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Coyote Valley, a sweeping expanse of farmland and scenic open space between San Jose and Morgan Hill, has been at the center of huge development battles with some of Silicon Valley’s legendary companies over the past 40 years. And now it’s gearing up for another fight — on a much smaller scale.
The new showdown, over a stately family compound proposed for a 4.6-acre lot flanked by farm fields and open space preserves, highlights a long-running debate in California over how to balance wildlife and land preservation with concerns about housing and private property rights.
Environmental groups fought back plans by Apple and Cisco in the 1980s and 1990s to build corporate headquarters in Coyote Valley. Proposals for giant warehouses and distribution centers have risen and fallen. But the latest standoff could mark one of the rare times that the county chooses to use eminent domain to force a sale of private property to preserve open space.
Two years ago, Edgar Andrade, a 33-year-old Morgan Hill man, bought five acres of vacant land in the middle of the protected valley. He and his wife, Suleyma, submitted plans to Santa Clara County to build a two-story, 8,465-square-foot house at the corner of Santa Teresa Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. The surrounding landscape is dominated by orchards, row crops and cattle-grazing pastures.
Andrade, who runs a successful heating and air conditioning business, grew up in an apartment in East San Jose. He said he wants to build a place in the country where his two daughters, ages 7 and 8, and his 9-month-old baby son can grow up.
“I wanted them to feel like they had the vastness of a big yard,” he said. “When I grew up we didn’t even have a yard.”
But the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, a government agency based in San Jose, says the property isn’t just any lot. The huge proposed house — roughly four times the size of a typical suburban home — would ruin the character of the area, they say.
“Nobody would allow a two-story mansion to be built in the middle of Golden Gate Park,” said Andrea Mackenzie, the authority’s general manager.
The project includes a 3,100-square-foot garage, a 2,100-square-foot secondary home, three water tanks and a 12-foot wide driveway, all to be built on prime farmland.
Over the past decade, the open space agency, along with the state, the city of San Jose, Santa Clara County and private land trusts, has invested $120 million to protect more than 1,500 acres of land surrounding the property. Their goal: to preserve farming, create wildlife corridors between the Diablo Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains, and to maintain an undeveloped valley in the Bay Area’s most populous county where floodwaters can be spread out to soak into the ground, reducing the risk of flooding in San Jose and other nearby communities.
“This enormous compound is an ill-placed development proposal that puts public investment at risk,” Mackenzie said. “And it is wholly incompatible with public sentiment and conservation values that have come to the fore here.”
The agency has tried to buy the property for the past 19 months. Andrade has refused to sell. He paid $800,000 for it; the agency is offering $900,000 plus $50,000 for his expenses. He says he doesn’t want to sell, although on Thursday he told the Bay Area News Group he might be willing to build two much smaller houses there.
In September, the open space agency’s board voted 7-0 to begin an eminent domain process to take the land from the Andrades and have a court decide the fair market value it should pay them.
It is the first time in the 30-year history of the open space agency, which is funded by a $24 annual parcel tax approved by voters, that it has used eminent domain, a practice commonly used in highway and flood control projects. Under state and federal law, the government can take private property against the owner’s wishes but must pay the fair market value, as determined by a court.
The Andrades have appealed to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to decide the case on Tuesday.
Andrade said his property is less than 1% of the 1,500 acres of surrounding farmland and open space.
“I’m not a developer. I’m not going to build a plaza or a hotel,” he said. “I just want a home. What difference does it make if I build my family a home here? There are golf courses near here. There are custom homes nearby. What they are doing is unfair.”
Complicating the issue is the fact that Santa Clara County supervisors voted two years ago to put in place new zoning rules for Coyote Valley that require new buildings constructed on any property larger than 5 acres to support a farming operation, like farmworker housing, a barn or a farmer’s home.
A few months after that change, Andrade donated half an acre of his property to the county roads department. That reduced its size to 4.6 acres, allowing him to avoid the zoning rules.
There is some history of eminent domain being used for land preservation.
In 1972, Santa Clara County used eminent domain to acquire 458 acres for Sanborn-Skyline Park. The East Bay Regional Park District has used eminent domain several times over the past 20 years to expand Point Pinole, Brushy Peak and McLaughlin Eastshore parks.
National parks, including Redwood, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah, were established in part with land the government acquired through eminent domain.
But it is still rare for local parks and open space districts to use, said Daniel Press, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University and a professor of environmental studies.
“It’s not the way they usually like to do things,” he said. “They prefer no drama. They operate with voluntary sellers to keep goodwill.”
In 1998, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District generated a major controversy when it threatened to use eminent domain to purchase the property of a convent of Russian Orthodox nuns along Skyline Boulevard in San Mateo County after the group had proposed to build 18,000 square feet of new buildings and parking lots. The district compromised with the convent on a smaller plan and bought the property two years later when the convent put it up for sale.
Environmental groups support eminent domain on the Coyote Valley property.
“As we face the imminent and growing need to address climate change impacts, the last thing we should be doing is paving over our open space, particularly in the middle of a critical wildlife corridor and prime farmland area like Coyote Valley,” said Alice Kaufman, policy and advocacy director for Green Foothills, a Palo Alto Group.
On Thursday, Santa Clara County Counsel Tony LoPresti recommended the board of supervisors deny Andrade’s appeal.
“Personally I like what they are doing to preserve land,” Andrade said of the open space agency. “But I disagree with how they are using their powers.”
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