Environmentalists Retreat on Coyote Highlands Hillside Carve-up Plan

The 567-acre Coyote Highlands project goes before the County Planning Commission at its 1:30 p.m. meeting today. The proposed subdivision would add 25 homes to an area that is considered historically significant and environmentally sensitive, prone to such natural hazards as earthquakes and landslides. The properties contain watersheds and wetlands, and the new homes will be able to be seen from the valley floor. There’s been almost no public discussion of the Coyote Highlands plan by San Martin developer Collier Buffington.

The project lies between Highway 101 and Henry Coe State Park, south of the Anderson Reservoir and east of Morgan Hill. The area is a mating ground for bats and home to a golden eagle nest. Burrowing owls nest on the properties. Numerous critters scramble about the lands: raccoons, skunks, badgers and ’possums, as well as larger mammals like black tailed deer, mountain lions and bobcats. Seventy-two mature oak trees would be removed to make way for the luxury homes, according to documents filed with the county.

Three environmental groups are tracking the project: he Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, the Committee for Green Foothills and the Greenbelt Alliance. The coalition, however, has adopted a pragmatic strategy of trying to reduce the development’s size and mitigate its impacts, rather than stop it altogether.

The Greenbelt Alliance initially suggested reducing the project’s scope from 25 to 19 homes. Today, it signed a letter saying it would accept 21.

“In general, the Greenbelt Alliance does not support development of the region’s hillsides, greenbelts and working farms. In the case of Coyote Highlands, while we recognize there is rural residential and suburban development adjacent to the proposed project, we lament the possibility of South Santa Clara County’s foothills resembling the foothills in San Mateo County along the El Camino Real corridor. Specific concerns relate to impacts to the three creeks, Fisher, Corralitos and Foothill, as well as impacts to wildlife crossings and viewsheds from the valley floor.” Greenbelt Alliance’s Michele Beasley wrote the county on January 16, 2013.

“Additional concerns relate to stretching County services even further, such as in the case of emergencies like fire or earthquake,” Beasley added, while calling for dropping six of the homes. Taxpayers in other areas often foot the bill for public services delivered to hillside residents, which are more expensive to reach.

In today’s letter, the three groups noted, “We believe that the project, despite the proposed mitigations, may impose significant and adverse impacts.” Particular concern was expressed over the “relatively undisturbed natural resources of the … three tributaries that form the headwaters of Llagas Creek.” A proposed access road would destroy .72 acres of riparian habitat —trees, bushes and grasses that support wildlife — that surround the creeks.

Santa Clara Valley Water District Associate Engineer Yvonne Arroyo says the developer’s written response to the Environmental Impact Report was incomplete. “They didn’t say how they would comply with the riparian setback,” Arroyo told San Jose Inside. She worries that some of the roads may be too close to the creeks and that the plans aren’t clear.

The Audobon Society wrote that the construction of 25 residences… will likely increase bird mortality,” however it was unlikely to endanger any species.

The area was known as Kellogg Springs following its 1913 acquisition by Charles Kellogg, who operated it until his death in 1949. According to San Jose historian Franklin Maggi, Kellogg was an internationally known recording artist and performer who could replicate the sound of birds with his vocal chords. A naturalist and conservationist, he was credited by a peer as “the man who saved the redwoods.” The ranch was later purchased by Gertrude Strong Achilles and known as Fountain Oaks.

Monterey County has specific guidelines for projects that affect that county’s scenic backdrop. “Ridgeline development means development on the crest of a hill which has the potential to create a silhouette or other substantially adverse impact when viewed from a common public viewing area,” the county’s zoning ordinance specifies.

The City of Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County passed the Santa Clarita Ridgeline Preservation Ordinance in 1992 to preserve its hillsides.  Other Southern California cities that have undertaken ridge line protection initiatives include Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano and Yucaipa, which keeps housing pads at least 50 feet below the top elevation on a ridge.

Santa Clara County planning staff is recommending approval of the project, which will rezone the hillside lands for residential construction.

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