New cemetery proposal in San Jose's Coyote Valley could harm wildlife, environmentalists say

Coyote Valley ridge. Photo: Ron Horri/Open Space Authority

Environmentalists are urging San Jose leaders to reconsider plans for a new cemetery in Coyote Valley, claiming it will harm large swaths of natural habitats. 

The Heritage Oaks Memorial Park cemetery project would be built on 102 acres of Coyote Valley's ridge on the south side of Bailey Avenue, east of McKean Road. The hillside property would include a funeral home, chapel, office, parking, mausoleums, crematorium, maintenance building and connecting roads.

Erik Schoennauer, land use consultant for the project, said Coyote Valley is the best option because families like to bury loved ones in serene locations and it provides space to do so.

"Where else is there 100 acres of land to build a cemetery?" he told San Jose Spotlight. "There isn't any."

But local environmentalists oppose the development, saying its extensive grading will flatten out the ridge line in an area critical for wildlife habitat, flood and groundwater protection, agriculture and climate resilience. 

During a virtual community meeting Thursday hosted by the San Jose Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department, about 20 residents and environmentalists spoke out against the project and demanded the city conduct another environmental impact report.

Alice Kaufman, policy and advocacy director of conservation nonprofit Green Foothills, said after city leaders approved the first environmental impact report in 2014, they reversed their stance and instead wanted it protected as agricultural land and open space. Kaufman said doing an additional environmental analysis on this project is part of continued protection efforts.

"Fragmenting a landscape is very detrimental to wildlife connectivity," Kaufman told San Jose Spotlight. "Bobcats use this site extensively. The landscape linkage through Coyote Valley... connects the Santa Cruz Mountains. Otherwise, the Santa Cruz Mountains become an island of habitat surrounded by an ocean of development and the animals get cut off. That can have devastating impacts on the genetic stability of the mountain lion population."

Representatives with city planning said if the department determines the project results in new significant impacts, a supplemental environmental impact report will be created. If not, an addendum will be added to the 2014 report and the project will advance to a city planning director's hearing.

But if significant environmental impacts are found, the project will go before the San Jose Planning Commission for a recommendation and then to the San Jose City Council for a final decision.

Schoennauer said the development plans for the future cemetery were created with consultants from Service Corporation International, which owns and operates Oak Hill Funeral Home & Memorial Park in San Jose. They also collaborated closely with San Jose on its Envision 2040 General Plan to allow cemeteries within the open hillside designated areas of the city. The general plan presents a road map to guide the city's growth through the year 2040.

In addressing community concerns, Schoennauer said the project isn't on the valley floor and won't disturb the wildlife. Additionally, he said there are many environmental protection conditions placed on the project, including the requirement to dedicate 173 acres of open space adjacent to the memorial park.

"The animals can use and pass through that open wilderness land," Schoennauer told San Jose Spotlight. "In addition, the design of the cemetery itself will not obstruct wildlife."

But Kaufman said it's not good enough to say animals can pass between buildings, as wildlife movement is often deterred by the presence of humans.

"What animals need is good quality habitat they can both live in and move through," she said. "That's really necessary for their survival."

Gerry DeYoung, senior land development manager at HMH, a civil engineering company working with Service Corporation International, said during the meeting that a new cemetery hasn't been built in San Jose in 134 years--and the existing ones are reaching capacity. 

Dashiell Leeds, a member of Sierra Club Loma Prieta chapter, said new land use and regulatory changes which weren't in place when the original environmental impact report was written are now active, including updated guidelines under the California Environmental Quality Act.

"A lot of the land around this project is now protected for creating a safe passage for wildlife," Leeds said. "This project could impede those efforts and potentially undo the significant effort and investment by San Jose and the Open Space Authority in preserving Coyote Valley as a wildlife linkage."