San Jose trying to ramrod Coyote Valley environmental review?

Environmental groups say that San Jose officials are rushing the
Coyote Valley environmental review process to circumvent endangered
species laws that may interfere with their ambitious vision for the
city’s southern edge.
Gilroy – Environmental groups say that San Jose officials are rushing the Coyote Valley environmental review process to circumvent endangered species laws that may interfere with their ambitious vision for the city’s southern edge.

San Jose is expected to start work on an environmental impact report for the Coyote Valley Specific Plan in the next few weeks, but the city is also participating, along with three county agencies, in two long-gestating projects – a federal Habitat Conservation Plan and a state Natural Community Conservation Plan – that include Coyote Valley.

Environmental groups say the city should postpone the local EIR until after the conservation plans are completed. Only then, they say, will city planners truly know how Coyote Valley development will affect the region’s waterways, and plant and animal life.

Brian Schmidt, an attorney and legislative advocate with the Committee for Green Foothills, said Wednesday that the potential monetary gain from an accelerated EIR is too much for the city to resist.

“There is no wisdom, but there is a financial interest in doing this,” he said. “Rushing the EIR is a political ploy on the part of San Jose, which is trying to ram through as much development as possible in Coyote Valley.”

Schmidt and other environmental advocates believe that the city is pushing the EIR, which will take about a year, at an accelerated pace to pressure its partners in the broader review efforts into accepting the development as an established fact.

“The city is trying to create a situation where the Coyote Valley plan is in place and then the HCP is accommodated around it, instead of the plan bending to state and federal requirements,” Schmidt said. For example, the city’s plan for lighted athletic facilities in north Coyote Valley would interfere with a wildlife corridor that runs through an area the city calls Luguna Seca. If the plan is adopted before the HCP is, Schmidt said, federal officials would be more likely to look for another corridor.

The HCP and NCCP are overlapping plans that grew out of a series of expansion and improvement projects on Highway 101 done in anticipation of Cisco Systems Inc. constructing a still unrealized campus in Coyote Valley. The plans encompass 345,000 acres of county and city territory, including the 7,000 acres in the Coyote Valley Specific Plan.

Rare soils, species

Conservation plans are far more comprehensive than EIRs, which are performed for specific development proposals. The conservation plans are voluntary, protracted and expensive, but they ease the way for future development because they make it easier to obtain development permits from state and federal officials.

“You still have to do an EIR, but that document comes easier because you have already evaluated some of the same questions,” said David Johnston, an environmental scientist with California’s Department of Fish and Game.

Of particular concern to environmentalists and the environmental agencies is the protection of the rare serpentine soils in Coyote Ridge, which runs along the eastern edge of Coyote Valley into Morgan Hill. Nitrous oxide from increased traffic along 101 is altering the soil and creating a bloom of non-native plant life that is overwhelming rare species such as the Coyote Ceanothus shrub and the Metcalf Canyon Jewel Flower. Coyote Valley is also habitat for several endangered and threatened species such as the California Tiger Salamander, the California Red-legged Frog and the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly.

To diminish the effects of the highway projects on the butterfly, the Fish and Game Department required the city and county to preserve 418 acres overlooking Anderson Dam. Coyote Valley developers are seeking an additional 251 acres to complete the mitigation. All the land will be managed by the Nature Conservancy.

The trouble with doing an EIR for a project as large as Coyote Valley, Johnston said, is that it’s hard to know if it will be consistent with the results of the conservation plans.

“If the city proceeds with the Coyote Valley plans before the HCP and NCCP are done,” he said, “they will be dealing with what they think is going to happen rather than what they know will happen.”

That uncertainty and lack of demand for developing Coyote Valley, is why the city should wait for the conservation plans before it does an EIR, according to Melissa Hippard, director of the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta chapter.

“The pressure to develop does not exist, so why not allow a more comprehensive and meaningful process to move forward?” Hippard asked. “An EIR that comes after the HCP will be based on data and a process that is far less hasty.”

San Jose hopes to begin infrastructure projects such as water and sewage systems in 2007. It has promised its partners – Santa Clara County, the Silicon Valley Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority – that it will fold the Coyote Valley EIR into the HCP. So far, county officials don’t foresee any problems.

Ken Schreiber, who’s managing the conservation plans for the county, said Wednesday that ongoing development projects are a part of any conservation plan.

“I don’t see any good reason why any project, large or small, should stop because there’s an HCP or NCCP under way,” Schreiber said.

Delay is stall tactic

The city and county have been negotiating the HCP and NCCP agreements for more than a year. The city did not sign on immediately and the city council has still not formally approved it. Schmidt said he thinks the delay is a stall tactic, a way to move Coyote Valley along while delaying the start of the HCP and NCCP.

Darryl Boyd, the San Jose planner who will conduct the Coyote Valley EIR, said the city did not sign the agreement immediately because the city council wanted to clarify the relationship between Coyote Valley development and the conservation plans, which are expected to take at least four years and cost close to $3 million.

The partnership has received about $400,000 in federal funding and will try to secure additional outside and grant funding. The cost of the plans will be split four ways between the partners, but next month the San Jose city council is expected to approve a plan to have its portion paid for by the Coyote Housing Group, which is also underwriting formulation of the Specific Plan and the EIR.

“Nothing in the EIR will be inconsistent with the findings of the regional plan,” said Kerry Williams, president of the CHG.

Boyd allowed that the scope of Coyote Valley development – the plan envisions 25,000 jobs, 50,000 homes and 80,000 residents – complicates the HCP and NCCP.

“It will start to get very complicated with the Specific Plan,” Boyd said. “It will be difficult to draw firm conclusions one way or another, but the EIR has to be done. We don’t want to do anything that will potentially conflict with the HCP or NCCP, but it’s too early to tell.”

Which is why Supervisor Don Gage, who is also a member of the Coyote Valley Task Force and the VTA’s board of directors said Wednesday that he wants to “reserve my right to complain.”

“I’m comfortable with the approach the city is taking on this, but we’ll have to see what happens,” Gage said.

And joining many other critics of the Coyote Valley plan, Hippard said the Sierra Club is thinking about litigation, anticipating that San Jose officials, led by Mayor Ron Gonzales, will do what they can to sidestep environmental concerns.

“The mayor is driving the EIR process hard and fast so they can sign off on the plan, ” Hippard said. “Even if they come up with 50 unmitigatible impacts, they’ll come up with overriding concerns. They’ll just talk about a demonstrated need for housing.”

To move forward, the Coyote Valley EIR will have to win the blessing of the state’s Fish and Game Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Laura Valoppi, chief of the Conservation Planning branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that her agency will also weigh in on Coyote Valley’s environmental impact.

Whether or not the city participates in the HCP, it must get federal permits for any project that will affect endangered and threatened species, and present a plan for mitigating any impacts. Valoppi gave the city good marks for the way it’s handled the process so far.

“We’ve gotten assurances from San Jose that action in Coyote Valley won’t compromise our future ability to do an HCP,” Valoppi said. “We were concerned about development, but I’d be more concerned if they weren’t coming and talking to us. If they follow the outline of the plan, it should benefit the species down the road.”

But environmentalists see no benefit to developing one of the last remaining green spaces in Silicon Valley.

“We already have plenty of corporate campuses for people to visit,” Schmidt said. “Coyote Ridge is a fantastically beautiful place. It’s amazing to go up there.”

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