Open space ahead?

Gilroy
– After years of discussion, Gilroy city council members are
poised to make a decision about joining the county’s Open Space
Authority, but there’s a lot of debate still ahead.
Gilroy – After years of discussion, Gilroy city council members are poised to make a decision about joining the county’s Open Space Authority, but there’s a lot of debate still ahead.

Gilroy is the county’s only jurisdiction that hasn’t joined the Authority. Ten years ago, city voters rejected joining the land trust agency, and while there appears to be momentum gathering to establish some kind of land conservancy program in Gilroy, council members are not yet united on the best way to do it.

“I have some concerns,” Councilman Roland Velasco said Thursday. “Part of the reason we’re having this continued debate is that so all council members can get educated on the Open Space Authority and what it means for Gilroy, and then we can make a decision on the route we’re going to take.”

City Administrator Jay Baksa said Wednesday that city officials believe preserving open space is “in general, the right thing to do.”

“There’s always some resistance when it comes to the use of funds and what the trade-off is,” he said, “but for the most part, there is support for the concept of open space.”

But the concept of managing open space is not so clear cut.

For Gilroy to join the Authority, voters will have approve a $32 annual parcel tax. The tax will add about $400,000 a year to the Authority’s coffers, but only 20 percent of that money is guaranteed to be spent in Gilroy. So in order to give residents the most for their money, the council will explore setting up a city land trust that would keep all tax revenue local.

“All that money would come directly to the city,” Baksa said. “We could use it for more parkland, or more open space. Whatever the city feels is in its best interest.”

Another option is for Gilroy to join the Authority but establish its own district within it, a move that would require approval of the Authority board.

“I don’t know how other jurisdictions would look on that, but we understand the dilemma the city is faced with,” said Patrick Congdon, the Authority’s general manager. “The money can be spent throughout the county and the city has to come to grips with that.”

Yet another option would be for Gilroy to enter a partnership agreement with the Authority to assist with the city’s agriculture mitigation policy. City policy requires that any ag land used for development be replaced in or just outside city borders.

“We could just keep things the way they are with the caveat that we could enter into an agreement to help in mitigation with agriculture properties,” Baksa said. “That would keep money in South County.”

Congdon said he’s eager for Gilroy to join the Authority but understands why city leaders have wrestled with the decision for so long.

“I think in some respects they need to be commended for the time they’re taking,” he said. “They’re trying to do the right thing. I think there’s support on the council, but it’s one thing to become a part of the Authority, and another to come up with the funding.”

Funding is dependent on voter approval. If the council decides to go that route, voting will take place by mail and be decided by a simple majority. Velasco said that approval will probably rest on how the parcel tax is proposed.

“It all depends on how it’s framed and what Gilroy is getting for its entry into the program,” he said. “If we ask if Gilroy should protect the environment, people will say yes. But if we ask if Gilroy should join the Open Space Authority, and you have to pay $32 a year, people might start to balk.”

Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage expressed strong support for joining the Authority, calling it a benefit to the community.

“”It’s a good idea. The Authority puts on a lot of pressure for maintaining permanent open space and lets the city do things it otherwise couldn’t do,” Gage said. “And joining doesn’t mean that you have to sell your soul.”

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