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If anyone in the packed Dec. 7 Morgan Hill City Council meeting chambers was against efforts to preserve a small parcel on the lower eastern face of El Toro Mountain, they didn’t say so.

What many of the 100-plus residents in attendance for the public hearing on the property purchase disagreed on was whether the site, and even the mountain as a whole, should be opened up for public recreation—a situation some fear will bring bigger crowds and associated litter, fire hazards, crime and too much traffic to their neighborhoods.

After hearing from more than 20 residents during the public hearing, the council voted 4-0 to partner with the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority to purchase the property, which is located at the end of West Main Avenue. Mayor Pro Temp Rich Constantine was absent from the meeting.

The city and OSA will share equally in the $1.51-million cost of the 6.6-acre property, while the OSA will manage it for conservation and, eventually, recreational facilities for the public. This will likely include, at minimum, a trailhead to provide hikers access to trails on El Toro properties already owned by the city and OSA.

The next steps in the process will be to determine—with public outreach—exactly what type of access should be developed at the West Main site, and to improve an existing one-mile fire road on El Toro for use as a hiking trail, according to OSA Assistant General Manager Matt Freeman.

Freeman told the council that the purchase of the West Main property from the Pravettoni family “aligns perfectly” with OSA’s mission: to protect open space and to provide people with opportunities to “connect with nature.”

“This project has tremendous merit, and provides community benefit precisely because of its urban access,” Freeman said, noting that hundreds of residences are located within a short walk from the site.

He predicted, despite what some residents fear, that the trailhead would be a mostly local—rather than regional—attraction due to the El Toro preserve’s small size. In recent years, the city and OSA combined have acquired or gained access to 120 acres of El Toro Mountain.

Freeman also explained the planning for the new trailhead will consider at least three scenarios of varying invasiveness to the West Main property and surrounding homes: pedestrian access with bicycle parking; a vehicle drop-off area and limited or disabled parking; or a larger parking area for general visitors. Each scenario could also include picnic areas and interpretive signage throughout the site.

The proposed trail network will not yet reach the top of El Toro, as that property is privately owned. Freeman explained, after further discussions with these owners, the OSA could end up building a fence to keep hikers off the private lands.

A long-term goal of the OSA is to establish new trails all the way to the top by purchasing more private properties on El Toro, including some on the “back side” that faces away from Morgan Hill, Freeman said.

Many residents who spoke at the Dec. 7 meeting wore buttons that read “Save El Toro” and live in neighborhoods that butt up against the mountain. They said their streets are already overrun with speeding traffic, unsavory loiterers and crime. Some recounted recent burglaries of their homes. They feared that inviting more people to the neighborhood by opening a public trail would bring more unwanted activity.

“We’re very concerned with the risk of fire, the risk to our children,” said Joe McMorrow, who lives at the foot of El Toro. He started a petition on change.org to halt the development of a trailhead on West Main Avenue, which gathered more than 350 signatures before the Dec. 7 council meeting.

Others spoke in support of a trailhead at the Dec. 7 meeting. Some confessed to having hiked El Toro trails many times in the past, as the site has become a popular destination for illegal hiking over the years.

“I think we can plan this in a way that keeps all the parking out of the neighborhoods,” said Rich Bergin, who used to live in one of the neighborhoods at the base of El Toro.

Ron Erskine, who lives at the foot of El Toro (also known as Murphy’s Peak) and is in favor of a trailhead, noted that people will continue to hike up El Toro whether it is open to the public or not.

He said residents need more opportunities to connect with nature. “I think too often our experience with nature has become the television or through the car window,” Erskine told the council.

Land acquisition woes

A trailhead and related public amenities accessing El Toro Mountain have been part of the city’s long-term trails plan since 2007. In February 2015, the council approved an El Toro strategy that prefers a “primary trailhead” to the south of the West Main property, closer to the intersection of Spring and DeWitt avenues.

OSA General Manager Andrea Mackenzie said OSA has negotiated with property owner West Hills Community Church near this intersection in an effort to purchase or gain an easement to their land for El Toro parking. After four years of negotiations—which included an offer by the OSA to buy the property at fair market value—the two parties have been unable to reach an agreement.

Council members pointed out that everyone who spoke at the Dec. 7 meeting agrees that El Toro should be preserved from residential or commercial development, and that’s why the city and OSA should purchase the West Main property. They urged residents in attendance to take part in the OSA’s upcoming planning process for a new El Toro trailhead, so they can help determine how much public access the mountain will see.

“This is an opportunity to save more of El Toro, which is what everybody wants,” Mayor Steve Tate said.

The eastern portion of the 6.6-acre property contains a home, which Freeman said the OSA would sell as soon it acquires the site. The western portion of the property is vacant open space.

The “highest and best use” for the site is for residential, as Freeman noted another buyer would be able to develop up to two more houses on the property if the OSA doesn’t acquire it.

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.


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