More than one way to the top of El Toro?

The 18-acre site at Juan Hernandez Drive and Tennant Avenue was

As the city gets closer to building a permanent, public trail to the top of Morgan Hill’s landmark El Toro Mountain, residents at the base of the hill are worried the project will destroy the ambiance of a quiet neighborhood where children play in the street and deer get lost in backyards.

While those who live in that neighborhood support a public trail on the oddly-shaped hill on the west side of town, they don’t think the city has thought through all the options – of which the residents think there are plenty. 

“The trail is inevitable, and it’s not a bad idea,” said Debbie Slayton, a 26-year resident of Via Grande, where the project’s future trailhead is currently sited. “I want them to consider alternatives to what they proposed. (The current proposal) is not healthy for this poor little street.” 

El Toro Mountain, known to longtime locals as Murphy’s Peak, is a popular destination for hikers, weekend warriors and outdoor enthusiasts in Morgan Hill and surrounding areas. It used to be the site of an annual group hike organized by the Morgan Hill Historical Society, which some years brought more than 100 hikers to the top in a long line that was visible from the other side of the valley. 

The city, working with the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, first proposed a trail to the top of El Toro in 2002, according to Morgan Hill senior engineer Julie Behzad. 

The project, listed for completion by 2014 in the city’s five-year capital projects plan, includes the purchase of property to the tune of about $350,000. 

Now, as the project inches closer to fruition, more details about the proposal are emerging, and west-side residents are not pleased with the initial proposal which places a public trailhead at the end of Via Grande, which slopes up the foot of El Toro. 

The residents – some of whom have lived on the street for decades – are concerned about hikers parking their vehicles on their street, littering, increased fire hazards, and potential security issues. 

“I have to believe they have a better solution than sacrificing a quiet neighborhood with little kids,” said Amy Whelan, who lives just a couple houses from the end of Via Grande.

Her two children – ages 4 and 6 – played outside with the neighboring kids Wednesday afternoon, as a doe wandered across the field at the bottom of El Toro, just beyond a thigh-high wooden fence that is clearly marked with multiple “No Trespassing” signs. 

Residents in the area lined up in opposition to the proposal at a neighborhood meeting held by city staff Saturday, June 2. 

Whelan and other residents said they are not opposed to a trail to the top of El Toro – just to the city’s proposal for the trailhead and efforts to mitigate the impact of more hikers. 

The primary concerns for the residents are “trash, loitering and constant traffic” that are likely to come with a trailhead in a quiet neighborhood, said Whelan, who has lived on the street since 2004. 

“This street was never intended as a public thoroughfare,” said Whelan, who is also a library, culture and arts commissioner for the city, and a volunteer for the Morgan Hill Foundation. 

Even though the city has proposed starting the unpaved just past the end of Whelan’s street, they have not proposed building a parking area or restrooms. One solution to that twofold dilemma suggested by city staff is to encourage hikers to park at the public library on Peak Avenue, just a couple blocks down the hill. 

But residents think it’s unlikely that every hiker will follow that suggestion. Plus, the library is closed on Sunday and Monday, prohibiting the use of the restrooms on those days. 

“Even 10 cars would take up the whole street” on the side of Via Grande, Slayton added. 

The city’s proposal also currently includes another entrance to the trail via the parking lot of West Hills Community Church, on DeWitt Avenue. 

Another resident of Via Grande suggested making this site the only trailhead, and building a single loop trail that starts and ends at the same place, and not two separate trails that merge into one as the elevation rises. 

In fact, Slayton offered a list of alternatives to the city’s proposal. There’s plenty of room at the end of Main Avenue or Telfer Court to build a roomier trailhead with designated parking, and even restrooms, she said. 

While the city owns a large piece of the property on the eastern face of El Toro, toward the bottom of the hill, the top of the mountain – the logical destination for anyone who chooses to start the climb – is private property. 

That means hikers who traverse all the way to the top are trespassing, and therefore the city cannot yet sanction a formal or informal trail all the way to the top. That’s also the reason the historical society canceled the annual hike last year – it would cost the nonprofit too much money to protect itself and the owner from any claims for injuries or damages. 

There is no definite timeline for the completion of the project, Behzad said. The OSA is taking on the lead on property acquisition, which could initially include an easement agreement with the owners of private properties in the line of the trail. 

The city has also hired landscape architect Bellinger Foster Steinmetz to design the trail. 

The total projected cost for the project, including design, construction and the purchase of property, is about $820,000, and will be funded primarily by park impact fees and the open space fund. 

Up next in the process is a larger community meeting to which many more residents will be invited, Behzad said. Sometime after that, a final proposal will be presented to the city council. No dates have been set for either of those steps. 

Another part of the design process was an on-site survey of hikers conducted by the design consultant one recent Saturday. Between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., about 70 hikers embarked toward the top of El Toro that day. 

Most of those were local residents, and most indicated they have hiked on El Toro multiple times before, according to the survey results. 

Via Grande resident Joe McMorrow indicated these numbers show how much more crowded the site will become once a public trail is open and promoted throughout the region as a hikers’ destination. 

He also is not against the concept of a trail but, like others, he thinks it should be executed in a way that causes little disturbance to existing residents. 

He forwarded to the Times four letters from other residents on the street whose view of the city’s proposal can be similarly summarized. 

We are faced with a high volume of hikers today, and this trail is traveled currently by word of mouth and has ‘No Trespassing’ signs posted,” McMorrow wrote in an email. “Making this a public trail will negatively impact the safety of our neighborhood and will alter the natural environment along the northeast face of El Toro.”

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