County proposes to change rules for assembly facilities

– Santa Clara County supervisors will be asked to approve new
studies to find ways to ease land-use rules governing construction
of large, urban-style churches, schools and other assembly
facilities in unincorporated areas.
SAN JOSE – Santa Clara County supervisors will be asked to approve new studies to find ways to ease land-use rules governing construction of large, urban-style churches, schools and other assembly facilities in unincorporated areas.

Supervisors Don Gage and Pete McHugh, who serve on the Housing, Land Use, Environment & Transportation Committee, made the recommendation after a 90-minute public hearing Thursday morning.

On a motion by Gage, they voted to ask the full board to approve joint studies of so-called “LGAFs,” or “large group assembly facilities,” within the cities of San Jose and Morgan Hill. The studies would identify appropriate sites for LGAFs within city limits, the cities’ urban service areas and their spheres of influence.

“We really need to find a solution,” Gage said during Thursday’s meeting, about the problem some churches, schools and athletic groups have reported in finding suitable sites within area cities. “We have a lot of quality organizations that provide a lot of service to the community.”

Although Gage wants to pursue joint studies with San Jose and Morgan Hill, both cities have submitted letters to the county opposing rule changes regarding LGAFs.

“The city’s position is that the county should maintain its long-standing policy of requiring urban development to occur within the cities and not within the rural unincorporated areas,” wrote Jim Rowe, planning manager for the City of Morgan Hill.

Gage and McHugh will also ask the full board to approve a review of the county’s current zoning ordinances for areas where clarification is needed. Gage specifically excluded land zoned rural residential or agriculture-1, as well as hillside areas, from the zoning review.

The full board is expected to take up the matter in December.

The county’s preliminary LGAF study, released on Sept. 11, raises a number of potential problems in allowing the construction of large, urban-style developments on rural, unincorporated land:

• Septic systems – According to the report, much of the land in South County is likely to fail a percolation test, meaning septic systems would not work. Because unincorporated land would not have access to city water and sewer systems, developers might be required to install and operate costly wastewater-treatment facilities.

• Flooding – much of the land in South County is located on flood plains of the Llagas Creek and its tributaries and is therefore subject to flooding.

• Water Quality – much of the land in South County has high nitrate levels, which might force developers to filter drinking water.

• Runoff – covering undeveloped land with impervious surfaces such as concrete, asphalt or buildings increases the amount of stormwater runoff that can pollute water supplies and contribute to flooding.

• Emergency services – without access to public water supplies, developers of rural sites would be required to store water for use in case of fire. In addition, the location of assembly facilities in rural areas places a strain on fire and ambulance services that tend to be less prevalent than in urban areas.

Although most of the written responses to the study opposed easing rules governing LGAFs, at Thursday’s public hearing, speakers were divided about the desirability of allowing urban-style development on rural land.

Jenny Derry, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, said that farming and urban-style development can’t coexist peacefully.

“LGAFs are incompatible with agriculture,” Derry told the committee, citing the dust, noise and odors farming generates. “Farming is annoying to anyone who doesn’t do it.”

Derry also addressed the diminishing farmland available in Santa Clara County.

“Once soil is paved over, it never sees the light of day again,” she said. “LGAFs can exist and flourish within city limits. Agriculture cannot.”

But other speakers asked the committee to find a way to allow sports and nonprofit groups to develop facilities on unincorporated sites.

“An LGAF is not an LGAF is not an LGAF,” said Brad Bosomworth of the Almaden Youth Association, which is hoping to develop a temporary youth sports park on 77 acres on land owned by the San Jose Unified School District on McKean Road in the Almaden Valley. “There is an entire spectrum of different uses.”

Dave Sawkins of the Coalition of Churches for Land Use said new churches can’t find suitable sites within cities.

“We are talking about churches that are looking to build facilities that will accommodate 1,000 people,” Sawkins said, noting that the buildings need to be at least 10,000 square feet. “These (rural sites) are the last existing places that have enough land mass.”

Several speakers advocated finding ways to encourage groups to build LGAFs within city limits.

“It’s important to look beyond what appears to be a quick fix,” said Denice Dade of the Committee for Green Foothills. “True fixes will come at the city and state level. We need to create incentives to locate (LGAFs) in existing urban areas.”

The final decision on easing LGAF rules could affect several projects in South County, ranging from the Morgan Hill Bible Church’s expansion bid just south of Morgan Hill to a meditation center on Little Uvas Road west of the city.

Details: The staff report on LGAFs is available on the county’s Web site at

Staff Writer Jonathan Jeisel contributed to this report.