Until exposed by citizens in 2018, the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department had conducted a covert four year scheme to destroy 90 acres of Sanborn County Park. Why? To construct revenue-generating bike jumps, barriers and ramps that would put the department’s imprimatur on the most dangerous form of mountain biking. All to generate cash for undisclosed future projects.
The development conflicted with the department’s advocacy of health and safety. It also apparently violated the county’s general plan, its official blueprint for future growth. But with parks department encouragement, REI, Inc., the mountain bike retailer, avoiding publicity, cut a check to local bikers to prepare the initial concept.
Thanks to public opposition, the county Board of Supervisors stopped the project and will finalize that decision sometime this spring when it approves the final master plan for Sanborn Park. Arguably, it should also condemn the parks department for conducting business in secret and encouraging undisclosed corporate influence in local governance.
Documentation acquired through the California Public Records Act revealed how park department decision-makers attempted to persuade Apple, Google, and Yahoo! to help pay the estimated $3.5 million for completing the project. In keeping with the agency’s pattern of secrecy, the parks department never explained why it would not maintain control over the project by instead spending taxpayer money to build the facility.
Reluctance to do so might be related to a lack of demand for replacing parkland with dangerous downhill biking. The department’s own data indicates that the park system’s 160 miles of trails open to bikes are popular with only 1 percent of visitors. So, why destroy a sensitive ecosystem for bike thrills?
Observers believe the parks department justified the scheme by expecting many of the estimated 1,500 revenue-generating daily users to come from throughout northern California. Why part of a county park would become a state-wide attraction was never explained and the potential effects never explored. Apparently unsure how to rationalize the resulting negative impact on local infrastructure, the department appears to have ignored park policy to review such proposals with agencies responsible for traffic, law enforcement and wildfire, all of which remained ignorant of the project.
All the public heard when asked if something was up at the proposed site was a false denial that park personnel had been assigned to implement the “bike park.”
Meanwhile, Annie Thomson, the Santa Clara County Parks Department’s principal planner asserted in an internal email, that though “in theory” environmental law will assess the proposed impacts, “[we are] working with the full intent of developing a bike park ... This is not a Feasibility Study to see if a bike park COULD work—it is to see how a bike park WILL work ... and we will not be going through … a full public input process … to determine the … appropriateness of developing a bike park there.”
In other words: the public be damned.
Some park visitors believe protection of the environment ought to be the department’s main concern. REI would like you to think that’s what it is doing, in 2018 having contributed more than $600,000 to public land across the country. Good corporate citizenship? Ask Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is now suing its City Council for voting to sell part of a park for a mall that would just so happen to be anchored by an REI store.
Equally revealing, REI testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in opposition to a federal tax on recreation gear which would be distributed to public lands. Obviously, REI prefers obsequious park managers receiving corporate checks on bended knee and perhaps industry insiders occupying positions in targeted public agencies. Ms. Thomson, hired not long after REI-funding of the proposed bike park, and recently promoted to interim deputy director, had been for six years employed in bike sales and instruction for REI.
Just a coincidence? Or was she engaged to help transform a public agency into one more corporatized, commercialized and whose accountability to citizens consequently compromised? We will never know without an investigation of Santa Clara County’s now-infamous bike park affair. I’m talking to you, Board of Supervisors.
John Miller is the author of Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape and a member of the Santa Cruz Mountains Environmental Protection Alliance. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].