The decade of the 1970s was pivotal for the Santa Clara Department of Parks and Recreation. Winds of political change blew through the county, as newly elected young leaders such as Rod Diridon, Janet Gray Hayes, Dan McCorquodale, and Susanne Wilson began to replace the old guard on the county board of supervisors and on the San Jose city council.
The largely unregulated growth that had plagued the county in the 1950s and 1960s—spurred by an aggressively expanding San Jose under the leadership of A. P. “Dutch” Hamann—was gradually brought under control. Both San Jose and the county adopted a series of measures to limit growth and preserve open space.
Give Us a Break
On March 9, 1970, an ad placed in the Wall Street Journal by the group Zero Population Growth, Inc., lambasted the county for allowing rampant development resulting in a host of ills, including overpopulation, smog, polluted water, and traffic jams. And in 1971, a report commissioned by the City of Palo Alto concluded that it would cost less to preserve the steep undeveloped hillsides of the Santa Cruz mountains as open space than it would to provide housing subdivisions there with city services.
Local changes mirrored the mood of the nation, which in the previous decade had begun to embrace the tenets of environmentalism, thanks in part to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, the work of grassroots organizations such as the Sierra Club, and vivid media images of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
On April 22, 1970, approximately 20 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw passage of many important pieces of national and state environmental legislation, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the federal Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts.
In the 1970s, local environmentalists in California turned to the state’s initiative and referendum processes to challenge unregulated growth, placing measures on city and county ballots to restrict urban sprawl and preserve open space. By the mid-1970s, silicon chips had replaced fruit as Santa Clara County’s most lucrative export. Silicon Valley had emerged as the world epicenter of computers and electronics.
The First Park Charter Fund Amendment: A Stable Source of Funding
The county parks and recreation department began the decade searching for a stable source of funding for parkland acquisition and development, following the defeat in 1969 of a $15.3 million bond measure.
In June 1972, county voters approved Measure C, the Park Charter Fund Amendment, which reserved a small percentage of the general fund exclusively to buy and develop new parks.
Voters that year also approved creation of the Midpeninsula Regional Park District, which became a highly successful partner with the county parks and recreation department in preserving and protecting open space.
The county parks department began hiring its own planners, who now performed duties formerly handled by the county planning department. But the county planning department remained an advocate for countywide outdoor recreation during the decade, issuing about 20 documents concerning parks, open space, and trails.
Notable among these was “A Plan of Regional Parks for Santa Clara County,” which helped provide the factual ammunition needed to pass the first Park Charter Fund Amendment.
In 1973, the department moved swiftly to acquire about 3,600 acres in the Almaden Hills—at a cost of $3.5 million—from a mining and chemical company that was about to auction off the land. This rolling tract, with its rich history, soon became Almaden Quicksilver County Park. It opened to the public in 1975.
For a short while, Almaden Quicksilver was the largest park in the county system, until it was topped by Joseph D. Grant County Park, a 9,500-acre tract in the Diablo Range, acquired in 1975 for about $3.5 million.
In 1975, the county board of supervisors approved a five-year, $26 million program for acquiring and developing more county parks, including purchase of the Grant Ranch.
Also in the mix were county participation in a shoreline park for Mountain View; expansion at Ed R. Levin, Sanborn-Skyline, and Santa Teresa county parks; additional purchases along Coyote Creek and at Sunnyvale Baylands; improvements to the Alviso Marina; and allocation of $2 million to San Jose to buy land on Lake Cunningham.
In the fall of 1975, Supervisor Dan McCorquodale spoke up for a valley floor park along Penitencia Creek in East San Jose, extending from Alum Rock Park to Coyote Creek. McCorquodale had conditioned his support of the Grant Ranch purchase to a commitment from the board to allocate an equal amount for a Penitencia Creek park.
The board’s action on Grant Ranch and Penitencia Creek unleashed a flood of requests from the county’s urban areas for their own parks.
The City of Cupertino asked the county to buy property near Interstate 280 and Foothill Boulevard, which was owned by the San Francisco Catholic Diocese. The property, adjacent to St. Joseph’s and Maryknoll seminaries and the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, bordered the Perham Ranch, which the Midpeninsula Regional Park District had recently acquired. Together, these two properties formed the nucleus of what eventually became Rancho San Antonio County Park.
Changing of the Guard
In 1976, Howard Campen, the county’s longest-serving executive, retired. He was succeeded by Bill Siegel, who served until 1981. Campen, who in 1957 had hired the park department’s first director, Bob Amyx, remained a staunch supporter of parks throughout his career.
Amyx retired in 1977 at age 64, having overseen the creation of the county’s modern-day park system. Dave Christy, who had been deputy department director under Amyx, was soon hired as the department’s director.
By the end of the year, Christy had proposed spending $11.6 million before the end of the next fiscal year—June 30, 1978—on park projects along the Mountain View and Sunnyvale shorelines, landscaping at the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor, and preliminary development of the recently purchased Rancho San Antonio County Park.
Between 1972 and 1977, more than 17,000 acres of parkland had been acquired, with a price tag of about $20.5 million, including Calero, Penitencia Creek, and Rancho San Antonio county parks. Total size of the county parks stood at around 30,000 acres at the end of 1977—a year that, coincidently, saw the county’s population grow by 3 percent, the largest increase since 1971, and a figure not matched since.
Proposition 13 Puts the Brakes on Spending
California voters in 1978 passed Proposition 13, the property-tax limitation initiative. It drastically impacted funding for many public agencies. Reduced budgets, combined with a sense that the parks and recreation department did not have the money to maintain the parks it was so rapidly acquiring, prompted the board of supervisors to place Measure A, an amendment to the Park Charter Fund, on the November 7, 1978, ballot.
The amendment kept the original allocation for acquisition at a minimum of 50 percent, but allowed up to 30 percent to be spent on park operations and maintenance. The amendment also added five years to the life of the original Park Charter Fund.
In 1979, Californians approved Proposition 4, which confined both state and local budgets to certain limits. But there were no limits placed on population growth or the citizens’ appetite for government services. As the decade ended, the population of Santa Clara County had reached about 1.3 million, up from about a little more than 1 million in 1970.
The unparalleled success of Silicon Valley was part of a boom-and-bust cycle that is woven into the fabric of California history.
In the early 1980s, construction for industry and housing in Santa Clara County reached a fever pitch. The developable land between Gilroy and Freemont was being gobbled up. Real estate prices skyrocketed, especially for commercial and industrial property in Silicon Valley. Rental rates and home prices soared.
In an effort to accommodate a swollen population in demand of city services, San Jose took on massive debt. Its school system ran out of money—the first U.S. school system to go bankrupt since World War II.
Many Silicon Valley companies owned their success to highly skilled, well-educated workers attracted to the quality of life in Santa Clara County. But would they keep coming to a region where air pollution often marred the blue skies and obstructed views of the surrounding hills, and driving to work on snarled freeways hardly matched the iconic image of California’s wide open roads?
A Shift to the Right
Mirroring a national trend brought on by the Reagan Revolution in Washington, D.C., California’s political climate shifted to the right with the election of Governor George Deukmejian in 1982.
The new governor faced a budget crisis from the day he was sworn into office. By stepping in to pay the bills when local governments, hampered by Proposition 13, ran out of money, the state had eventually eaten through the budget surplus it had accumulated during the 1970s. California was nearly broke. Deukmejian froze state hiring and cut spending for education. Gradually, revenues rose, and California began to recover.
But on the national scene, runaway inflation prompted the Federal Reserve to tighten the money supply and raise interest rates, ushering in dual recessions in 1980 and 1981 that hampered California’s recovery. By the mid-1980s, bank failures had become commonplace, as the savings-and-loan crisis swept the country.
Large banks were not immune from the contagion. Crocker National Bank, a venerable San Francisco institution, fell on hard times and was acquired by Wells Fargo Bank in 1986. The troubled financial picture apparently didn’t faze developers in San Jose, where international investors were bidding up the price of prime real estate—from $70 per square foot in 1982 to almost $200 per square foot in 1987.
Slow Growth and the Park Charter Fund Renewals
By 1982, the first slow-growth movement of the 1960s and 1970s had ended. The mid-1980s saw a second slow-growth era, when local environmentalists turned increasingly to the initiative and referendum process to curtail development and urban sprawl.
In 1986, for example, 45 slow-growth ballot measures appeared on ballots around the state. The slow-growth movement generated push back from some Santa Clara County administrators, who hoped to convince the county supervisors to allow revenue-generating projects such as hotels, resorts, and restaurants in the county parks, along with expanded recreational facilities such as more golf courses and boating facilities.
Some of the county parks targeted included Sunnyvale Baylands, which already had a large softball facility; Alviso Marina; the shorelines of Anderson, Calero, Coyote, and Lexington reservoirs; and Joseph D. Grant County Park. “We need more revenue, and with the parks we have a way to generate it,” said Assistant County Executive John Maltbie.
Others were not so sure this change of priorities would be a good idea. Linda Elkind of the Committee for Green Foothills questioned whether it would be appropriate to use public land for private gain. “These parks have regional recreational significance. To cater to speculative financial interests does not serve the public,” she said.
In 1986, voters in Santa Clara County approved Measure A, placed on the November ballot by the board of supervisors, which extended the Park Charter Fund for two years (fiscal years 1988–1989) but reduced the set-aside amount. The allocation formula was also changed, with a maximum of 20 percent to go toward parkland acquisition, and the remaining share to pay for development, operations, and maintenance in the county parks.
Also in 1986, voters approved Proposition 62, which had the effect of making it harder for local jurisdictions to increase revenues through taxation.
The 1980s also saw an increased interest among parks and open space advocates in protecting wildlife and preserving habitats and ecosystems. This was reflected in several state ballot measures, including the Fish and Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Act of 1984, and the Wildlife, Coastal, and Park Land Conservation Bond Act (1988). The 1988 bond act, worth $776 million, passed thanks to support from urban counties such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Clara.
Santa Clara County was slated to receive about $8.6 million from the bond sale, plus millions more to fund land acquisitions and improvements in Henry W. Coe State Park, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, and the San Francisco Bay wetlands. In November 1988, Santa Clara County voters went back to the polls to approve Measure B, a four-year extension of the Park Charter Fund for fiscal years 1990–1993.
Creation of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority
In 1987, the county’s Preservation 2020 Task Force recommended the creation of a Santa Clara County open space district to complement the work of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in preserving the county’s remaining open space.
In April 1988, the county board of supervisors voted to support the concept of creating such a district. The San Jose City Council also voted its support. The proposal to form the new district was drafted by county supervisors Dianne McKenna and Susanne Wilson, San Jose City Council members Judy Stabile and Shirley Lewis, and members of environmental groups such as the Committee for Green Foothills and People for Open Space.
McKenna said there was a perception among some landowners in the southern part of Santa Clara County that MROSD would try to annex into their area. “I think there was always a little bit of what I might call a paranoia about Midpen,” she said. “So rather than promote Midpen moving in further south, we thought the best thing to do would be promote their own district.”
At the time, the county parks and recreation department was spending most of its Park Charter Fund money on development, operations, and maintenance, and not on acquisition. The new district, it was hoped, would be able to take up some of the slack. According to Kathryn Berry, the goal of the new district was to purchase large pieces of property in the county’s eastern foothills and in the Diablo Range, areas outside of MROSD’s jurisdiction.
Some park supporters, however, were concerned that the creation of a new district might spell the end of the county park’s land-acquisition program, something McKenna emphatically denied.
Ultimately, county parks, MROSD, and the Peninsula Open Space Trust all banded together to help launch the new district. However, it would take until 1992 for the required enabling legislation to reach California Governor Pete Wilson’s desk, and until 1999—thanks to a four-year legal battle over funding—for the fledgling Santa Clara County Open Space Authority to make its first land purchase.
Spend, Baby, Spend
On August 30, 1989, the county board of supervisors dipped its hand into the Park Charter Fund and withdrew $14 million for the Guadalupe River Park in downtown San Jose. Parks and recreation director Gaynor had offered no more than $2.6 million for the urban park, wanting instead to spend the money for other projects identified in the county’s master plan for parks.
Supervisor Ron Gonzales, the swing vote on the board, decided to support the $14 million deal if the rest of the board agreed to spend $1.8 million for improvements to Sunnyvale-Baylands County Park in his district. Gonzales also suggested adding $500,000 to the $1 million already allocated for land acquisition to create Uvas Park in Supervisor Susanne Wilson’s district.
Wilson and Supervisor Dianne McKenna had previously wanted to give San Jose only $7.6 million for the Guadalupe River Park, but they both agreed to the Gonzales plan. Supervisors Rod Diridon and Zoe Lofgren had been in favor of the $14 million figure all along.
The new spirit of “spend, baby, spend,” reflected a determination on the part of park supporters on the board of supervisors, including Rod Diridon and Dianne McKenna, to shake loose money that had been accumulating in the Park Charter Fund and spend it while there was still available open space at a price the county could afford.
In addition, some in the environmental community had become critical in recent years of what they considered a disturbing shift in park priorities, away from acquisition and toward development, operations, and maintenance.
In the fall of 1989, county officials expressed a willingness to spend $30 million from the Park Charter Fund for parkland acquisition over the next five years, expanding on the $10 million priority acquisition list compiled in 1985 as part of the county park and recreation department’s first Capital Improvement Plan.
The years between 1972—when the first Park Charter Fund was approved—and 1986 saw an average yearly addition to the county park system of about 1,100 acres. Between 1986—when Gaynor became department director—and 1989, however, the yearly average dropped to a mere 100 acres, until the supervisors voted to invest $14 million of Park Charter Fund money in San Jose’s Guadalupe River Park.
Consequently, money in the fund earmarked for parkland acquisition languished while land prices soared and suitable properties were lost to development. For example, the properties targeted for acquisition in the park department’s 1985 Capital Improvement Plan were valued at about $14 million; the estimate for those same properties in 1989 was 32.8 million.
Barbara Green, chair of the county parks and recreation commission, was critical of the slow pace of parkland acquisition. “It’s cheated the taxpayers,” she said. Gaynor said the downturn in acquisitions was caused by the department’s not having sufficient legal and real-estate assistance from the county, and not from any reluctance to spend Park Charter Fund money.
Dave Christy served as department director from 1977 until 1982. He left to run the San Mateo county parks. Robert Sorensen, who worked in the Santa Clara County executive’s office and also for San Mateo County, said Christy was “adamant about the progress that could be made in the parks department.” He was dedicated to carrying out the program that Amyx and Campen had started.
Craig Britton, former general manager of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, described Christy as congenial and easy to work with. Others remember him as well spoken—an attractive man of medium height, a little stoop-shouldered, with a large face, light curly hair, and an “outdoorsy” look. Audrey Rust, director of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, said Christy was very committed to parks and personally enjoyed the outdoors.
Some fault Christy for not paying more attention to preserving historic resources within the county parks.
Kitty Monahan was a member of the county’s historic heritage commission in the 1970s, before joining the parks and recreation commission in the 1980s. An advocate for preserving the mining-era buildings in Almaden Quicksilver County Park, Monahan said Christy told her at a meeting that the structures would be preserved “over his dead body,” and that the goal of the park was recreation, not historic preservation.
Sure enough, the buildings—including a store, a schoolhouse, some barns, and a couple of miners’ cabins—were torn down soon after, she said.
After Dave Christy resigned as director of the county parks and recreation department, there were a number of interim directors, including Neil McPherson, who served for the last six months of 1982.
Following a nationwide search, Larry Norris was selected to lead the department. Tall and handsome, Norris was described by several people who worked with him as a “maverick” and a “cowboy” who loved the county parks and enjoyed horseback riding.
Norris was responsible for building the department’s current office at Vasona County Park; the former office was a small house overlooking Vasona Reservoir.
Norris was also a big supporter of historic preservation at Almaden Quicksilver County Park. He arranged for the county to purchase mining artifacts that had been collected by Constance Perham, who had operated the New Almaden Museum since 1949.
Norris resigned in 1985 under a cloud of suspicion after accepting a birthday gift of a $400 shotgun from Santa Clara developer Ray Collishaw and six other people. In 1983, Norris had helped Collishaw, a personal friend, win permission in a no-bid deal to build the Twin Creeks Sports Complex on 56 acres leased from the county in Sunnyvale Baylands County Park. After leaving the department, Norris went to work for Collishaw.
After another short interim period, Douglas Gaynor was hired as director in 1986 and served until 1992, when he left to become director of parks and recreation in Modesto.
Gaynor came from Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, where he oversaw the city’s parks and recreation program as director of special services. Gaynor developed a national reputation as a leader in parks and recreation, eventually becoming president of the National Recreation and Park Association in 1996. Some who worked with him described his managerial style as “military.”
Others credit Gaynor with professionalizing the department—which until his tenure had been a loose-knit organization of independent kingdoms, in the words of one person close to the department. This professionalism was even reflected in Gaynor’s style of dress—apparently he usually wore a jacket and tie, and his clothes were always spotless, even after a visit to one of the parks. Someone who knew Gaynor described him as “the man with the Brooks Brothers suits and the Gucci shoes.”
Gaynor was an active director who wanted to get things moving in terms of park operations and maintenance. This frustrated others, such as former county supervisor Dianne McKenna, who said she thought the money building up in the Park Charter Fund should be used to acquire more parkland. The last significant purchases of land for county parks had been made in 1977. Gaynor’s reluctance to expand the park system led some local wags to dub him the “James Watt of Santa Clara County,” in reference to Ronald Reagan’s conservative Secretary of the Interior.
Gaynor was focused on organizational development and creating master plans for existing parks. He refined the chain of command that had been in place since the Amyx era and provided opportunities for staff to advance their careers within the department.
Gaynor had to negotiate with the county executive, Sally Reed, on the changing role of park rangers and whether they should be allowed to carry guns. Reed wanted rangers to do less law enforcement. The department actually began contracting with the county sheriff to provide the “higher level” of enforcement within the county parks.
Rangers in 13 rural Santa Clara County parks began carrying guns in 1980, the first county-park rangers in the Bay Area to do so. Some long-time park employees said they believed the parks were safer places because of the policy, which had been narrowly approved by the county board of supervisors. The rangers were allowed to carry guns at night or when there was a “clear and present danger.”
Mylan Wasick, then senior ranger at Mount Madonna County Park, said disarming the park rangers would increase the danger to the general public and to the rangers themselves. “We are 40 minutes away from other law enforcement agencies, and a lot can happen in 40 minutes.”
Ray Garcia, then supervising ranger at Coyote-Hellyer County Park, said if criminals know the rangers are unarmed, they would be more likely to prey on park visitors. Rangers don’t want to be police officers, Garcia said, but explaining the park’s flora and fauna to park users requires a safe and secure environment.
However, county executive Reed said she would prefer to have park rangers concentrate on working with park users, and leave law enforcement to the appropriate agencies.
Gaynor was quoted as saying that a review of crime statistics showed that violence was not a major problem in the county parks. Gaynor also said that the duties of the county’s park rangers should not focus on law enforcement. Union representatives disputed Gaynor’s reading of the statistics, saying they did not include felonies such as rape or assault.
Ultimately, the board of supervisors on November 18, 1986, voted 4-1 to disarm the rangers, with supervisor Rod Diridon casting the only “no” vote. Law enforcement in the county parks was turned over to the county sheriff’s department.
The supervisors also voted for a $1 million program to hire 12 new sheriff’s deputies and nine new rangers to patrol the county parks, with the deputies in the parks full time from April to through September. About $800,000 of the $1 million would come out of the operations and maintenance allocation in the Park Charter Fund, Gaynor said.
Preservation 2020 Task Force
The seminal park document of the 1980s was the 1987 report of the Preservation 2020 Task Force, titled “Open Space Preservation: A Program for Santa Clara County.” The task force, which was established in 1985 by the county board of supervisors, was chaired by newly elected supervisor Dianne McKenna.
The task force also included representatives from the county planning commission, the county parks and recreation commission, the county farm bureau, and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, along with other citizens concerned with land use in the county.
The Importance of Open Space
The report stressed the importance of open space in providing a high quality of life in Santa Clara County. Open space serves many functions, the report said, including providing recreation areas, controlling urban sprawl, protecting scenic vistas, protecting watersheds, and preserving valuable natural areas and farmlands.
The report also found “significant threats” to the county’s open space lands not currently under some form of protection. Santa Clara County is “one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation,” the report said. “Future projections indicate this growth will continue well into the future. This growth will generate a great deal of pressure for development in existing open space areas.”
The report detailed a number of reasons why preserving open space was a good idea. The northern end of the Santa Clara Valley had seen a mad rush to urbanize during the preceding few decades. Now the pressure was spreading to the southern end, where the last vestiges of the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” could still be found in the ranches and agricultural fields. The costs of this rapid urbanization included worsening traffic jams and serious air and water pollution.
The success of Silicon Valley depended on attracting the best scientists and engineers to Santa Clara County, where housing costs had skyrocketed. People seemed willing to pay the price to be a part of this great technological adventure, provided they could also enjoy the area’s rich cultural and recreational resources. If these fell victim to development, would the valley’s high-tech companies still be able to attract a superior workforce? Some business leaders were worried.
McKenna said her goal in joining the 2020 Task Force was to help stop the momentum for development that had been building up in the county—although for political reasons she did not say so publicly at the time. She said the county already had policies in place to restrict growth to urban areas. However, with the downturn in the economy in the 1980s, McKenna noted there was pressure to allow more development, which would generate much needed revenue for the county.
In fact, Santa Clara ranked near the bottom of California’s 58 counties in terms of generating its own revenue. If the door to development was opened in the name of economic progress, McKenna said she feared it would not be long before the pro-development forces figured out how to permanently change the county’s urban development policies. So the challenge for the 2020 Task Force was to come up with recommendations that would strengthen open space protection in the county.
Task Force Recommendations
The task force made eight major recommendations in its report:
- Create a new open space district to complement the work of MROSD.
- Promote creation of a private, nonprofit land trust to help acquire open space lands from property owners.
- Establish priorities for parkland acquisition and open space preservation, based on thorough study of available county land.
- Increase cooperation between public agencies, including the county, its cities, and open space districts.
- Create a legally binding joint agreement—between the county and the cities of Morgan Hill and Gilroy—to establish permanent greenbelts on the Santa Clara Valley floor, between San Jose, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy.
- Focus hillside development—where allowed by zoning regulations—in clusters.
- Use development credits to shift development toward areas where it will not negatively impact open space goals. Developers purchase credits from landowners willing to preserve their property as open space.
- Transfer development away from the east side of Coyote Valley to foster establishment of a permanent greenbelt there.
At the time the report was prepared, there were 93,000 acres of public open space and parkland among the county’s 840,000 total acres of land. A majority of the county’s open space was in private hands and used for farming, ranching, mining, and timber harvesting. The rest was found within the county’s network of regional parks, MROSD’s system of open space preserves, Henry W. Coe State Park, and the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
The report raised a number of troubling questions. Would there be enough public open space and parkland to satisfy the growing demand for outdoor recreation? Would economic concerns hinder the ability of the county to acquire and preserve future open space? Could the agricultural heritage of the county, now confined mostly the southern part of the Santa Clara Valley, be maintained? Could development be kept out of the hillsides that formed the county’s scenic backdrop? “If we act now to safeguard our remaining open spaces, we help preserve our possibilities for a better future,” the report said.
The 2020 Preservation Task Force was highly critical of certain land-use policies that threatened the county’s open space.
For example, both San Jose and Gilroy had recently won approval from the county to expand their urban service areas. Between 1979 and the time the task force prepared its report, San Jose had expanded by nearly 5,000 acres, or 6 percent. Gilroy had expanded by more than 2,000 acres, or 51 percent.
Developers had been allowed to create “ranchette” style subdivisions, primarily in the Santa Clara Valley’s eastern foothills and in the southern part of the county. Subdivisions were also being created that sidestepped the normal subdivision process, either by gift deeds to qualified relatives, or by judicial partition in cases of divorce or the dissolution of a partnership.
“Gift deeds represent an unknown factor when trying to plan for the future,” the report stated. “There is no apparent way of knowing the cumulative impacts if their widespread use is allowed to occur.
Developers could seek “private amendments” to the county’s general plan, allowing them to build residential, commercial, or industrial projects that would not normally be allowed.
Between 1981 and 1986, 29 such private amendments to the general plan had been submitted to the county board of supervisors, more than half for development in the southern part of the county. The board approved 13.
In 1981 and again in 1982, the county board of supervisors approved two public amendments to the 1980 general plan. The first changed the “slope-density formula,” which is used to determine the minimum allowable lot size for building housing on the county’s hillsides. The second created an “East Foothills Area Policy,” which had the effect of lowering the normal 160-acre minimum lot size for residential development.
The task force frowned on both private and public amendments to the county’s general plan. “It is crucial that public officials involved in land use decisions in the county make a strong commitment to implement, monitor and enforce policies which preserve open space,” the report said.
Growing Demand for Open Space
The report noted the positive impact of outdoor recreation on the health and well-being of the community. A study by the California Parks and Recreation had projected a significant increase in the demand for such activities as hiking and nature appreciation. In fact, the study predicted that participation in these and other outdoor recreational activities would increase at a rate that was greater than the state’s population growth. Would there be enough outdoors to meet the growing demand?
The 2020 Task Force report pointed to Ranch San Antonio Open Space Preserve as an example of increased pressure on the county’s recreational areas. The year the report was researched, Rancho San Antonio logged about 100,000 visitors, approximately double the number of people who had visited just two or three years before. This increased usage was starting to cause detrimental impacts, such as parking problems, erosion, and trail deterioration.
Restricting Urban Growth and Safeguarding Resources
The report said one of the “most significant” objectives of open space preservation is restricting urban growth and giving shape to cities. Not only does open space—in the form of a greenbelt—prevent outward expansion of urban areas; open space increases community identity by providing easily recognized boundaries.
Safeguarding water resources is another function of open space. In Santa Clara County, one-third of water supplies are underground, with the rest stored in local reservoirs. Open space can help keep watersheds that drain into reservoirs free from development and thus maintain high water quality. Maintaining effective percolation areas, where water seeps back underground to recharge the aquifer, is also an important function of open space, the report said.
Open space is desirable because it can help prevent “premature urbanization” of lands currently used for agriculture, mining, timber harvesting, and other “productive uses.” Open space can also protect important historical and archeological resources, such as Native American sites or ranch homes from the 19th century. Historic preservation is often associated with civic pride and an increase in tourism, the report said.
California’s cycle of fires, floods, and earthquakes pose hazards to people living where these natural disasters are most apt to strike. Open space can create a safety buffer by preventing development in these areas. Preserving habitat for plants and animals and protecting rare, threatened, and endangered species are other functions open space can accomplish, the report said.
Santa Clara County needed to set priorities for acquiring open space, the report said. Proposition 13 had a “negative impact” on funding for parks and open space by reducing residential property taxes. At the same time, other traditional state and federal sources of money to buy parklands, such as the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, were also curtailed or significantly limited. Land costs had risen due to rapidly appreciating property values, and large parcels of land suitable for inclusion in the county’s regional park system were becoming more and more scarce.
Priorities for Parklands and Open Space
Although detailed recommendations on park acquisitions was the province of the county department of parks and recreation, the report did list and rank what the Preservation 2020 Task Force said were lands where “park acquisition is the most appropriate…tool for open space preservation.” The report listed 46 study areas for parks. Two areas were given the highest ranking for parkland acquisition, based on recreation value, access and location, vulnerability to development, and parcel size:
- The Bay Zone, including the San Francisco National Wildlife Refuge, neighboring wetlands, and the proposed Bay Trail.
- The Coyote Valley, including the Coyote Creek Park Chain.
Priorities for open space acquisition established by the task force were somewhat different from those for parkland acquisition, taking into account instead the resources to be protected, resource value, access and location, parcelization, vulnerability to development, and adjacency to other public lands. The report listed 42 study areas for open space. Using these criteria, the study identified the three top areas for open space acquisition:
- The area around Santa Teresa County Park, to protect the viewshed and to provide links with the Los Alamitos-Calero Park Chain and Almaden Quicksilver County Park.
- Lexington Reservoir and its environs, to provide the watershed, viewshed, and to provide a buffer with an area frequented by fires and traversed by the San Andreas Fault.
- Almaden Quicksilver County Park and the southern edge of San Jose, to protect the watershed and viewshed, to provide a buffer around urban areas, to facilitate continued recreation and historic preservation activities, and to provide links to Calero and Santa Teresa county parks.
15 Years of Progress
In the 15 years between passage of the Park Charter Fund in 1972 and the Preservation 2020 Task Force report of 1987, more than 23,000 acres of open space had been added to the network of county parks, bringing the total to around 36,000 acres.
The Charter Fund enabled the purchase of the two largest county parks, Joseph D. Grant and Almaden Quicksilver. Other county parks acquired since 1972 were Sunnyvale Baylands, Motorcycle, Field Sports, Calero, Penitencia Creek, and Rancho San Antonio. County parks that had been expanded since 1972 included Coyote Creek, Santa Teresa, Ed Levin, Uvas Canyon, and Stevens Creek.
Capital Improvement Plan
At the time of the Preservation 2020 Task Force report, about $40 million in unspent funds remained in the Parks Charter Fund. With help from an enlarged planning staff during the mid-1980s, the county department of parks and recreation produced a five-year capital improvement plan to provide a roadmap for future parkland acquisition and development.
The plan, which recommended spending more than $40 million over the next five years, was adopted by the county board of supervisors in June 1985. The six main goals of the plan were as follows:
- Upgrade existing park facilities to minimize future maintenance and operation expenses.
- Acquire small parcels (200 acres or less) to enhance existing parks and improve their boundaries.
- Develop projects to increase public use of the parks, generate more revenue, improve safety, and minimize operational costs.
- Provide infrastructure to make the parks more user friendly.
- Improve access to parks and trails; link parks where possible.
- Participate in joint projects with cities.
Out of the $40 million in proposed spending, $30 million was reserved for park development, including improvement or installation of irrigation systems, landscaping, access roads, parking facilities, restrooms, and showers.
The department began to do a lot of public outreach in the mid-1980s, especially in terms of its planning process. The public was invited to provide input as to what kinds of projects should be included in the five-year Capital Improvement Plan.
Department staff presented the capital improvement plan in a public workshop held by the county parks and recreation commission. After the presentation by staff, the commissioners made comments concerning the projects and their costs, and then requested staff to either add more projects or modify current ones.
Once the parks and recreation commission approved the CIP list, the document was presented to the county board of supervisors for approval. The board and their staff would weigh in, and again some of the projects in the CIP would need to be modified to address their concerns before the document received final approval. The CIP process took a lot of time from time of inception to Board approval. The first park-planning staff CIP took over six months to complete and receive approval.
Effect of Proposition 13
The passage of Proposition 13 by voters in June 1978 sent a temblor through California as unsettling as any earthquake. The measure, which passed by a two-to-one majority, changed the way local governments could raise money.
Before passage of Proposition 13, local agencies in California—cities, counties, school districts—relied on property taxes as their primary source of revenue. For example, public schools and libraries were financed through property taxes, as were local police and fire departments. Property taxes were based on the current assessed valuation of a home, and the rate could be raised to provide additional revenue for local governments.
After Proposition 13, however, the amount a homeowner could be taxed was limited to 1 percent of “the full cash value” of their property, based on its 1975–1976 valuation; annual tax increases were capped at 2 percent. Businesses were also included in the tax-limitation measure.
The assessed value could rise when the property changed hands, although businesses soon found ways to circumvent this provision.
Another feature of Proposition 13, and one which was not widely advertised at the time, was that it changed the law to require a two-thirds vote—rather than a simple majority—for future tax increases. And for the first time in California history, the state would dole out the revenue collected from local property taxes.
The impetus behind Proposition 13 was the dramatic rise in home prices that hit California in the 1970s. While this represented a windfall for people who viewed their home as an investment, the resulting property-tax increases posed a serious financial threat to people on fixed incomes who wanted to stay in their home rather than sell for a profit.
Proposition 13 was authored by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, who were active in homeowners associations in Los Angeles and Sacramento. The ballot measure was supported by a variety of groups across the political spectrum, including the California Tax Reform Association and civil rights and welfare reform organizations.
Because Proposition 13 rolled back assessments to 1975 levels and limited property taxes to 1 percent of assessed valuation, the measure resulted in a 57 percent decrease in property tax revenues statewide. As luck would have it, the state at this time had plenty of money in its coffers to aid financially strapped cities and counties who were hardest hit by the effects of Proposition 13.
Over time, however, the state budget surplus disappeared, to be replaced by what Daniel Press, author of Saving Open Space, called “the fiscal chaos visited upon cities and counties in the wake of the 1978 Proposition 13.”
Proposition “changed everything” by reducing the total tax roll and curtailing resources across the entire county, said former Santa Clara County parks and recreation director Lisa Killough. “It wasn’t just parks. It was everything.”
Fortunately, there had been a window of opportunity for the county parks and recreation department to acquire a large amount of parkland between 1972—when the Park Charter Fund amendment provided the first stable source of financing for county parks—and 1978, when Proposition 13 was approved.
“The county did buy a lot of land during the period when it was well funded in acquisition,” Killough said. During the period 1973 to 1977, the parks and recreation department acquired Almaden Quicksilver, Sunnyvale Baylands, Motorcycle, Joseph D. Grant, Field Sports, Calero, Penitencia Creek, and Rancho San Antonio county parks.
What has been called “the fiscalization of land use” became particularly acute after passage of Proposition 13, said former county supervisor Dianne McKenna. “In essence it means that the cities and counties determine the zoning or the land use within their jurisdiction based upon what will generate the most revenue and cost the least in services,” she said. “There was a time when housing did generate revenue. But housing creates the need for parks, fire, police, and those kinds of things. So it drains your coffers.” Industry, on the other hand requires fewer services and generates revenue. “This happened particularly after Proposition 13 passed. Cities lost control of their property tax base and their property tax revenue.”
Prior to Proposition 13, local jurisdictions could determine the property tax rate. After Proposition 13 passed, cities looked to industry to close the revenue gap. At the same time, the sales-tax structure, which returned money to cities, made retail development attractive.
Cities such as San Jose, which had intensive house development within its borders, began to seek out industrial and retail tenants to provide much needed revenue. Jeffrey I. Chapman, a professor of public administration in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California, called the fiscalization of land use one of the “unanticipated consequences of Proposition 13.”
“Terrible” is the way former county supervisor Sig Sanchez described the effect of Proposition 13 on Santa Clara County. “Proposition 13 as originally designed made a lot of sense, because it was designed for the homeowner,” he said. “But what happened was, before it was passed, they included business and industry. Well, the average home sells, or did, every seven years. So when you sell, you have a new basis. Well, how many corporations like IBM, for example, who are benefitting from Proposition 13, how often do they sell their facilities? They don’t.”
The state legislature abdicated its responsibility by not enacting a graduated property tax based on length of home ownership, said Mary Davey, one of the founders of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. This would have protected senior citizens and other long-time property owners from crippling tax increases based on skyrocketing property values, while still preserving local government’s ability to raise taxes to pay for things that enhance the quality of life, such as parks.
“Proposition 13 harmed the future money we could use to buy land,” Davey said. “We’ve been cut back that dramatically. It’s meant less money to do the things that we think are important. And buying land is one of them.” Both the county parks and recreation department and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District had begun aggressively acquiring land before passage of Proposition 13.
Another consequence of Proposition 13 was “a dramatic reduction in county planning staff,” according to retired county planner Don Weden. “In 1979, immediately after Proposition 13 passed, we had 87 planning-related employees in the department. Just seven years later, that was down to 28,” he said. This drastic reduction in force had effects that rippled through the county. Staffing of intergovernmental organizations was eliminated. Fewer staff were available to address countywide planning issues.
The county planning department, once thought of as “the visionary, countywide planning leader,” came to be seen as primarily tasked with planning of development in unincorporated areas of the county. One benefit of the cutbacks, Weden said, was that the responsibility for planning trails in the county parks was transferred from the county planning department to the parks and recreation department.
Proposition 13 impacted the parks and recreation department in several ways, Weden said.
First, there was political pressure to “divert” Park Charter Fund money to pay for staff and activities normally financed by the county general fund. In other words, the county tried to find ways to bill the department for various goods and services.
For example, the county sold nonpark surplus urban lands to the department and also contracted with the department to provide planning services—both ways to “transfer” Park Charter Fund money into the county general fund.
Second, cities in Santa Clara County began to look to the county to provide funding for parks in urban areas. Fortunately, Park Charter Fund money could only be spent on parklands of regional significance.
And third, Proposition 13 created pressure to modify the department’s funding formula—in other words, to include percentages for operations and maintenance, which previously had been paid for out of the county general fund.
In fact, prior to its November 1978 renewal by county voters, Park Charter Fund money could be spent only for acquisition and development of parklands. The 1978 formula kept the original 1972 minimum of 50 percent for acquisition, but added up to 30 percent for operations and maintenance, including pay for park rangers and other staff.
Before the county parks and recreation department hired its first park planner, general planning for parks and trails was handled by the Santa Clara County Planning Department.
Don Weden, who worked as a county planner from 1969 until his retirement in 2003, said the department—with participation from the county parks and recreation department—was responsible for “the lion’s share of the staffing and of the effort” to create a vision of a countywide park system. Weden called this “big-picture planning,” as opposed to “site planning” for each individual park, which was handled by the county parks and recreation department.
At the time he was hired, Weden said, the county planning department consisted of more than 100 employees—some of whom dealt with traditional land-use planning issues, and some of whom were involved in specialized programs of one sort or another, such as helping cities prepare their own master plans.
“Roy Cameron was the director when I came to the county,” Weden said. “And he was the planning director during what some of us affectionately and fondly refer to as the ‘golden era’ of planning, when we had lots of staff, we were doing all sorts of really big-picture visioning sorts of things, and were helping to shape the world in ways that ultimately came to pass.”
Planning the Countywide Parks System: Providing the Initial Vision
Weden was initially hired as a staff person within the county planning department’s Metropolitan Coordination Section, which was created to work with local planners in each of the county’s 15 cities.
“Back in those days, we had 15 cities in Santa Clara County, each of which had its own land-use authority and its own planning responsibilities,” Weden said. “The county planning office staffed several intergovernmental organizations that either did planning or worked out countywide problems, but helped to get the local jurisdictions to see the county as one unified place, not just a series of separate islands that happened to be next to one another.”
In fact, the county assigned Weden to help the newly formed Midpeninsula Regional Park District, as it was called then, prepare its first master plan in the mid-1970s, in conjunction with consultants William Spangle and Associates.
The planning directors of the county’s 15 cities met once a month as the Santa Clara County Association of Planning Officials. The county staffed the Intergovernmental Council, which included other representatives from the 15 cities, and the Planning Policy Committee, or PPC as it was known. The PPC was established to deal with a whole range of issues through its subcommittees.
“So we were really big into looking at the valley as a unified entity, even though the land-use authority and other governing authority was fragmented” said Weden. “There was a great deal of interjurisdictional cooperation and coordination in those days.” Among the PPC subcommittees was Trails and Pathways, whose role was to produce a master plan for trails and pathways within the county.
Pre-1970: Conceptual Plans
The early plans for a countywide park system were what Weden called “conceptual”—the plans identified the areas of the county where parks could be situated and described the types of habitats to be preserved and protected. Additionally, these plans envisioned the future recreational needs of a county already beset with a burgeoning population and faced with a historic transformation from an agricultural paradise to an industrial powerhouse.
For example, the 1959 document “A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space,” produced by the county planning department, looked ahead to the near future, when recreational opportunities would be in high demand and the need for suitable parkland would dramatically increase.
By 1959, there were about 17,000 acres of parklands in Santa Clara County, including two county parks—Stevens Creek and Mount Madonna. The county had completed the long-awaited transfer to state ownership of land gifted to it by Sada Coe, which would become Henry W. Coe State Park. The county parks and recreation department had begun managing recreational access to Lexington Reservoir and had made its first acquisition of what would become Vasona County Park.
“A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space” recommended increasing the amount of county parklands to 60,000 acres over the next 25 years, with parks in the mountains, on the valley floor, beside San Francisco Bay, at the county’s reservoirs, and along its creeks and rivers. Land was still available and not yet priced beyond reach—the time to act was now, the planners wrote.
A 1962 revision to “A Plan for Parks, Recreation, and Open Space” added one new county park—Santa Teresa—to the roster of those open to the public, and four more—Uvas Canyon, Vasona Lake, Sanborn, and Villa Montalvo—acquired and waiting to be developed.
Weden said he credits the county planning department with providing “creative ideas” in the form of conceptual plans for the county’s streamside trails and park chains, such as the 1961 plan for a park chain along Stevens Creek, and the 1965 plan to establish the Coyote Creek Parkway. The planning department was also involved in the development of Vasona Lake into a full-fledged county park.
Early 1970s: Regional Parks Plan
Shortly after Weden was hired, the county received a federal grant to inventory existing parks within the county and to survey park visitors to determine their recreation habits. “These were both precursors to the preparation of the parks master plan,” Weden said. “One was an inventory of all of the existing city and county parks in the county—where they were, what jurisdiction, how many acres, what facilities, things of that sort—to get a sense of what existed, and then to compare that to what they anticipated the future need might be.”
The survey asked visitors what city they lived in, how often they visited the park in question, what types of recreational activities they planned to engage in, and what they would like to see more of in their parks.
“An Inventory of Parks and Recreation, Santa Clara County” was released in 1970 by the county planning department. The document was based on a 1969 inventory of the county’s parks and other outdoor recreation facilities. The purpose of the inventory was to update the county’s parks, recreation, and open space plan and also to propose a 10-year program of park acquisition and development.
Compared with a 1955 inventory of parks, the planners wrote, the county and many of its cities have made “impressive progress” in the acquisition of parks. But compared with nationally “accepted standards,” the county was woefully lacking in the types of recreational open space needed for its large population. “The next ten years will be a key time period for setting aside the open space so necessary to ensure a quality environment for the people of the County,” the planners wrote.
The standards on which the inventory’s conclusions are based came from a national study of park and recreation agencies and their acreage compared with population. The inventory sorted parks into four types: neighborhood, community, citywide, and regional.
Neighborhood parks were those that cater to families with small children, the planners wrote. Such parks normally have a playground suitable for children, a turf field for sports, a play lot for preschoolers, and landscaped areas for picnicking.
Community parks were designed for teenagers and young adults desiring facilities for baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and tennis; a swimming pool and an indoor recreation center were “highly desirable.”
Citywide parks contained “special features,” such as natural areas with hiking trails. Regional parks catered to people from all corners of the county, as well as to people from adjacent counties.
The inventory subdivided regional parks into six categories: reservoir parks, shoreline parks, mountain parks, foothill parks, streamside parks, and valley floor parks.
Reservoir parks included Anderson, Coyote, Calero, Stevens Creek, and Vasona county parks. Shoreline parks included marinas at Palo Alto and Alviso, both operated by the county parks and recreation department, as well as proposed bayside parks in Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
Mountain parks included Henry W. Coe State Park and Mount Madonna, Stevens Creek, Upper Stevens Creek, and Uvas Canyon county parks. Foothills parks included Ed R. Levin and Santa Teresa county parks, each with a golf course and other recreational facilities. Streamside parks included the Coyote Creek Park Chain and a proposed park along Stevens Creek.
Each type of park was given its own standard for minimum, average, and optimum acreage.
Neighborhood parks required a minimum of 2.25 acres per 1,000 people served, with 3 acres being average, and 5 acres being optimum. Community parks required a minimum of 2 acres per 1,000 people served, with 2.5 acres being average, and 3 acres being optimum.
Citywide parks required a minimum of 2.5 acres per 1,000 people served, with 4 acres being average, and 6 acres being optimum. Regional parks required a minimum of 10 acres per 1,000 people served, with 15 acres being average, and 20 acres being optimum.
The inventory then compared the county’s existing acreage for each type of park with the average standard.
The planners found that neighborhood parks had less than one-third of the average standard acreage—949 acres versus the average standard of three acres per 1,000 people served, or 3,023 acres. Community parks fared even more poorly, with 313 existing acres compared with an average standard of 2.5 acres for 1,000 people served, or 2,519 acres.
Citywide parks were the only type to approach even the minimum standard of 2.5 acres per 1,000 people served, or 2,514 acres, with their existing 2,115 “weighted” acres—i.e., acres counted at 25 percent of their full value for having slopes greater than 10 percent.
Using the average standard for citywide parks, 4 acres per 1,000 people served, the county’s citywide parks fell nearly 2,000 acres short. Regional parks, at just over 27,000 acres, or a little more than 7,000 weighted acres, had the greatest shortfall—nearly 8,000 acres using the average standard, and nearly 13,000 acres using the optimum standard.
The inventory concluded with a call to action: “As the county’s population increases, the acreage necessary to accommodate our park and recreation needs will also increase. If in the next 20 to 25 years our population doubles, our park acreage requirement will also double. We need not only to make up today’s deficiencies, but anticipate tomorrow’s needs.”
Weden said the county had developed some conceptual park plans in the 1950s and early 1960s, but these merely identified “generic” land-acquisition zones—mountain, valley floor, marine, reservoir, and streamside—needed to create a viable county park system.
The 1970 inventory and survey, however, helped provide the specific factual foundation for subsequent documents, issued by the county planning department during the next few years, that culminated in the 1972 “A Plan of Regional Parks for Santa Clara County.”
A grassroots movement to provide a stable source of funding for county parks resulted in Measure C, the Park Charter Fund Amendment, being placed on the June 1972 Santa Clara County ballot by the county board of supervisors. Unlike the recently defeated bond measure, the Park Charter Fund Amendment needed only a simple majority to be adopted. Measure C, if passed, would amend the county charter to reserve a small percentage of the county’s general fund solely for acquiring and developing parklands.
In order to justify this set-aside of county money, many supporters of Measure C wanted a master plan detailing exactly how the money would be spent. Weden said that there was a perception that the 1969 ballot measure had failed because “people didn’t know what they were voting for.” In other words, county voters were being asked to approve a bond measure without knowing specifically what their money was going to buy.
Up until that time, Weden said, the planning documents available to the public had been “conceptual” rather than specific. “So it was felt that if we were going to go back to the voters, a couple of things needed to happen,” Weden said. “One was that they needed to have a clearer vision to present to the voters of what would the money go for. And so that was one of the primary things that went into the preparation of the county parks master plan.”
Park and Recreation Department Hires In-House Planners
In 1974, Felice Errico was hired to be the parks and recreation department’s in-house planner. Born in Italy and holding a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Arizona, Errico said he usually got involved in the planning process prior to the acquisition of a new property but after the department’s real estate section had done their due diligence to learn about any easements or other encumbrances that might affect the property’s eventual transformation into a county park.
“We would try to walk the area to see what the value was, whether there was an existing roadway, the old logging roads—if possible, how to connect trails, what the potential problems might be. As we got into the later years, we became more sophisticated, and we approached more methodically by writing down the evaluation, so that way it was black and white versus what our feelings were the first time around.”
By the mid-1980s, the parks and recreation department had three in-house planners, including Lisa Killough, who became the department’s director in 2002 and served until 2010. Errico, who retired in 1991, said some of the properties he inspected had no existing roads or trails, so he was sometimes forced to wade through thickets of poison oak and dodge rattlesnakes just to assess the property.
When first hired by the parks and recreation department, Errico’s work was supervised by county employees—a civil engineer and his assistant. Errico said he had no say over which properties to acquire or how they should fit together to help form the county park system envisioned in the 1972 “A Plan of Regional Parks for Santa Clara County.”
Errico said he assumes the conceptual planning at that time was done at a much higher level—by the county’s senior planners and their director, Roy S. Cameron, with input from the park and recreation department’s director, Bob Amyx, and the assistant director, David Christy.
“Once a determination was made on an acquisition, the real estate section took over the appraisals and contacting the owners. These key players dealt with the public, board of supervisors, planning director, and other city officials,” he said.
Errico called the 1972 plan “the building block of park acquisitions,” some of which would occur along the county’s waterways, including Coyote, Penitencia, and Uvas-Carnadero creeks. Members of the Trails and Pathways subcommittee, including Artemas Ginzton and Mary Gordon, along with staffer Jess Smith, would walk the creek corridors to determine the best trail alignments, Errico said.
Planning the Countywide Trails System
Planning for a regional trail system in Santa Clara County evolved from an understanding that creating a system of regional parks without providing connecting links, in the form of trail alignments, would not fulfill the county’s recreational needs over the long term, Weden said.
“So there was a metaphor that evolved, and I’m not certain who came up with it, or just when they started using it—but at least it had come up with the preparation in the early 1970s of the first detailed regional parks plan. That was the metaphor of the “necklace of pearls.”
Weden said the necklace of pearls referred to a proposed system of regional parks that would encircle Santa Clara Valley. Another metaphor used, Weden said, was a bicycle wheel—the rim represented the county parks, and the spokes represented connecting trail alignments, mostly along the county’s creeks and rivers.
Kathryn Berry joined the Santa Clara County Counsel’s office in 1989 as an attorney. For most of her 16 years there, Berry was assigned to the county parks and recreation department to handle its legal affairs, primarily in the area of real estate. She described the planning process and the master-plan concept as having two main goals: first, to give structure to what the department is planning to do, and second, to provide a thorough vetting in a public forum.
“You can get in trouble and get on the wrong side of landowners and neighbors by not checking in with them,” she said. “That’s why I think it’s very important that the parks and recreation department has a parks and recreation commission, so that there’s some way to vet these ideas before heading down the path of being too far along and now you have to really dig in and defend it.”
The master plan is “a proposal of what we’re thinking,” Berry said, which forces everyone involved with a park or a trail to consider all the ramifications of whatever action is being proposed. This usually involves “meeting after meeting with stakeholders,” she said. “Sometimes those meetings get quite contentious, because the equestrian community is at odds with the pedestrian community, and they’re at odds with the biking community, and they all want a piece of the park, and they can’t all be there at the same time without some conflicts.”
Parking and staging areas also need to be taken into account, Berry said. “If you don’t plan for that, people park where they will, and the neighbors come unglued, and they say, ‘You know, there’s 50 cars out in front of our neighborhood again. What are you going to do about it?’” Master plans help the department allocate resources strategically. The master planning process for trails takes into account the entire county. Trails should be continuous, i.e., without gaps, and they should link areas of importance—two parks, for example, or a park and a population center.
Planning Policy Committee and Trails and Pathways Subcommittee
Working with staff at the county planning office, the Trails and Pathways subcommittee, chaired by Mary Gordon, developed the 1978 “Trails and Pathways Master Plan.” It was adopted by the county board of supervisors and became what Weden called “a blueprint” for the park system the county would need to accommodate its rapidly expanding population.
“Population growth was really booming at that time. Planners saw we were going to need a lot more in the way of parks and open space to meet the needs of that growing population,” Weden said. “So that was probably one of the reasons that the county planning office—which was dealing with a whole host of issues related to the rapid growth that was occurring in those days—became involved in staffing Trails and Pathways and the county parks master-plan project and so on.”
The 1978 “Trails and Pathways Master Plan” began by describing the “unparalleled opportunity” county residents have “to create a network of trails and recreational bikeways connecting a large population with a rich and varied environment.” Despite its status as a rapidly growing urban and suburban area, Santa Clara County still had an abundance of open space and a variety of habitat, much of which was protected by federal, state, and local agencies. In addition, many of these agencies were working to plan and construct trails and to secure ownership of proposed trail corridors.
The county was fortunate to have a regional network of citizens groups and volunteers actively supporting parkland acquisition and trail development. In offering this master plan, it was the intention of the planning policy committee “to augment the existing efforts” for a regional system of trails and bike paths that would serve both recreational and transportation needs.
The plan described “a great demand” for recreational trails of all types in Santa Clara County, saying that “only a few portions” of the county had “well-developed trail systems,” most of which were in regional parks, such as Mount Madonna County Park.
The plan identified three user groups with needs for trails: hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians. According to the plan, bicyclists—at least in the days before mountain biking became popular—required “smooth, paved, fairly straight, and well-swept surfaces,” such as the existing Coyote Creek Bike Path from Hellyer County Park to Metcalf Road. Most desirable was a two-way bike path separated from any adjacent vehicular roadway; where this was not possible, paved and marked lanes could be integrated with existing roads.
One of the key issues the “Trails and Pathways Master Plan” addressed was the challenge of overcoming physical obstacles to proposed trail alignments, especially in urban areas.
“For example, one of the classic ones was in terms of getting Los Gatos Creek to connect into downtown San Jose,” Weden said. “At that time, the problem was the canneries—they were right alongside the Los Gatos Creek. So there was just no space for it.” Sometimes the solution involved routing the trail along a city street for a short distance and then returning it to the preferred alignment.
Weden said the “Trails and Pathways Master Plan” went into “great detail, painstaking detail” to produce a comprehensive study of existing and proposed trails in Santa Clara County, with a report on current conditions and recommendations for the future. “So that became a part of the parks literature and part of the vision for the future of parks and trails,” Weden said.
The most important finding, according to the plan, “is the extent to which the trail system could be implemented with a minimum of cost through the combined actions of a number of public, quasi-public and private agencies and groups.”
In addition to the “Trails and Pathways Master Plan,” the subcommittee produced a comprehensive map, five geographically targeted supplemental reports, and an appendix with details about costs, funding, regulations, and other information regarding a countywide trail system.
Weden spoke of the 30-plus years since the adoption of the “Trails and Pathways Master Plan,” which envisioned trails that are just now coming close to completion. “That takes an awful lot of persistence, it takes an awful lot of commitment on the part of people,” he said. “Sometimes we pass the torch on to others, so it’s not necessarily one person that made it happen. But if we didn’t have those people—if there were no successors to the folks who produced the original parks plan and trails plan and so on—it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. We wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Weden said this is especially true for trails versus parks. “Parks are a lot easier to implement than trails. The parks—you can just go buy a 500-acre piece of land or something. Trails, you’ve got to deal with dozens of different obstacles over a one-mile stretch. Some of them are political, some of them are economic, some of them are landowners, some of them are physical. And I just have the utmost respect for the folks who have battled through to cobble that system together one piece at a time.”
Establishing the New Almaden Quicksilver County Park Association
Although many of the contributions made by the county planning department were of the “big-picture” variety, the department did get involved with what Weden called “back range sort of grunt work” that often paid big dividends in terms of expanding and improving the county parks.
Weden said county planners received funding to develop a conceptual master plan for Almaden Quicksilver County Park. In the process, the planners realized that a citizens association affiliated with the park might be able to bridge the gaps that were threatening to divide the park’s potential users. The association could also ultimately perform a useful educational and interpretive function.
“We recognized that there were lots of people who, at that time, represented special interests who were at loggerheads—the horsemen, the hikers, the history buffs, the naturalists and so on—that a lot in common,” Weden said. “So we created New Almaden Quicksilver County Park Association. It was a direct outgrowth of the county planning department’s having been funded to do that master plan.”
Providing Supportive Urban Development and Land-Use Policies
Among the urban land-use policies adopted by the county in the 1970s were some that, indirectly at least, supported the development of the county park system, Weden said.
For example, the Urban Development/Open Space (UD/OS) Policy Plan, adopted in the early 1970s, said that urban development was the responsibility of the cities and should be prohibited in unincorporated areas of the county. Additionally, the UD/OS plan put a premium on preserving open space countywide.
Thus, Weden said, new urban development was restricted to incorporated towns and cities, further limiting the rampant growth that had plagued the county in the 1950s and 1960s.
Incorporated towns and cities adopted formal Urban Service Area boundaries, which had to be approved by the Local Agency Formation Commission. According to Weden, these measures improved the outlook for increasing both the number and size of county parks in several ways. They “prevented urbanization of rural unincorporated areas,” and they “slowed the outward expansion of urban areas.”
Three consequences followed, probably unintended, said Weden. First, large parcels of land suitable for parkland and open space use remained available for purchase. Second, the rise in rural land prices was kept somewhat in check. And third, rural development that would have been incompatible with parks and open space was restricted.
The revised general plan for Santa Clara County was adopted in 1980, and the revision and adoption of the ordinances necessary to implement the 1980 plan extended for several years afterwards, Weden said. By 1982, many of the various subject-specific plans produced by the county planning department were consolidated into a single document, called the “General Plan for Santa Clara County.”
The general plan’s policies and ordinances, like measures taken in the previous decade, helped put the brakes on development in rural areas, Weden said. Specifically, the policies and ordinances “reinforced county wide urban development policies, establishing large minimum lot sizes for subdivision or rural lands, and limited allowable land uses in rural area to those compatible with rural resource values.”