If you’ve driven South or East Bay freeways recently, you’ve probably noticed that undeveloped hillsides are scarcer than ever. While subdivisions continue to gobble up what’s left, a coalition of environmental groups, farmers, and community members in Santa Clara County is trying to reverse the trend. The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Initiative, put on the November ballot with nearly 60,000 signatures, would amend the county’s general plan to preserve ranchlands, hillsides, and agricultural areas. According to Palo Alto City Councilmember Peter Drekmeier, who is also a member of People for Land and Nature (PLAN), the initiative intends to keep Santa Clara a desirable place to live and work. “This area used to be called the Valley of Heart’s Delight because of all the farms,” says Drekmeier. “Now we’re down to just a few patches along the 101 corridor by Gilroy.”
The initiative includes only the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County—those zoned for ranchland, agriculture, and hillsides. “We’re building on the existing general plan, strengthening it, and making it more permanent,” Drekmeier explains. Currently, the county board of supervisors can undo land use restrictions; once the initiative passes, any weakening or repealing would have to be done by voters.
One of the initiative’s innovations is to discourage subdividing ranchlands. The existing general plan has a complicated slope formula where subdividing land becomes more difficult the steeper the topography gets. PLAN’s initiative is more restrictive: if an area is zoned for ranching and the parcel is at least 160 acres, the landowner is allowed to put only one home on it—no matter what the slope. If the initiative passes, the number of homes allowed on hillsides would be halved, says Drekmeier. It also preserves the 40-acre-minimum parcel requirement for a designation of large-scale agriculture. Over 400,000 acres of rural land and wildlife habitat, including water and view sheds, will be protected; the initiative bans building within 150 feet of a stream, on ridgelines, or on slopes of 30 percent or more, to help retain wildlife habitat and allow the public to see the hills without looking at dozens of houses.
The Santa Clara effort would be the third in a series of Bay Area open space measures that have passed in the last two decades. It would connect lands protected by Alameda County’s Measure D with open space created by the 1986 San Mateo Initiative, resulting in a million-acre greenbelt.
Despite support from what Drekmeier calls “serious farmers—those who truly want to see farmland stay farmland”—the Santa Clara Farm Bureau, as well as a handful of realtors and developers called the Alliance for Housing and the Environment, have come out against the initiative. Jenny Derry, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, says restricting development on ranchlands will lower property values: “This is potentially the worst thing to happen to farmers and ranchers in our county in the last decade.” She believes that the initiative would make it hard for farmers to maintain their way of life—splitting off parcels for their children or mortgaging land to pay for farm machinery, for instance. She also opposes what she calls “land use by initiative instead of public process” and believes the existing “General Plan is changeable, and this is its strength.”
Greenbelt Alliance representative Michele Beasley disagrees, saying the initiative protects ranchland by deterring land speculation. She worries about leapfrog development if Congressman Richard Pombo’s (R-Stockton) plan to build a freeway over Mount Hamilton from the Central Valley to San Jose is successful. “The time is now to put in protections&to create an open space legacy for our grandchildren,” she says.
Drekmeier says PLAN tried to enlist as many players as possible in the four-year process. “We shopped it around and got a lot of feedback. We heard from farmers that they did not want us to include areas zoned medium- or large-scale ag—so the areas most suitable for development are not covered by the initiative.” The one home per 160-acres of ranchland is not as restrictive as Alameda County’s, which allows one home per 320 acres.
Stanford professor Robert Girard, architect of this and many similar open-space measures, adds that the initiative was the result of elaborate polling of Santa Clara County residents, endless meetings, and discussions with planners. This initiative, he says, is “an effort to strike a balance between built-up areas and [the] peace of rural areas”—to protect a “large reserve of open land from going the way of Southern California.”
Over 70 percent of the Santa Clara residents PLAN polled said they would most likely vote for it. Other counties—including Merced and Butte—are considering similar measures, says Drekmeier. “Once an area’s developed, you can’t turn it back. That’s why we’re being pro-active here.”