Book a tee time at Bear Ranch

SAN JOSE
– Now it’s official.
After years of study and more than 20 public meetings, Santa
Clara County supervisors joined District 1 County Supervisor Don
Gage Tuesday in formally endorsing draft plans for new parkland at
Bear Ranch
– plans that feature an 18-hole golf course and events center as
revenue-driving cornerstones for what will become a crown jewel of
the county parks system.
SAN JOSE – Now it’s official.

After years of study and more than 20 public meetings, Santa Clara County supervisors joined District 1 County Supervisor Don Gage Tuesday in formally endorsing draft plans for new parkland at Bear Ranch – plans that feature an 18-hole golf course and events center as revenue-driving cornerstones for what will become a crown jewel of the county parks system.

The key policy decision came through a unanimous vote by supervisors, who had mostly good things to say about the long-crafted designs for the 4,400-acre Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch County Park they reviewed during an afternoon hearing.

“This is going to be a wonderful park,” said Supervisor Pete McHugh in making the motion to advance the design. “There’s basically something here for almost everyone.”

The county purchased the former Harvey Bear and Mendoza ranches adjacent to Coyote Lake County Park in 1998 for about $11 million, and it has worked to craft a master plan for the combined parklands since the winter of 2000 with the help of a community task force of South County residents and recreational enthusiasts.

Tuesday’s vote allows county parks staff to proceed with formal environmental studies, a natural resources plan and a more formal master plan for the park, which are due to be complete by next spring.

The task force, county staff and advisory Parks Commission reached consensus on improvements for nearly 95 percent of the park – ranging from trails to an environmental education center.

However, differences lingered to the end over what major components should occupy the most easily accessible and developable portion of the land, the 300-acre western flat north of San Martin Avenue on the park’s far-western edge.

Gage – whose district includes the new park – suggested and then threw his support behind the combination golf/events proposal last month over alternate visions that featured an independent golf course or an events center/RV camping and large grassland area. The supervisor said the proposal would combine the widest mix of uses on the new property – a view he reiterated Tuesday.

“I’m satisfied we can accommodate the greatest number of users,” he said. “It’s kind of like the whole enchilada.”

Revenues are also an important consideration, Gage said – especially in such uncertain financial times. The alternative chosen Tuesday is estimated to generate the highest net long-term revenue – an estimated $14 million – over the 31-year life of the tax-exempt bonds that officials assume would fund the capital improvements.

That’s roughly $3.75 million more than the golf course itself and triple that expected net revenue from an events center/campground combination.

“I was looking for something that could sustain itself,” Gage told supervisors. “I thought it was really important to generate (funds) – we’re not in an environment anymore to have the money to do all the things we want to do.”

The lone voice of dissent Tuesday came from Supervisor Blanca Alvarado, who said she preferred an alternate vision for the western flat that would feature no golf course but a 500-person event center, RV camping and a large swath of open grassland.

Alvarado admitted she does not know much about golfing, but said she felt the course would intrude and detract from the park’s natural surroundings. The alternate plan would allow for more diverse activities, she said.

“I do believe it allows for a much broader use for such a diverse group of users – much more than a golf course would,” she said.

But Gage said the events/camping proposal would not necessarily provide more uses than the golf/events alternative. And he noted that an RV campground at the site would likely draw overnight travelers that were just passing through – rather than serve as a destination.

“Instead of a golf course, you have additional recreational vehicles in there,” he said.

Alvarado eventually voted to move the golf/events plan forward, but with a provision that the county should fully analyze the events center/camping alternative during the environmental review process as well.

During environmental studies, several different scenarios for a piece of land – ranging from full buildout to no development at all – are usually analyzed and the impacts compared against each other.

“We should not just give it a cursory review, but as thorough review as possible,” she said.

Supervisor Liz Kniss of Palo Alto said she was “tempted” by the golf course, which she said could give the county the opportunity to provide a leadership role through an “exemplary” course that would stress environmental preservation and soundness as much as possible.

Parks staff described plans to incorporate native plant and grass restoration areas between fairways at the new course, as well as a buffer strip of native grasses along its western edge to preserve views from nearby roads. Pesticide use would also be limited and heavily regulated under a new county ordinance, they said.

“I’m surprisingly enthused about the golf course, and I’m not a golfer at all,” Kniss said.

Supervisor Jim Beall said the county should establish a special account to fund repairs at the course so they don’t come from the county’s general fund. He also said the environmental report should consider use of recycled water for irrigation and study whether the park would have a growth-inducing impact on surrounding lands.

“It should be part of the EIR so we don’t have a lot of things happening around the park we don’t want to have,” he said.

Meanwhile, formal decisions on a bicycle play area and hang-gliding launch site in the new park will wait until spring after they have been studied further in the environmental review.

Hang-gliding enthusiasts in particular made a strong showing throughout the process, packing some public meetings and gaining a landing pad in the draft master plan designs.

However, they also lobbied for a launch site after officials said a prospective launching site on county Open Space Authority land above Coyote Lake appears to be years away at best.

Other features planned for the Western Flat area include an equestrian center with arena that features a staging area, camping and agricultural education exhibits. Group picnic areas, an off-leash dog area, fishing pond and historic interpretation are also planned.

Campgrounds and picnicking areas around the existing Coyote Lake County Park will be improved.

The Mendoza property on the park’s south side will be managed mostly to highlight its natural environment. Plans there include an environmental education center, youth campground and trailheads, including connections to a major park-long ridge trail and regional trails.

Meanwhile, the majority of the parkland – the hilly “slope and ridge” section – will also be left largely undeveloped except for a trail network.

“It’s going to be very tough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but in general I believe this plan has been all about inclusiveness,” Parks Director Lisa Killough said.

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