El Toro mountain hike canceled

Each year, the Morgan Hill Historical Society sponsors a spring

Due to a recent clarification of property lines and bad timing,
the annual springtime hike up El Toro mountain was canceled this
Due to a recent clarification of property lines and bad timing, the annual springtime hike up El Toro mountain was canceled this year.

Since the results of a recent boundary line survey show that the trail segment at the top of the city’s landmark western foothill is not open to the public as previously thought, the annual hike organized by the Morgan Hill Historical Society will not take place for the first time in about 25 years.

“It came to our attention, where we were hiking in the past, we were encroaching on private property,” said MHHS member Roger Knopf.

The recent property survey determined that the trail leading up the eastern face of the mountain, which is commonly used not only by the nonprofit society but also by renegade hikers, is on private property. Hikers have long thought that a fence near the peak that intersects the trail denoted the property line – on one side lying preserved open space owned by Santa Clara County, and on the other lying private property, Knopf explained.

However, the recent survey, conducted within the last “four or five months,” found the actual property line is further east, toward the bottom of the hill, Knopf said. That means the trail that faces the valley is on public property, only about three-quarters of the way to the top. The rest is private.

“We all got put on notice – once you know where the (property) line is, you know you are openly trespassing,” Knopf said. “The (historical) society in no way condones that.”

Because of the time and expense it would take for the MHHS to ensure the private property owners atop El Toro are protected from all liability for potential injuries and the need to schedule the annual hike after the rainy season but before the vegetation dries to a fire hazard – a window that is now closed – the MHHS board of directors voted to cancel the hike this year.

One of the property owners atop El Toro, once known as Murphy’s Peak, is Mark Good. His family has owned about 70 acres there since the 1960s. Good lives in Gilroy, but only recently learned about the annual El Toro hike. A family member of his lives in a home on the El Toro property.

Good said he would give the MHHS permission to proceed with the hike, only if the society ensures that he, as the property owner, is cleared of all liability for injuries or damages suffered by third parties on his land.

“I think the historical society is trying to do things the right way, and we’re happy to work with them if they won’t expose us to damage,” said Good, a real estate and intellectual property attorney.

But it’s not just the MHHS. Good said year-round he and the residents of the property have “had a lot of problems with trespassers and vandals, thieves” and fires that might have been accidentally set by people on the property without permission.

The peak has become a popular spot for illicit hiking in recent years, which is also a concern to Good.

The MHHS has always secured a permit from the city to organize its hike, which typically takes place in March or April. The society has insurance, but Knopf does not know if they carry enough coverage to indemnify the private property owners.

Furthermore, the MHHS has always known they had to cross private property at the bottom of the hill in order to access the public trail – and has secured permission from that owner in the past, Knopf said. But the society felt that with the top of the peak inaccessible, an organized hike would lose some of the point.

Knopf added that Good’s and other property owners’ request for indemnity is “reasonable.”

The city plans to build and maintain a safer trail on El Toro as part of its parks and recreation plan, according to Morgan Hill associate engineer Dave Gittleson. If the privately owned property atop the peak can be acquired for public use, the city will include it in the trail plan.

Gittleson said the city has not yet talked to Good or the other property owners to begin negotiations.

“Basically, there are no legal trails (to the top) open to the public at this point,” Gittleson said.

Knopf added that no known injuries have occurred on the MHHS annual hike.

The society is unsure if the El Toro hike will occur next year, but Knopf said it will resume when the city’s plan to acquire property (or an easement or right-of-way) and build a trail is complete.

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