know about the park—nor the issue that Ngo is facing.
“I’ll look into this,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “But generally I expect the county to allow property owners one chance or two chances to fix the issues before shutting down a place.”
A long list of issues
According to Santa Clara County documents, the county counsel alerted Ngo about the land use and permit violations at his park in 2018. County officials said the park had no permits to operate, build and alter structures and do grading work.
A letter from June 2019 cited even more violations—including serving food, installing the wrong type of doors, lacking exit signs and adding walls and roofs to existing structures, among other things.
Ngo said some of the citations are frivolous and the county has been difficult from the beginning. After he bought the property in 2014, he started constructing a 800-foot driveway to replace the dirt road that posed erosion issues. The park was only open to Ngo’s friends and family at the time, he said.
County records show The Dragon Mountain was slapped with a grading violation in June 2015—and again in July 2017. The documents did not show any resolutions.
When his team applied for a construction permit in August 2015, the county did not grant the permit, records show. The county did not update the application until it conducted an inspection in 2019.
Ngo also applied for a permit to allow public use in 2018. He said his applications kept getting delayed or sidetracked. Ngo allowed people into his park anyway. He also built a bathroom and upgraded several small structures on the property.
Since Santa Clara County closed The Dragon Mountain in 2019, Ngo said county officials offered little guidance and direction to remedy his violations. The county has only met with his team once in July 2019, Ngo said.
After the meeting, Ngo’s consultant team, JMH Weiss, submitted a plan to address violations and update its permits in June 2020, county documents show. But three months later, the county came back with a list of 77 more questions and requirements for environmental studies that were not previously mentioned.
“I don’t understand why they didn’t specify these in the first place,” Ngo said. “There’s always something else.”
A new and more detailed abatement plan was submitted in June, records show. Ngo said he has not heard from the county since.
A refugee at age 9, Ngo said it’s important for the Vietnamese community to be proud of its legacy in the U.S.
“This is not about me—this is for our community,” Ngo said. “I’m not asking for donations, or any political support. I want a place where people could come be with nature and find tranquility.”
As Ngo continues to fight Santa Clara County to reopen The Dragon Mountain, the park that once hosted thousands during Vietnamese Lunar New Year and Autumn Festival sits empty.
Dozens of online questions continue to pour in, “has this reopened yet?”
“Everyday, I’d get people asking,” Ngo said. “‘We all want to see this up and running again. When that will be?’ I don’t know. The ball is in the county’s court.”
Residents and community members who used to plan their entire weekend to visit The Dragon Mountain still think of the park with fond memories.
“Every Sunday, there would be hundreds of people who come up there to picnic,” San Jose resident Tanya Tran told San José Spotlight. “It was so beautiful and it’s a great place to be for your mental health.”