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August 1, 2006 > The Battle for 520 Acres

The Battle for 520 Acres

by Jessamyn Edra

"We are all stewards of the land," says Elaine Szeto. Jana Sokale agrees and adds, "And different land has different capabilities." Szeto and Sokale are Friends of Coyote Hills and Fremont (FCHF) volunteers.

Fremont voters must decide what capabilities will best suit the 520 acres of land bounded by the Coyote Hills Regional Park and the Ardenwood area. Of the 520 acres, 428 acres are owned by the Patterson family while the remaining 92 acres are owned by Cargill Salt. Plans for development of this 520 acre stretch were halted when FCHF volunteers presented over 13,000 signatures to place the Protect Coyote Hills Natural Area Initiative on November's ballot.

Seemingly overnight, the land has become the center of fierce debate. In June 2006, the Northern Plain Planning Area Initiative Evaluation was presented to the city of Fremont by the independent consultants: Impact Sciences, Bay Area Economics, and DKS Associates. The evaluation set forth four scenarios for the land and each scenario's impact on the economy, the environment, and city services.

Scenario 1 describes the land under the existing general plan and zoning. Scenarios 2 and 3 describe the land under facets of the Initiative, while Scenario 4 describes the proposal set forth by the Frisbie Planning Company, Inc., which represents the interests of the Patterson Family.

Under the current city plan, "the majority of the Patterson Ranch property could be developed with either low-density residential or as agricultural land. The Cargill Salt property would be developed as restricted industrial space," according to the Northern Plain Planning Evaluation. 

The Patterson Ranch Development and Environmental Preservation and Enhancement Plan would create a total of 800 houses, a Town Center Retail area, a church, an elementary school, and a community park. FCHF would like to see the land protected-used primarily "for agriculture, commercial uses supportive of agriculture and open space, and a small number of rural homes," as one of the organization's fliers reads.

Yet according to the Patterson Ranch Development Plan, "Agricultural uses provided by a private party as a worthwhile economic endeavor are no longer feasible."

Szeto disagrees. "The land is very suitable for agriculture," she says, especially with the latest push for organic foods. Sokale cites Perry Farms in Ardenwood as a local example of a successful organic farm. And its farm is much smaller than the area in question. "The area is a primary for organic farming," says Sokale. 

Richard Frisbie, owner of the Frisbie Planning Company, is doubtful. "You show me some farmers that want to do it," he says. "It's not economically justifiable."

According to the Northern Plain Planning Evaluation, the Patterson Ranch proposal has a "beneficial fiscal impact," a "$5.1 million increase" over "baseline for anticipated development impact fees."

In contrast, the farmland option proposed by FCHF is cited as having a "$9.0 million shortfall over baseline." The only beneficial fiscal impact cited is to the East Bay Regional Park District operating budget.

Despite this, Sokale argues, "Ultimately, over time, housing developments are revenue-neutral for the city." She says that the city must provide certain resources to all the people living in the houses, such as space in already overcrowded schools, firehouses, police stations, and other services. This costs the city money, while organic agriculture and an open recreation space would bring "something different that adds diversity to the economy," according to Sokale.

Indeed, the new elementary school touted by the Patterson Ranch proposal could prove quite costly to the school district when the 300 or so students must find room at jam-packed junior and senior high schools. Asked to comment on this, Frisbie states, "I really don't have an answer to that." He says he will have to work with the district to find one.

First and foremost, the Protect Coyote Hills Natural Area Initiative seeks to protect the land, something that is hard to measure in dollars and cents. The Northern Plain Planning Evaluation finds that under the Initiative, minimal to moderate amounts of harmful ozone precursors will be emitted, depending on the type of agricultural operations.

In contrast, the potential for emissions is substantial under the Patterson Ranch proposal because of the "motor vehicles associated with residential and industrial development," states the report. In fact, according to the report, "15,180 additional daily trips, 1,164 AM and 1,678 PM additional peak hour trips" will be added to the roads surrounding the area.

Even Frisbie himself admits, "Traffic is the best argument they have."

Yet the Patterson Ranch proposal also seeks to be environmentally aware. Under the proposal, the 246 acres closest to the Coyote Hills Regional Park, the most sensitive area of the land, will be gifted to the East Bay Regional Parks District. Frisbie states, "It's a substantial gift."

Szeto disagrees. Because of the land's proximity to protected wetlands, it is impossible to build on the land in the first place. "What underlies that gift is land that cannot be developed," she says.

 For the Friends of Coyote Hills and Fremont, the land is best left in its natural state. "I think people from all over the Bay Area like to come here," Szeto says. "We have a special spot to distinguish Fremont on the map," Sokale agrees. 

The Coyote Hills Natural Area, under the Initiative, would be a place of "regional eco-tourism that will support businesses already in town," Sokale says.

It will be a place that simply provides for the quality of life for Fremont residents, a place of calm and peace in a world that changes all too quickly. And as Sokale notes, "We should think about the community we want to live in given these changes." Different lands have different potential-this November it will be up to Fremont voters to decide how 520 acres will best fulfill its potential.

For more information, please note the following Web sites:
*, for more on the Patterson Ranch proposal,
*, for more on the Protect Coyote Hills Natural Area Initiative,
*, for more on the Northern Plain Planning Area Initiative Evaluation, which is available in PDF format at the bottom of the Web page.

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