After years of speculation, a longtime vision of transforming an open, green expanse on the southern edge of San Jose into an employment center where thousands of people could work has officially been taken off the table.

The San Jose City Council on Tuesday night unanimously voted to protect 314 acres of remaining undeveloped land in North Coyote Valley by rezoning it from an industrial park designation to agricultural — a move aimed at blocking the potential construction of giant warehouses and distribution centers on the valley floor.

“I think today what the city is doing is pointing in a particular direction as to where we want to see Coyote Valley go in a more definitive way than we have in the past,” said Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, who represents the district that encompasses the valley.

Councilmember Pam Foley added that she felt preserving the land was “unquestionably the right thing to do,” especially given the “undeniable environmental and social benefits” that it would create.

Coyote Valley comprises 7,400 acres of primarily rural land spanning from the southern periphery of San Jose to the northern edges of Morgan Hill. The northern section of the valley, which is located entirely within San Jose city limits, has long been designated as a promising area to add more jobs. However, environmental groups have continuously pushed back against these plans, including from the 80s to the early 2000s when tech giants like Apple, Tandem and Cisco Systems were interested in building campuses there.

Environmentalists have long advocated that it should remain as open space and agricultural land for the farmers and wildlife who live there, and over time city officials have indicated that they feel the same. In November 2019, for example, the city partnered with the Peninsula Open Space Trust, an environmental group based in Palo Alto, and Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority to spend $96 million to acquire 937 acres in North Coyote Valley from developers Brandenburg Properties and the Sobrato Organization.

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At this point, the only viable employment use for North Coyote Valley was in the warehouse and distribution sector, which city planners estimated could support approximately 5,500 jobs there. But city leaders and environmentalists argued that placing a new job center in a rural area without public transit would negate the city’s progress toward its climate goals, including becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

Advocates of preserving Coyote Valley say that it is one of the Bay Area’s most critical landscapes and highlight its importance in reducing flood risks in San Jose, safeguarding water quality and wildlife, supporting small farmers and boosting recreational opportunities for the community. The Coyote Valley is the last remaining open valley floor in the Bay Area for wildlife to migrate between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range.

Megan Fluke, executive director of the environmental nonprofit group Green Foothills, called Tuesday’s night vote by the city council a “historic milestone.”

“By protecting Coyote Valley, San Jose has taken a landmark step and is setting the standard in the fight against climate change,” she said in a statement.

Although the council’s decision was celebrated by environmentalists like Fluke, it’s likely to create some blowback — and potentially a legal battle — from some of the affected Coyote Valley landowners whose properties will now be under new zoning restrictions.

Most of the Coyote Valley landowners who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting told stories about their family’s long history of farming in the valley but expressed that agriculture was no longer a viable use of the land — a claim refuted by some city and council officials and environmental groups.

“Saying that you want to preserve farmland sounds good and noble but it doesn’t make sense, especially to the landowners who are subsidizing it,” said Janet Costa Hebert, whose family has owned property in Coyote Valley for more than a century. “So many people have opinions about what should happen to the land in Coyote — land that belongs to other people. …If the masses feel strongly about how the land should be used, then buy it, and buy it for a fair price.”

A handful of landowners are already under contract to sell their land to Texas-based real estate developer Crow Holdings Industrial, which plans to build two warehouses — both spanning the length of more than six football fields — at 8820 Santa Teresa Boulevard. The project would replace 126 acres of mostly vacant farmland, as well as the beloved Spina Farms Pumpkin Patch and fruit stand.

Attorneys representing those property owners argue that rezoning the land solely for agricultural use is unconstitutional because it leaves the landowners with no “economically beneficial or productive use” of their properties.

“Doing right means treating all property owners equally and fairly,” said Edward Burg, an attorney representing the landowners under contract with Crow Holdings. “If you want to preserve the properties then take time to raise the money to acquire the properties for their fair market value, that way you can heed the voices that are asking you to do good while also doing right.”

While some city councilmembers expressed interest in looking for ways to help compensate the landowners for preserving their properties as farmland and open space, Mayor Sam Liccardo said there “simply was no pot of money that the city has to pay everyone what they think their land is worth.”

“That is not the way it works with land use in this city or any other cities,” he said. “We make land-use decisions all the time that diminish the value of land and we do so within the law and within the constitution.”