The 1990s began with an economic slump, but by the middle of the decade, Santa Clara County’s powerhouse companies, such as Apple, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel, were dominating the worldwide computer and electronics industries.
More that one million people were employed in the county, about one-quarter of them in high-tech jobs.The San Francisco Bay Area was struggling to find dwelling space for its population. Everyone was on the move, working dawn to dusk, clogging the area’s freeways and pumping pollution into the valley’s often stagnant air.
For parks and open space advocates, it was clearly time to protect as much land as possible from development.
Beginning in the summer of 1990, the county went on what the San Jose Mercury News described as “a spending spree,” committing $12.6 million of the Park Charter Fund for nine parcels of parkland totaling about 900 acres. Another $14.4 million of the fund was pledged to San Jose for its Guadalupe River Park, plus two more future acquisitions.
Coming after the mid-to-late 1980s, when not much land was acquired, the purchases drew rave reviews from park users, county supervisors, and other land preservation groups.
Audrey Rust, executive director of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, said the county was making “a really fine effort” to expand the county park system. Supervisor Dianne McKenna, who was known to favor an aggressive acquisition policy for the parks department, said she was “excited” about the change in direction toward more spending.
The commitment of millions of dollars for parks was especially welcome, park advocates said, because county voters in November 1990 had failed to pass a ballot measure to create an open space district for the county.
Plans for the new lands were ambitious.
At Sanborn County Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 411 acres would be added in two parcels—one on the park’s northern edge and the other at Camp Stuart, a former Boy Scout Camp perched above Saratoga.
Lexington County Park would increase by 178 acres. Santa Teresa County Park would grow by 203 acres in two parcels. At the park’s south end, a 187-acre addition would add an entrance to the park and also provide space for family recreation areas. The Buck Norred Ranch, at 16 acres, would provide equestrians with a new county-owned facility.
Uvas Canyon County Park would gain 92.5 acres, and the City of Gilroy would acquire 15.6 acres of parkland along Uvas Carnadero Creek, which the county would purchase and lease to the city.
Finally, through a joint purchase with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Almaden Quicksilver County Park would grow by four acres.
Yes to Hang Gliding, Polo, Bicycling; No to Swimming
In early 1990, hang gliders, polo players, and bicyclists won the right to practice their various sports in the county parks, but swimmers were left high and dry.
On February 13, the board of supervisors voted to allow the resumption of hang gliding at Ed R. Levin County Park and polo at Joseph D. Grant County Park—activities that had been stopped in the summer of 1989 because the county feared being sued in the event of an accident. The parks department argued against lifting the ban but was overruled by a unanimous board of supervisors.
In May, bicyclists gained access to about 100 miles trails in Alviso, Ed R. Levin, Joseph D. Grant, Santa Teresa, Stevens Creek, and Upper Stevens Creek county parks; bicycling in Motorcycle County Park required a special permit. The bicycle trails in the seven county parks were officially dedicated on June 16, 1990.
In February 1990, the Santa Clara Valley Water District asked for swimming to be prohibited at four county reservoirs—Almaden, Anderson, Calero, and Coyote—under a state law designed to protect drinking water. Only two of these reservoirs, Calero and Coyote, were popular with swimmers and had lifeguards on duty.
The county’s six other reservoirs were used to recharge groundwater supplies and not as direct sources of drinking water. The water district asked for the prohibition at the four reservoirs because water from them was being piped to the district’s new Santa Teresa drinking-water treatment facility.
Anderson Reservoir Dustup
In July 1990, Anderson Reservoir was in the news, as the county parks department and the Santa Clara Valley Water District got into an argument over water levels.
The parks department, citing a report from a private consultant, said it wanted a minimum level of water kept in the reservoir at all times—to support year-round recreational activities such as boating and fishing.
The water district, which owns the reservoir, said it needed to have sole control over water levels in order to conserve water during droughts and to control floods during rainy periods. The district said it was also concerned that increased recreation might bring with it decreased water quality.
The parks department manages recreation on the water district’s reservoirs and leases surrounding land from the district. Department director Douglas Gaynor said he did not believe increased recreation would harm the reservoir but wanted to reach a compromise with the water district. The water district’s board of directors, however, was unanimously opposed and said so in a letter to the county.
Neighbors and Friends
Border disputes are common between countries and even between neighbors, but a plan to realign the border between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties to accommodate a new addition to Mount Madonna County Park won approval on May 14 from the Santa Cruz County supervisors.
A parcel of 143 acres near the county park, which is in Santa Clara County, had been donated by a local resident to the state of California. The state then offered the land to county, which needed to buy another 123 acres to connect the donated land to the park. Both pieces of land were in Santa Cruz County, on the west side of Summit Road.
After county supervisors in both counties signed off on the deal, the map was redrawn to make the 266-acre park addition fall within Santa Clara County—all without a shot being fired.
Uvas and Chesbro Reservoirs Closed Temporarily to Recreation
A six-year-old dispute between the parks and recreation department and the Santa Clara Valley Water District threatened to keep Uvas and Chesbro reservoirs closed to public recreation during the summer of 1991, despite the fact that there was plenty of water in both.
The stumbling block was new leases for the two bodies of water, which the district acquired in 1987 through a merger with the Gavilan Water Conservation District The parks department manages the county’s reservoirs for recreation. The two agencies could not agree on who should pay for much-needed repairs and improvements, including safety improvements, paving, and fencing.
During the long-standing drought, resolving the dispute was not a high priority, said Douglas Gaynor, director of the county parks and recreation department. Two full reservoirs tempting sailors and anglers—but off limits and behind locked gates—increased the stakes.
The water district offered $100,000 to make the reservoirs safer for recreation but told the parks department to pay for any paving and fencing it wanted.
Gaynor said he thought the dispute could be settled through negotiations. Some on the water district board wanted to kiss the county goodbye and manage recreation on its own. But board member Sig Sanchez, a former county supervisor, said that the water district should stay out of the recreation business and leave that to the parks department, which is funded by the county’s citizens to provide countywide recreation.
Ultimately, both reservoirs opened to the public, but Labor Day was the last day for the 1991 boating season because of low water levels and unfavorable launching conditions.
Ray Collishaw Bankruptcy
For developer Ray Collishaw, 1993 was not a good year. Collishaw had a long-standing relationship with the county parks and recreation department. He was the owner of the 61-acre Twin Creeks softball complex, built on land leased from the county at Sunnyvale Baylands County Park.
Collishaw borrowed money to build the $5 million complex from a bank that later failed and was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Under the takeover, the FDIC planned to sell the 10 softball fields and other improvements the developer made on the county-owned land.
Collishaw also failed three times in 1993 to make his lease payments to the county and ended up owing about $20,000. Another Collishaw business venture, Mountain Winery Inc. in Saratoga, filed for bankruptcy protection in November 1993.
And in January 1994, just 90 minutes before he was scheduled to face a foreclosure auction, Collishaw filed bankruptcy to protect his Twin Creeks softball complex and other properties.
Collishaw eventually left the Bay Area, settling in Helena, Montana, where he died on May 17, 2009, at age 75.
Coyote Creek Restoration
In March 1994, the county parks and recreation department took the lead in an ambitious restoration program for Coyote Creek. The goal of the program was to restore a section of the creek between San Jose and Morgan Hill to a more natural state, with the hopes of encouraging the return of wildlife and native fish populations.
The first step in the multiyear program was to remove a nonnative plant, imported from Europe in the 1960s to control creek-side erosion, from the creek channel.
The plant—arundo donax cane—resembles bamboo and forms a thirsty barricade beside the creek, blocking access for animals and thwarting native plants. In order to completely eliminate it, work crews cut and burned the cane near Anderson and Hellyer county parks.
Other agencies participating in the program included the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the Santa Clara County Fish and Game Commission, the Santa Clara County Probation Department, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
Thumbs Up for Trails Master Plan
On November 14, 1995, the county board of supervisors gave a unanimous thumbs-up to an update of the county’s trails master plan. The update, which took three years to complete, was prepared by the Santa Clara County Trails Plan Advisory Committee, chaired by county supervisor Mike Honda. The last trails master plan had been prepared in 1978.
One of the reasons the update process took so long was that it involved numerous public meetings, which became forums for intense debate, pitting groups such as the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau and the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council against one another.
Many people close to the process said its ultimate approval was a tribute to Honda’s leadership skills and his commitment to producing a successful plan.
Mercury Cleanup at Almaden Quicksilver
In the fall of 1996, the county parks department reached a $2.5 million settlement with Myers Industries to help clean up areas of Almaden Quicksilver County Park that are contaminated with mercury.
The hazardous chemical—which can be a threat to both humans and wildlife—is a remnant of the park’s previous history, when it was home to the New Almaden Mines, among the largest mercury, or quicksilver, mines in North America. Mercury from the mines was essential during California’s Gold Rush to enable gold recovery through a chemical process.
During the time they were in operation, the mines released injurious amounts of mercury into the Guadalupe River watershed and the southern end of San Francisco Bay, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. Animals impacted included various fish species, riparian and salt-marsh birds, and aquatic invertebrates.
The park opened to the public in 1975, but about a third of it had to be kept off-limits because of the mercury contamination. The county said it would add $1.2 million to the cleanup efforts at the park.
Something to Cheer About
Parks and open space advocates had something to cheer about over the summer of 1996, when the county parks department announced its most ambitious parkland acquisition plans since the 1970s.
The department had its eye on three large swaths of grazing land in the hills overlooking Gilroy and Morgan Hill—more than 6,000 acres of future parklands that might someday merge with Anderson and Coyote county parks. Department director Paul Romero said the three properties met all of the requirements for inclusion in the county parks system and were priorities number one, two, and three on the department’s acquisition list.
The first property approved for purchase was the 711-acre Mendoza Ranch, located just southwest of Coyote Reservoir. The $2.5 million deal was crafted by the San Francisco–based Trust for Public Land (TPL) and involved members of the Mendoza family and several family trusts.
Prior to working on the Mendoza sale, the Trust for Public Land had not been a major player in Santa Clara County. Mary Menes, a TPL representative, said the group was “very excited” about working in the fast-growing Silicon Valley.
In November, the county board of supervisors approved purchase of the Bear Ranch at a cost of $11.6 million. Acquisition of the nearly 3,000-acre cattle ranch on the west side of Coyote Reservoir was the largest single purchase by the park department in recent memory, according to Alan LaFleur, the department’s deputy director.
Negotiations continued for the third property, called Santa Clara Lakes, some 2,350 acres of ranch land between Coyote and Anderson reservoirs.
With the promise of future cash for acquisitions, thanks to an overwhelming victory in the March 26 election that renewed the Park Charter Fund, the parks department also announced it would spend nearly $2 million for a 436-acre addition to Mount Madonna County Park.
The Trust for Public Land was involved in the negotiations for this property, called the Grenninger Falls Ranch, as well. The Grenninger Falls and Mendoza acquisitions were both completed in early 1997.
Rangers Want More Safety Equipment
County park rangers got some of the safety equipment they asked for, but not all, following a vote of the board of supervisors on June 24, 1997. The rangers had asked for four pieces of equipment to defend themselves while on patrol in the county parks: a bulletproof vest, pepper spray, handcuffs, and a collapsible baton. The supervisors approved the vest and spray, but nixed the cuffs and baton.
Matt Anderson, president of the Santa Clara County Park Rangers Association, said he was disappointed with the supervisors’ decision and wanted rangers to be able to carry all four safety items: “If you use the spray and it fails, what choices do you have?”
Beginning in 1980, some county park rangers were allowed to carry guns. But in 1986, the board of supervisors, supported by county executive Sally Reed, decided to revoke the rangers’ permission to use guns and other police equipment.
The parks department then instituted a policy of no physical contact for its rangers. County sheriff’s deputies were called in to handle serious law-enforcement incidents, with six deputies assigned to patrol in the parks.
County residents got a holiday present in 1997, when the county purchased Casa Grande in the New Almaden Historic District for $2.6 million. The building, built in 1854, housed various managers of the New Almaden Mines through the early 1900s. They lived in fine style, entertaining visitors in carpeted rooms, enjoying candle-lit dinners beneath crystal chandeliers, and strolling through landscaped gardens.
After the mines closed, the historic structure saw a variety of uses, including a clubhouse, an entertainment venue, a restaurant, and an office complex. Built of adobe, brick, and wood, Casa Grande stood the test of time, brushing aside the effects of the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.
The county said it planned to use the building as the headquarters for nearby Almaden Quicksilver County Park and also for the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum.
Smiles All Around
Parks and open space enthusiasts were smiling as 1999 began. In February, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) announced a $6.25 million deal to buy the Rancho Canada de Oro property, 2,428 acres of native grasslands, oak woodlands, chaparral, and riparian habitat along a section of Llagas Creek.
The property, located on the southern edge of San Jose, had a century-long history of cattle grazing and fruit growing. Funding for the purchase came from the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, the county parks and recreation department, the City of San Jose, and private sources.
The POST deal averted what could have become a high-priced housing development with panoramic views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. The property’s owners, a network of family trusts and partnerships, agreed to take about $2 million less than a developer was offering because they valued open space and had a previous history with POST, according to their attorney.
On April 7, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation awarded POST a $5.25 million grant to aid the Rancho Canada de Oro purchase and also to help POST arrange other acquisitions in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Ultimately, the property was divided between the county parks department and the open space authority. Thanks to the POST deal, Calero County Park grew by 943 acres, to 3,476 acres, and gained 7 miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding.
The county open space authority received 1,485 acres, forming the nucleus of its 3,882-acre Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve. Both the Calero addition and the open space preserve opened to the public in 2004.
Just in time for the busy summer season, the county board of supervisors decided on May 25, 1999, to put all of the county parks on the same fee structure, adding a $4-per-vehicle charge at 12 parks that previously allowed cars to enter for free. Among the parks affected were Almaden Quicksilver, Lexington Reservoir, Stevens Creek, and Uvas Reservoir.
Public opposition to expansion of the fee program swayed the county parks and recreation commission, which told the parks department in February that it was a bad idea.
Nevertheless, the promise of about $230,000 in additional revenue for parks, combined with a looming 5-percent funding cut scheduled for 2002 and beyond, convinced parks department director Paul Romero to support charging a fee for vehicles at previously free parks. “We have an increase in growth, and we need an increase in funding sources to respond to it,” he said.
Rangers on Horseback
Starting on May 1, 1999, rangers on horseback made their first appearance in the county parks. Five rangers—demonstrating equestrian and other skills gleaned from an eight-week training program—cantered along the trails, delighting children, performing interpretive duties, and being ready to help with accidents, injuries, searches, crime prevention, and crowd control. The rangers looked forward to the new mounted patrol as a goodwill gesture—or, as ranger Sharron Jones put it, “You can’t pat a patrol car.”
The decade started well enough, with passage of three statewide propositions—Proposition 12 (2000), Proposition 40 (2002), and Proposition 50 (2003)—that provided the Bay Area with more than $100 million in grants for land acquisition through the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency.
Other state monies, about $100 million, combined with federal grants totaling some $150 million, poured into the Bay Area. But dark clouds loomed on the horizon.
Budget crises seemed to plague California, which was hard hit by recession and the dot-com bust. Instead of raising taxes, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger began cutting programs, at one point threatening to close many state parks.
Even the venerable East Bay Regional Parks District—which had been formed during the height of the Great Depression by residents willing to tax themselves a small amount to create a regional park system—now found itself failing at the polls to win support for funding measures.
Sudden Oak Death
In 2002, the county parks and recreation department took the lead in combating sudden oak death, a silent killer threatening the area’s oak woodlands. The department issued recommendations to park users in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, which is caused bythe soil-born pathogen Phytophthora ramorum. First noticed in 1995 on a tanbark oak in Marin County, the disease soon spreadto 14 coastal counties in California, including Santa Clara.
In addition to tanbark oaks, coast live oaks, black oaks, Shreve oaks, and canyon live oaks in California’s cool and damp coastal forests were also found to be infected.
Despite its name, the disease also attacked other plants, including California bay, coast redwood, and Douglas-fir. The department’s recommendations were aimed at stopping the movement of contaminated soil and woody material from infected to noninfected areas.
The five county parks at greatest risk for sudden oak death infection were Lexington, Los Gatos Creek, Mount Madonna, Sanborn, and Uvas Canyon.
Signs were posted at these parks asking visitors to park only in designated areas; stay on established trails and avoid mud; refrain from collecting or transporting wood, soil, or plants; clean all dirt from hiking boots, bicycle wheels, horse hooves, and dog paws; and use an automated car wash to completely clean the tires, wheel wells, and undersides of any vehicle used for a park visit.
Cleanup Plan for San Francisco Bay
In 2004, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board announced a $2.6 billion cleanup plan to remove contaminants from the San Francisco Bay—including mercury that leached into creeks feeding the bay during a mining boom in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The source of some of the mercury was waste from the New Almaden Mines, in what later became Almaden Quicksilver County Park, near San Jose. In addition to mining waste, mercury can also enter a watershed through urban storm-water runoff, naturally occurring mercury in soil, and atmospheric deposition, said Carrie M. Austin, an environmental engineer with the water quality control board.
Water control board officials said their plan would take 20 years to fully implement. Among the areas targeted for cleanup were waterways in Santa Clara County affected by the mercury mines, including Los Alamitos and Guadalupe creeks.
To make Almaden Quicksilver County Park safe for public access, the county parks and recreation department sealed the mines and cleaned up unsafe areas. However, the many years of intense mining activity—during a time when environmental protection was unheard of—resulted in a build-up of contaminated sediment in area creeks, which is difficult to remove.
The cleanup plan tasked the parks department and the Santa Clara Valley Water District with ensuring that the creeks would someday no longer pollute the bay. This would involve cutting the 200 or so pounds of mercury flowing annually into the bay from the affected creeks down to around four pounds.
County parks director Lisa Killough said the ambitious goal would be tough to meet, and that the county was already doing what it could to remove mercury from the watershed.
Mercury, along with PCBs and hazardous pesticides, was also found in freshwater fish taken from Anderson and Stevens Creek reservoirs in Santa Clara County.
Another study, conducted in 2007 and 2008 by the State Water Resources Control Board, found fish with high mercury levels in four county reservoirs—Anderson, Calero, Chesbro, and Uvas. These reservoirs joined 16 other bodies of fresh water in the state as having the worst mercury pollution levels in their fish.
Amyx and Campen
Bob Amyx, who led the parks and recreation department from infancy to maturity, died on August 24, 2004, in San Jose. He was 92 years old.
Amyx, a California native, was hired away from his park and recreation post in Salinas in 1957 to become head of the year-old department in Santa Clara County. At that time, there were only two county parks open to the public—Stevens Creek and Mount Madonna.
Under Amyx’s leadership, the department found stable financial footing, thanks to the passage in 1972 of the first Park Charter Fund amendment. By the time Amyx retired in 1977, most of the familiar roster of county parks were up and running—Almaden Quicksilver, Ed R. Levin, Joseph D. Grant, Sanborn, and Vasona, plus some creek side park chains and recreation areas around reservoirs owned by the water district.
Many people said it was Amyx’s farsighted vision that brought the modern park system for Santa Clara County into being.
The man who hired Bob Amyx as director of county parks, Howard Campen, died on March 31, 2005. He was 90 years old.
Campen served as county executive from 1957 to 1976, the longest tenure for an executive in county history. A lawyer with a degree from Stanford, Campen came from an old-line San Jose family, surrounded by wealth and privilege. But he shared Amyx’s vision of a regional parks system that would provide recreational opportunities for all county residents.
Campen also had influential friends in the business community and knew how to finesse the board of supervisors, which held the purse strings for parks, at least until the Park Charter Fund was approved.
Campen presided over the transition to charter government, which vested increased powers in the county executive—and that turned out to be a good thing for the county parks system.
Park Charter Fund Renewal
Voters in June 2006 renewed the Park Charter Fund for fiscal years 2010 through 2021. The allotment formula was altered slightly from the previous election, held in March 1996. The acquisition amount was decreased by 5 percent, to 15 percent. A reserve of 5 percent was established to fund capital improvement projects, such as trails, picnic shelters, irrigation systems, and entrance kiosks. Increasing the pot of money for major projects was the goal of changing the allotment formula.
Celebrating its 50th birthday in 2006, the department could point with pride to 28 regional parks with 260 miles of trails, encompassing about 45,000 acres.
County Wins High Praise
In 2006, Santa Clara County won high praise in an study conducted by the Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco–based group that champions open space through public policy development, advocacy, and education. The county came in first among the nine Bay Area counties in the race to protect the most open space from 2000 to 2005. The county had enlarged its holdings of protected land by 54,000 acres during the period.
Santa Clara County outstripped all rivals during the period in percentage growth of open space—the 54,000 acres represented a 37 percent increase in land saved from development.
The county used various methods to keep the land from being converted into homes, business centers, and shopping malls—including outright acquisition, conservation easements and the purchase of development rights, and stricter zoning regulations.
Among the agencies at work in the county to preserve open space were the county parks and recreation department, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, and California State Parks.
Coyote Creek Parkway Face-Lift
On March 20, 2007, the board of supervisors approved an ambitious plan by the county parks and recreation department to give the Coyote Creek Parkway in the southern part of the county a much-needed face-lift. At a cost of $46 million, the plan proposed parkway improvements such as new trails and bridges, and amenities such as more parking areas, picnic venues, and restrooms.
The plan, two years in the making, also targeted habitat restoration along Coyote Creek, the county’s longest, to enhance the riparian corridor along the waterway and improve conditions for native plants and animals.
The presence of such a wide variety of birds, mammals, and wildflowers in an otherwise suburban setting made the county parks department eager to proceed with the long-term restoration plan, which could take up to 20 years to complete.
“We’re doing the plan to make sure we protect the resource,” said Mark Frederick, the department’s manager of planning and real estate. The paved pathway along the creek—which joins Anderson County Park in Morgan Hill with Hellyer County Park in San Jose—is open to walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and equestrians.
Two species of nonnative mussels, poised to invade Santa Clara County’s reservoirs, prompted the Santa Clara Valley Water District on May 13, 2008, to prohibit all boating in the popular recreation spots until an inspection program to check for the presence of mussels on boat hulls could be devised. This was the first all-out boating ban in county reservoirs.
The two species of mussels, quagga and zebra, reproduce quickly and can form dense mats that choke reservoir pipelines and other equipment. Quagga mussels had already established themselves in reservoirs in Southern California. And in January 2008, zebra mussels made their first appearance west of the Rockies—in San Benito County’s San Justo Reservoir.
On May 18, 2008, the parks department chose Hellyer County Park to kick off its new Healthy Trails challenge, part of the department’s Outdoor Recreation Program. The day’s events included strolling and pedaling along the Coyote Creek Parkway. About 3,000 participants took the pledge—to explore the county parks via foot or on bicycle along at least five of 21 selected trails.
The Healthy Trails program has two goals, said Kathleen Hooper, manager of the department’s Outdoor Recreation Program—raising the visibility of the county parks system and getting people to exercise more.
Rancho San Vicente
The dream of an unbroken swath of parkland from Morgan Hill to Los Gatos took a step closer to being realized in May 2009, when Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) announced a $16 million deal to acquire Rancho San Vicente—a 966-acre parcel in the oak-studded foothills above Coyote Valley.
The parcel was owned by a development firm, whose hopes to build housing for high-tech executives were dashed by a downturn in the Silicon Valley economy and by the reluctance of the City of San Jose to allow development on its part of the land.
Rancho San Vicente seemed like a perfect addition to the Santa Clara County parks system, because it would link Almaden and Calero county parks. Along with properties owned by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, the potential existed for creating more than 31,000 acres of neighboring parks, preserves, and open space in the southern reaches of the county.
People will benefit from these development-free areas, but so will wildlife, said Henry Coletto, the county’s former game warden. Bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, and mule deer need to travel far and wide in search of food, water, and a mate outside their own gene pool. When land gets fragmented into small islands of open space, animals interbreed and lose genetic diversity, Coletto said.
On October 30, 2009, Santa Clara County bought Rancho San Vicente from POST for $16 million, completing the vision of preserving the area as part of a chain of open space and preventing development. The 966-acre parcel will be added to Calero County Park. Rancho San Vicente has a rich cultural history.
The Ohlone people lived on the site for thousands of years, using the cinnabar, or mohetka, they found there as a red pigment for body paint. And it was on what became Rancho San Vicente that cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is extracted, first attracted the attention of local settlers looking for gold or silver in the 1820s.
More than half the land in the POST purchase contains serpentine soil, which creates a specialized habitat favorable to certain types of plants, including colorful wildflowers such as bluedicks, California poppy, owl’s-clover, and tidytips. Two endangered plants, Metcalf canyon jewel flower and Santa Clara Valley dudleya, grow on the property, as does dwarf plantain, the most important food source for larva of the threatened bay checkerspot butterfly.
Rancho San Vicente’s creeks and ponds are home to tiger salamanders and California red-legged frogs, both federally listed as threatened species and state species of special concern. Golden eagles nest nearby, at Calero County Park, and may be seen cruising overhead on outstretched wings. Rancho San Vicente’s high point, at just over 1,000 feet, provides panoramic views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Diablo Range, Calero Reservoir, San Jose, and, on a clear day, San Francisco.
POST president Audrey Rust said Rancho San Vicente has an “incredible” amount of biodiversity and unique species. “It has spring time wildflower displays that look like somebody spilled paint out over the landscape,” she said. “And it has lovely oak savannah woodlands.”
Rust said acquiring Rancho San Vicente was a victory for open space in Santa Clara County—the property itself would be protected forever, and its development-free status would help maintain the wilderness qualities of Almaden Quicksilver and Calero county parks.
Acquisition Plan Update Begins
In the summer of 2010, the county parks and recreation department took the first steps toward updating its Parks Acquisition Plan, created in 1993. Community workshops for public input were held in Cupertino on July 6, in Morgan Hill on July 12, and in San Jose on July 14.
The workshops presented an overview of the current county-park system, information about the planned countywide trail system, and a discussion of future park expansion areas identified in the county’s general plan.
At the community workshops, the department did not identify specific parcels it hope to acquire, as this could jeopardize negotiations. Instead, the public was asked to help identify specific criteria and priorities to help the department plan for future parkland acquisitions.
Alviso Marina Reopens
Renovation of Alviso Marina County Park, which began in 2005, reached a successful conclusion on June 5, 2010, when a new boat ramp, piers, and parking lot opened to the public.
The marina, which the county built in the 1960s to provide boating access to San Francisco Bay from a site just north of San Jose, had been plagued with difficulties over the years. Silt made the marina basin too shallow for most boats, and dredging was a temporary, expensive solution.
Eventually, use of the marina was discontinued in the 1980s, and the county park based around it provided little else in the way of recreation or amenities, other than a pedestrian access point for the nearby Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge.
The county parks department created a master plan for the park in 1997, and in 2005 improvements were made that provided more opportunities for hiking and picnicking. Work on getting the marina operating again was slowed for financial, environmental, and other reasons, and failed to meet a 2007 deadline.
With the three-year wait over, power boats, kayaks, and wind surfers could now maneuver their craft into Alviso Slough and ultimately into the southern reaches of San Francisco Bay. “It’s a great day in the South Bay,” said Chuck Reed, mayor of San Jose, “because finally the South Bay can get to the bay.”
Douglas Gaynor’s tenure as department director ended in 1992. Karen Foss replaced him, serving until 1994, when she had to retire because of health issues. Foss served in several different county positions before being transferred to the parks department, including being director of the county’s public services agency.
Foss had a strong background in parks and recreation and clearly loved the parks. Foss was also an inspirational mentor who nurtured key people within the department and took them under her wing. However, some of the programs instituted by Gaynor during better economic times were eliminated when budgets shrank under Foss’s tenure, and this may have affected morale in the department.
Several people described Foss as being a forceful, charismatic leader and a cheerful person whose optimism was infectious.
Paul Romero served as department director from 1995 until 2002. Born in Torrance, California, Romero graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with a BA in zoology and an MA in biology.
Before coming to Santa Clara County, Romero worked in Riverside, California, where he served as the county parks director and then as manager of the newly formed Riverside County Regional Park & Open-Space District, the first such district created after the passage of Proposition 13.
When he first started working for the Riverside County parks department, Romero was in charge of the outdoor education and interpretive program, developing nature centers and trails, and designing programs for schools. He was also active in fostering community involvement in the county parks system.
Romero said his undergraduate and graduate education helped prepare him for understanding natural resources, but nothing prepared him for the political aspects of being a parks department director. “The school of hard knocks for politics—you either know it or you don’t,” he said. “If you don’t know it, you don’t survive. Understanding how the political system works is very important.”
Romero said the biggest reward of being a parks department director is knowing that people are using and enjoying the parks. He has a high opinion of the Santa Clara County parks. “I think, for the most part, this is a superior system. It’s probably one of the best in the state,” he said.
Romero pointed to the quality of the county’s natural resources and the excellence of its regional trails system as the two main factors elevating the status of the Santa Clara County parks.
Also important, he said, was the Park Charter Fund, which provided a dedicated and relatively stable source of funding for parks. In Riverside, Romero ran a system that had to raise its own money to keep itself afloat.
“You build a park, you look at the fees, you look at the campground, you do a cost-analysis approach, and you operate that park based on its revenues,” he said. “Coming here, I didn’t have to worry about getting the money. I could focus on making the system better and improving the system, and so I shifted my direction, and that was quite fun.”
Romero said he first major challenge after coming to the department was to build trust from within—he was, after all, an outsider—and to ensure passage of Measure A, the Park Charter Fund renewal, which was on the June 1992 ballot.
Another challenge was to refine the role of rangers—were they park interpreters or law enforcement officers, or both? Romero said he and the ranger staff spent a lot of time defining roles, clarifying policies and procedures, and creating a new chain of command and organizational hierarchy.
He also created a separate maintenance division and instituted a career ladder for the park maintenance workers, so they could move up in the organization. During Romero’s tenure, Bill Ventura became chief ranger, and John Maciel became manager of maintenance operations. “As such, we no longer had geographical operational structure, and adopted a functional structure,” Romero said.
The revisions to chain of command and organizational hierarchy came in 1997. The goal was to provide mobility in the maintenance ranks and to have them report directly to a maintenance senior instead of to a senior ranger.
There was opposition from within the ranger ranks because, formerly, rangers controlled everything that happened in the park. With the separation, they no longer did. Rangers were now responsible for public safety through patrols and interpretive programming. All maintenance and maintenance projects were now the sole responsibility of the maintenance staff.
Garnetta Annable, a former Santa Clara County parks and recreation commissioner, was on the panel that interviewed Romero when he applied for the job as director of the county parks and recreation department. Annable said Romero came to the interview extremely well prepared.
“He had already been out to all of the parks,” she said. “He had met most of the lead rangers. He had some ideas and thoughts about what kind of improvements that could be made and what was needed. And he had some fresh ideas, and he embodied a lot of the idealism that advocates and volunteers like myself bring.”
As director, Romero forged strategic partnerships with sister agencies, nonprofit organizations, and advocacy groups, Annable said.
Jim Beall, a former county supervisor and current member of the California State Assembly, praised Romero’s vision and leadership skills, and said he really understood the ins and outs of federal and state funding for parks.
“He was an excellent strategic guy in terms of getting grants and the financial ship in order,” Beall said. Romero also worked hard to win approval for the creation of the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority as a vehicle to protect open space, he said.
Other people mentioned Romero’s consummate professionalism and his desire to make working for the parks and recreation department something more than just another job.
Under Romero’s leadership, the Santa Clara County parks system became nationally recognized, said Kitty Monahan, a former county parks and recreation commissioner. Although she differed with Romero on some specific issues, Monahan said Romero straightened out a department that was “in shambles” and elevated its professionalism.
Former county parks director Lisa Killough called Romero a visionary who really understood parks. “We did a lot of change with Paul, some of it kicking and screaming,” she said. “But he wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t afraid to push the edge of the box and to push us beyond it.”
The park department’s comprehensive Natural Resource Management Program was initiated by Romero, and he was a supporter of the department’s Volunteer Program.
Romero had the ability to lift people up, to look beyond their personal needs, and to see the bigger vision, Killough said.
As an example, she pointed to the purchase of Casa Grande, a historic nineteenth-century building and part of the former mining complex near Almaden Quicksilver County Park. When Romero found out the building was for sale, he broached the idea of buying the property to the department’s management team, of which Killough was a part. Predictably, the team raised a slew of objections.
The building was big and old. The department had no experience taking care of a building like that. It was too much responsibility. The building was not even adjacent to the park. Instead of belittling the team’s objections, Romero spoke of the building’s history, of its importance to the community, and of how much of the town’s mining legacy had already been lost. If the department didn’t step in to protect the building, who would?
Eventually, even the team’s skeptics were convinced. Romero was a leader who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in, Killough said.
After leaving the department in 2002, Romero became chief administrative officer of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a position he held for two years. In 2004, he went to work for California State Parks as chief deputy director, retiring in 2008.
Romero continues his involvement in parks and recreation. He is currently the executive director of the California Association of Park and Recreation Commissioners & Board Members and a parks and recreation commissioner for the City of Folsom.
Romero is the legislative committee chair of the California Park and Recreation Society and the nomination committee chair of Save The Redwoods League. He is a member of the American Academy of Park and Recreation Administrators, the National Park and Recreation Society, and the California Trails and Greenways Foundation.
Lisa Killough, who served as department director from 2002 until she retired in 2010, worked her way up through the ranks over the course of 25 years—park planner, regional park planner, program manager for planning, real estate, and construction, deputy director of administration, and acting department director.
A native Californian, Killough grew up in San Leandro, in the East Bay, and graduated from University of California, Davis.
Under Killough’s leadership, the department completed its strategic plan in 2003, acquired the historically significant Martial Cottle property in 2004, guided the successful campaign in 2006 to renew the Park Charter Fund through fiscal year 2021, and helped engineer the purchase of Rancho San Vicente.
Jim Beall, a former county supervisor and current member of the California State Assembly, called Killough a sensitive environmentalist, an outstanding ecologist, an excellent strategic planner, a long-range thinker, and a visionary.
As one of three parks department planners, Killough worked on master plans and site plans for various county parks, including Anderson, Coyote, Hellyer, and Sanborn.
“We’ve had a lot of change over the years, but we still go back to some central principles that we have not strayed too far from,” she said. “We are here to protect those beautiful, natural lands for the most part and make them available to the public.”
Killough said the county parks provide the kinds of regional recreational experiences that people are not going to find in the city, including bike racing on a velodrome, hang gliding, learning to fly cast, practicing archery, or flying remote-controlled aircraft.
In fact, getting the word out about all the things the county parks have to offer the citizens of Santa Clara County has been one of Killough’s prime concerns. “It still amazes me how many people I run across that don’t know what they have in their backyard,” she said.
Killough’s favorite county park? Joseph D. Grant. “I grew up in California, so I like it when the hills turn golden. I love the oak-studded hills. It reminds me of what California once was. And what’s nice about Grant is it’s not going to change, because everything that you see is pretty much the park. So it’s just a stupendous piece of property.”
Killough, a backpacker who has tromped the 200-plus miles of the John Muir Trail, said she uses other county parks, such as Almaden Quicksilver and Los Gatos Creek on a regular basis, and also visits other park systems throughout the area as a member of a women’s hiking group.
The department’s Grants Program dates back from 1970s, when the need arose for acquisition and development money to supplement the funding provided by the Park Charter Fund.
According to Dave Pierce, former head of the program, various administrative section employees—most often one of the park department’s management analysts—prepared, submitted, and managed grants. Pierce said it was possible that some field staff also prepared and submitted grant applications.
However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that full-time staff was dedicated to seeking out grants, applying for them, and managing them.
Mission and Goals
Pierce described the mission of the department’s Grants Program and its goals as follows:
- To research and analyze suitable grant opportunities and prepare applications for those that advance departmental goals and objectives.
- To manage grant funds and programs the department has with various agencies and organizations, and complete necessary accounting and audit documentation and reimbursement filings.
- To manage the Historical Heritage Park Charter Grants Program and provide liaison with the county historical heritage commission and board of supervisors regarding historic-restoration grant projects and the program.
- To maximize leveraging county Park Charter Fund monies and other grant-based funding with other appropriate grants.
Agencies and Groups Providing Funding
The county parks department is fortunate to receive grant funding from a number of government agencies and nonprofit groups:
- Federal Coastal Impact Assistance Funds
- National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures Funds
- Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund
- Federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act
- Federal Transportation Development Act Funds
- Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco Bay Area Water Quality Improvement Funds
- Federal Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program
- Federal Small Business Administration’s Tree Planting Program
California State Parks
- Habitat Conservation Fund
- Proposition 12 (2000 Parks Bond Act)
- Proposition 40 (2002 Resources Bond)
- Proposition 84 (2006 Safe Drinking Water Bond Act)
- Roberti-Z’burg-Harris Grant Program
- Recreational Trails Program
- Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Funds.
Other California Agencies
- California State Wildlife Conservation Board
- California Department of Boating and Waterways
- California Department of Education
- California Integrated Waste Management Board
- California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
- California Coastal Conservancy.
Santa Clara County
- Santa Clara County Transportation Agency (AB434 Grant Program)
- Santa Clara Valley Water District
- Santa Clara County Open Space Authority
- Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission
- National Trust for Historic Preservation
- San Francisco Bay Trail Project
- California Trails and Greenways Foundation
- Bay Area Ridge Trail
- The Valley Foundation
Money Well Spent
The bulk of the grant monies the department received over the years were used for park development and projects in the department’s Capital Improvement Plan, such as planning and building trails; improving day-use and picnic areas, visitor centers, and maintenance facilities; upgrading campgrounds; implementing natural-resource management and restoration projects; updating park infrastructure, including power, water, sewer, roads, and bridges; improving boating and water access; and completing historic-preservation projects.
Pierce said he and former department director Lisa Killough “developed a winning strategy” of preparing detailed park and trail master plans that included an environmental impact analysis for the proposed improvements. “At the zenith of the program during my tenure, we had gained nearly $27 million dollars in grant funds and managed over 60 grants,” Pierce said.
As examples of how the department spent the money it received in grants, Pierce mentioned the following county parks and projects:
- Almaden Quicksilver. Land acquisition; restoration of the historic Casa Grande building in the New Almaden Historic District; museum development; remediation of mercury contamination.
- Alviso Marina. Total refurbishment of the park, trails, and launch facilitates.
- Anderson. Totally new boat launch facilities and restrooms at Anderson Reservoir; restoration of the historic Jackson House.
- Chitactac-Adams. Development of a new park and preservation of archeological features.
- Coyote Creek. Trail improvements and new bridges on the Coyote Creek Parkway.
- Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch. Development of new trails; total redevelopment of campgrounds and supporting facilities at Coyote Lake.
- Ed R. Levin. Development of new picnic facilities and playground; replacement of water lines.
- Hellyer. Major overhaul of the day-use area facilities; new trails and velodrome improvements.
- Joseph D. Grant. New trails and staging areas; natural resource restoration projects.
- Lexington. New trails.
- Los Gatos Creek. Major overhaul of day-use areas; trail widening and water-line improvements.
- Mount Madonna. Development of new showers and yurts.
- Motorcycle. Operation and maintenance.
- Penitencia Creek. Trail improvements.
- Rancho San Antonio. New trails and improvements.
- Sanborn. Trails master plan.
- Santa Teresa. Development of a park and restoration of historic structures at Joice-Bernal-Gulnac Ranch.
- Vasona. Infrastructure improvements.
Partners in Preservation
The Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department partners with other agencies to acquire and protect land within the county for open space and recreation. Among these partners are the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Peninsula Open Space Trust, and the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority.
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District
The Midpeninsula Regional Park District, as it was first called, was created on November 7, 1972, when Santa Clara County voters approved Measure R by a more than two-to-one margin.
The genesis of the new park district had its roots in the same concerns that led to creation of the Park Charter Fund for county parks—land for parks and open space was in danger of being swallowed up by development or priced out of reach.
An open space district was needed to acquire and preserve a regional greenbelt in perpetuity, and the Park Charter Fund was needed to provide the county parks department with a stable source of funding for acquisition and development of parklands.
When author, professor, and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote his “Wilderness Letter” of 1960, it resonated with many of his like-minded neighbors in Los Alto Hills and Palo Alto.
“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment,” he wrote. “We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.”
During the 1960s, battle lines were drawn between those who wanted to preserve the Peninsula’s wilderness—the forested eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains—and those who envisioned the foothills dotted with houses.
The preservationists were heartened when the landscape architecture firm Livingston and Blaney prepared a series of reports for the City of Palo Alto in 1970 and 1971 that suggested it would cost taxpayers less, in the long run, to keep the foothills open than it would to crisscross them with municipal services such as water, power, telephone, and sewer lines.
The study also said a special park district would be the best way to secure the peninsula’s open space in perpetuity.
The preservationists were also goaded into action by a February 16, 1970, editorial in the Palo Alto Times written by reporter Jay Thorwaldson. The editorial said that if the preservationists were really serious about protecting the foothills, they should do what residents of the East Bay did in the 1930s—form a park district and levy a tax to buy land.
A few months later, on April 9, 1970, a dozen people met in the Palo Alto home of Nonette Hanko, a district founder and future board member, and decided to do just that. Hanko said that it was clear from the beginning that the new district needed to span both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties—the landscape was oblivious to political boundaries.
Important Hurdle Cleared
In March 1971, the advocates for a park district cleared an important hurdle, when the Local Agency Formation Commission in Santa Clara County allowed the group to begin a petition drive.
With the support of organizations such as the American Association of University Women, the Committee for Green Foothills, Friends of the Foothills, the Junior League of Palo Alto, the League of Women Voters, and the Sierra Club, park district advocates collected more than 10,000 signatures and presented them to the supervisors of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Unfortunately, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in August 1971 voted three-to-two to reject the plan. But the Santa Clara supervisors gave the new park district a thumbs-up in October, and plans were made to place a measure on the November 1972 ballot.
Mary Davey, another district founder and board member, said she believes the success of the ballot measure stemmed from the honesty of its supporters. “It’s a celebration of the voters, because we leveled with them and said what we’re going to do—we’re going to preserve open space. We’re going to preserve as much as we can of the wilderness that makes the greenbelt around the valley so perfect.”
New District Takes Shape
The boundaries of the new district took in the cities of Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Saratoga, and Sunnyvale.
Herb Grench, a nuclear physicist at Lockheed who was also active in the Committee for Green Foothills and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, was hired in 1973 as the district’s first general manager. Grench said the Santa Clara County supervisors and staff were “extremely helpful” in getting the new park district on its feet, even providing a loan until the tax revenues began coming in.
In 1976, supporters of the district’s annexation into San Mateo County won their battle when Proposition D passed by a narrow margin. This extended the district’s boundaries to encompass the cities of Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Redwood City, San Carlos, and Woodside.
Ultimately, this expansion benefitted the residents of San Mateo County, whose county park system did not have the resources to purchase large tracts of land in order to save them from development and expand its regional parks.
State legislation enabled the park district to change its name in 1977 to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, or MROSD for short.
Now, with nearly 60,000 acres of open space in 26 open space preserves under its watchful eye, the district has instituted the San Mateo County Coastside Protection Program, to preserve and protect open space and agricultural land on the Pacific side of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Mutually Beneficial Relationship with County Parks
Craig Britton joined MROSD in 1977 as land acquisition manager. In 1979, he assumed the duties of assistant general manager, and from March 1994 until his retirement in April 2008, he was the district’s general manager.
Britton said one of the reasons for the mutually beneficial working relationship between the district and the county parks department was the district’s commitment to spend 90 percent of its budget during its first 10 years of existence to buy land and preserve open space.
“I think the county was a little bit concerned that we’d get in the parks business, and then there’d be a confusion with two parks agencies and so forth,” he said. “But that never happened, because the district stuck true to its word.”
Another mutual benefit stemmed from the fact that the district’s boundaries cover the northern third or so of Santa Clara County—a wealthy, developed area without many county parks. So the district was able to focus its efforts there, Britton said, and provide open space preserves which helped serve the recreational needs of north county residents.
Britton also credited county supervisor Dianne McKenna with aiding the mutual relationship by being a strong advocate for both the county parks and MROSD.
Difference Between County Parks and Open Space Preserves
The distinction between a county park and an open space preserve hinges on several factors, Britton said.
First, the county parks provide a wide range of active recreational opportunities, from archery, boating, and fishing to golf, motorcycle riding, and skeet shooting, whereas an open space preserve is a place solely for low intensity recreation, such as hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, and nature study.
Second, some of the county parks are designed to serve residents of urban areas, whereas most of the district’s open space preserves are more remote and outside the urban corridor.
Finally, the county parks are ultimately governed by the county board of supervisors, whereas MROSD is its own government agency with an elected board of directors.
Former county parks director Paul Romero said there were “vast differences” in the missions of the county parks and MROSD, although both agencies were committed to protecting resources and reducing growth.
“Midpen has got very focused activities,” he said. “They have no paved parking areas. They have no developed restrooms. Everything they do is tied to the trail use and open space protection. The county has a whole gamut of activities. They’ve got camping. They’ve got fishing. They’ve got reservoirs. They’ve got boating. You know, they’ve got things that Midpen would never think about getting involved in.”
Despite these differences in their approach to land management, the county and MROSD have worked together to preserve and protect parks and open space for the citizens of Santa Clara County.
Cooperation at Rancho San Antonio
The best-known example of cooperation between the county parks department and MROSD is Rancho San Antonio, which is a 165-acre county park adjacent to a 3,861-acre open space preserve.
The county acquired the land for its park in 1977 and 1981, and development for public access occurred in the early 1980s. Although not large by regional-park standards, Rancho San Antonio did provide north county residents with a park to call their own.
Meanwhile, MROSD was pursuing its own acquisitions in the area—buying the Perham property in 1976, the site of today’s Deer Hollow Farm, and acquiring the 430-acre Windmill Pasture Area in 1977 as a gift from Frank and Josephine Duveneck, local conservationists.
The county parks department and MROSD have a long-term lease agreement, whereby the district manages the county park along with its own open space preserve. Parking and access to the preserve are provided by the county park, which Britton said is perhaps the busiest park in the county. Britton called the Rancho San Antonio partnership “an example of an incredible cooperation.”
Connecting Stevens Creek and Upper Stevens Creek County Parks
Another area of cooperation between county parks and MROSD is the shared dream to connect Stevens Creek and Upper Stevens Creek county parks.
The district’s interest in making the connection is obvious—all you need to do is look at a map, Britton said. Upper Stevens Creek County Park is adjacent to Monte Bello and Saratoga Gap open space preserves, and Stevens Creek County Park borders Fremont Older Open Space Preserve.
Making the connection would create a huge tract of contiguous parkland and open space—a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and an unbroken habitat for wildlife. With the help of Santa Clara County, the Peninsula Open Space Trust, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, MROSD has slowly been whittling away at the last remaining obstacles to joining the two county parks.
Joining Almaden Quicksilver and Sierra Azul
The county’s Almaden Quicksilver County Park and MROSD’s Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve are now connected, thanks to a joint county–MROSD acquisition in 1995 of the Jamison Property, more than 900 acres along Jacques Ridge, near Hicks Road.
This acquisition allowed the county to route a trail, called the Wood Road Trail, from east of the Mine Hill summit to a trailhead at a new park entrance and staging area on Hicks Road.
The Wood Road Trail is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail and the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. Just across Hicks Road from the new entrance is Mt. Umunhum Road and a trailhead for MROSD’s Woods Trail, also part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which eventually connects to Lexington County Park. “That was really a great project,” Britton said.
Joint Purchases and Future Dreams
The county and MROSD made other joint purchases, Britton said, including ones around Lexington Reservoir—which is adjacent to MROSD’s El Sereno, St. Joseph’s Hill, and Sierra Azul open space preserves—and also near Sanborn County Park.
The dream, Britton said, is someday to connect all of these parks and preserves as part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail route in Santa Clara County.
Although that dream may take a while to realize, another project 30 years in the making did come to fruition just before Britton retired.
Trails advocates had been searching for practical routes from San Francisco Bay across the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. One stumbling block to a north county version of such a route, Britton said, had always been the refusal of Palo Alto to let nonresidents hike through its Foothills Park.
Through a complex deal involving Santa Clara County, MROSD, the City of Palo Alto, the Peninsula Open Space Trust, and the California Coastal Conservancy, Foothills Park is now open to nonresidents, as long as they stay on the designated Bay to Ridge Trail, which joins the Page Mill Trail near the northern tip of MROSD’s Los Trancos Open Space Preserve.
Britton said “driving the golden spike” to make this trail connection was a coup for MROSD founder Nonette Hanko, who first became convinced of the need for a multicounty park district in the late 1960s, while on a tour of the area— conducted by the late Frances Brenner, a conservationist and member of the Palo Alto City Council—that later became Monte Bello and Los Trancos open space preserves.
Peninsula Open Space Trust
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) is a private, nonprofit land trust founded in 1977. At that time, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District was looking for a partner to expand its capacity to make land acquisitions. Herb Grench, who was then the district’s general manager, contacted several people to see if they would be interested in forming a land trust somewhat modeled after local organizations such as the Sempervirens Fund and Save the Redwoods League.
The goal was to create a nimble, fast-acting, and independent organization that would raise money to supplement public funds available for land conservation, and work with private landowners reluctant to deal with government agencies.
One of the people Grench contacted was Ward Paine, an early Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Paine spread the word and helped recruit POST’s first board of directors, which included Sunset magazine publisher Mel Lane and Bob Augsburger, a former Stanford University vice-president who became POST’s first executive director.
Advantages of Private Land Trusts
According to Paine, many individuals and families who owned property of interest to MROSD were dedicated to maintaining open space on the Peninsula but were reluctant to deal with a government agency—because in such dealings, everything becomes a matter of public record.
Private land trusts have several advantages over government agencies when it comes to acquiring land, including the ability to conduct confidential negotiations and to protect the landowner’s privacy, and the wherewithal to act quickly and nimbly.
A private land trust would be able to deal with individuals and families who might not want their personal and financial information, including real-estate transactions, made available for public scrutiny.
The value of POST was demonstrated early on, in 1981, when the land trust—then based in Menlo Park but currently in Palo Alto—was able to secure a donation of more than 500 acres on Windy Hill from Corte Madera Associates, a development group that had hoped to build hillside housing on the slopes overlooking Portola Valley. Earthquake concerns, combined with protests from environmentalists, eventually doomed the project.
POST then sold the property to MROSD for about $1.5 million—half of the fair market value—to create a revolving land acquisition fund.
Dianne McKenna was a Santa Clara County supervisor from December 1984 until January 1997, and she has served on POST’s advisory council.
Being able to act quickly may mean the difference between protecting land as open space and seeing it developed, she said. “If there is something that we think is worth saving, and we have raised the money, we can purchase it right away and have the option of holding it until there’s a partner—a public partner—that might not have the resources right then. We can hold it until they would want it, or see the benefit of expanding a park or a trail system.”
POST’s stated mission is to permanently protect the beauty, character, and diversity of the San Francisco Peninsula and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The trust operates within San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties, with the must urgent need west of U.S. 101. The trust made a decision to concentrate its efforts in these areas for several reasons, said Audrey Rust, POST’s current president.
First, funding was not unlimited, so a line had to be drawn somewhere. Second, the prospect of helping to create a band of contiguous parklands was appealing. And third, the Diablo Range, east of U.S. 101, already had a significant level of protection—thanks to large state and county parks, private lands with conservation easements, and open space protected by The Nature Conservancy.
Rust said POST has a prioritized watch list of properties it would like to acquire, and the trust keeps in touch with individuals and families who own high-priority properties. Criteria for ranking potential acquisitions include adjacency to other protected lands, scenic quality, size of the parcel, presence of endangered species, and availability of outdoor recreational opportunities.
Unlike a park agency, POST has no rangers, trail crews, or maintenance workers. If land the trust buys is to be opened to public use, a park agency will usually handle the day-to-day management duties once the transfer has been completed.
However, ownership of land creates long-term management responsibilities, and it is sometimes many years before a parcel can be transferred to a park agency. “We don’t want to be in the long-term ownership business, but we’re definitely in the land-management business,” Rust said.
Early Goals Long Since Surpassed
POST’s early goal—to raise $1 million and protect 10 important properties on the Peninsula—has long since been surpassed. As of 2010, POST had protected about 63,000 acres of land.
The trust’s “Saving the Endangered Coast” campaign, which lasted from 2001 to 2005, raised more than $200 million—including gifts of $50 million each from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation—and has to date protected nearly 20,000 acres of open space on the San Mateo coast.
Lands protected include hillsides, watersheds, agricultural properties, and coastlands, McKenna said. POST scored a public-relations coup, she said, when it prevented the historic and photogenic Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the San Mateo coast from being flanked by a coastal motel that would have blocked access to the nearby beach.
A previous fund-raising campaign, called “Completing the Vision: The Campaign to Save Essential Open Space,” raised more than $33 million from nearly 8,000 donors to protect 12 important open space parcels on the Peninsula. POST was able to leverage the donations from private sources to obtain an additional $15 million from regional, state, and federal sources.
McKenna said the relationship between POST and the county parks department has been productive in recent years, especially under former department directors Paul Romero and Lisa Killough. “I think that everyone is singing from the same songbook, and the goals are all the same, and they want to work together. I just think it’s very, very positive right now,” she said.
Techniques and Partners
Land trusts have many techniques at their disposal to acquire and protect property—including donated gifts, bargain sales, open space easements, and selling to conservation buyers. Land may be held and managed by the trust or resold or transferred to a public agency.
The strategy POST uses to protect land is to partner with private organizations and public agencies, in many cases selling them the land it has acquired and reinvesting the money to finance more purchases.
POST’s partners include the California Coastal Conservancy, the California Department of Fish and Game, California State Parks, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the National Park Service (Golden Gate National Recreation Area), San Mateo County Department of Parks, the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
POST in Santa Clara County
Jane Mark, the county parks department’s senior planner, said POST builds trust with private land owners and developers, and is often able to convince them to permanently protect their land for public use and recreation.
The county parks department has worked with POST on several projects, including acquisitions adjacent to Sanborn County Park; the Rancho Canada de Oro purchase in 1999, which expanded Calero County Park and provided the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority with the nucleus of its Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve; and the Rancho San Vicente purchase in 2009, land that was later resold to Santa Clara County for inclusion into Calero County Park.
Other recent POST acquisitions in Santa Clara County include the 2008 purchase of the Blair Ranch, south of Calero County Park, which became part of the Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve; and the April 2008 purchase of Clark Canyon Ranch, on the southern boundary of Mount Madonna County Park, which became part of the county park in November 2009.
Santa Clara County Open Space Authority
In 1987, a county task force on parks and open space 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. Supervisor Dianne McKenna said the preservation of open space directly impacted “the quality of life in the Bay Area.” The San Jose City Council also voted its support.
Proposal Drafted by Supervisors
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, an attorney with the City of Sunnyvale and a former deputy county counsel with Santa Clara County, 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, which covered only the northern one-third of Santa Clara County.
District Approved, but Without Funding
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, which did not identify a specific funding mechanism, to reach California Governor Pete Wilson’s desk.
The cities of Campbell, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, San Jose, and Santa Clara all agreed to join the fledgling open space authority, which also extended its sphere of influence to unincorporated areas of the county west of the Diablo Range summit.
The City of Gilroy, however, voted in November 1993 not to join the authority. Other cities in the county, such as Cupertino, Los Gatos, Palo Alto, Saratoga, and Sunnyvale were already within the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and thus were ineligible to join the authority.
Benefit Assessment District Created for Funding
The authority’s first elected board met on June 27, 1994. Larry Coons, who had worked for the county parks department,became the authority’s first general manager in July 1994 and served until July 1999.
One of the questions facing the new authority was how it would raise money in light of restrictions placed on taxation by Proposition 13. These restrictions mandated a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority, for new taxes. This would be a high hurdle for a new district to overcome.
Supporters decided it would be best to create what is called a “benefit assessment district” in order to raise money.
Benefit assessment districts, which are often formed to bring urban services to specific neighborhoods, require only a majority vote of the affected property owners.
Following a June 1994 advisory vote of citizens within the open space authority’s sphere of influence, the authority in July created a benefit assessment district to provide funding for land purchases at an annual rate of $12 per parcel—but this was immediately challenged in court by the Santa Clara County Taxpayers Association.
Legal Victory, Moving Forward
During the four years it took for the case to be resolved in the open space authority’s favor, all funds raised by the assessment district were held in reserve. In October 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the taxpayers association’s request for an appeal, thus freeing up the funds.
In January 1999, the authority purchased part of Lakeview Meadows Ranch, a 9,234-acre cattle ranch near Gilroy Hot Springs.
The Nature Conservancy, which had announced a goal of preserving a vast swath of land in the Diablo Range—some 500,000 acres spanning six counties—held the option on the Lakeview property and made the purchase for $6.3 million. The authority contributed $1.5 million of that cost and acquired the southern part of the property, some 3,207 acres.
In 2001, the authority added 240 adjacent acres, and now refers to the property as Palassou Scenic Lands. The northern part of the property was sold to the state and became part of Henry W. Coe State Park.
Also in 1999, the authority began disbursing money to participating cities in its Urban Open Space program, an annual 20-percent set-aside of net revenues for land acquisition, environmental restoration, and other open space improvements, including trails and signage. The cities of San Jose and Santa Clara received the first round of funding.
Purchase of the Rancho Canada de Oro property, a deal engineered in early 1999 by the Peninsula Open Space Trust, was a joint venture by the open space authority, the county parks department, the City of San Jose, and private funders.
The 2,428 acres of land, formerly used to graze cattle and grow fruit, was divided between the open space authority and the county parks department. The land the authority received—some 1,484 acres—became the core of its Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve, which opened to the public in 2004. Rancho eventually became the largest property owned by the authority, now totaling 4,334 acres.
Successes, but Another Legal Challenge
In December 2001, voters within the open space authority’s sphere of influence approved a ballot measure creating a second benefit assessment district, administratively separate from the first, which levied an assessment of $20 per parcel. This had the effect of raising the per-parcel assessment from $12 to $32 per year.
This second benefit assessment district, like the first, was challenged by the Santa Clara County Taxpayers Association.
By the beginning of 2002, the authority had made nine purchases totaling 6,186 acres. The authority also held two conservation easements—one contributed and one purchased—for an additional 1408 acres. In May 2002, the authority dedicated its first trail, in the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve, which is adjacent to the City of San Jose’s Alum Rock Park. Access to the open space preserve is through the city park.
Patrick Congdon, a former MROSD ranger and the authority’s resource manager since May 2002, became the authority’s general manager in October 2002. In 2003, the authority acquired its first easement for agricultural preservation, which protected irrigated pasture land in the southern part of Santa Clara County.
When the taxpayers association’s new legal challenge finally found its way to the California Supreme Court, the group won its case. In 2009, the court ruled that the open space authority had violated the provisions of Proposition 218 when it created its second benefit assessment district.
Although the lower courts had supported the district’s validity because it was procedurally in compliance with Proposition 218, the state supreme court considered both procedural and substantive constitutional questions. Under this standard of review, the court found that the assessment did not meet the special benefit and proportionality requirements of the proposition.
Because of the court ruling, the authority was required to offer property owners affected by the $20-per-parcel assessment the chance to get their money back. The assessment affected owners of about 321,000 properties. These property owners were given until September 23, 2009, to submit a claim form requesting the refund.
Open space advocates mounted a campaign to encourage people not to file for their refund, so the authority would not have to return the money and could use it to buy land.
Money in the Bank, More Land Protected
Whether because of a commitment to open space, sheer apathy, or perhaps some combination of the two, about 75 percent of those eligible for a refund did not send in claim forms.
The settlement provided that claims, the expenses of an independent administrator to handle disbursements, and plaintiff’s attorney fees—approximately $7.5 million—would be paid out of the principal, about $51 million, collected by the second benefits assessment district. The remainder of the principal and all interest would remain with the open space authority.
When the dust cleared, that left approximately $32 million, which the authority could now use to acquire more open space.
Despite the two legal challenges, the authority had managed to buy a total of about 14,500 acres of open space in the years between 1999 and 2009, mostly adjacent to San Jose’s Alum Rock Park, Calero County Park, and Henry W. Coe State Park. Money for these purchases came from the authority’s $12-per-parcel annual assessment—which had passed legal muster in 1998—combined with money from state bond measures.
In April 2010, the authority bought its first property in Coyote Valley, spending about $3.5 million for 348 acres. In September 2010, Congdon retired as the authority’s general manager, passing the reins to Bill Parkin, who is currently acting interim general manager.