Political Fallout on Miller

Don and Bev Pierce stand in what used to be a quiet backyard

Growing number of Miller Avenue residents opposing
council-approved building plans
Gilroy – Freda Bond spent Thursday knocking on doors along Miller Avenue and its side streets. Bond, 84, worked well into the night but gathered just 18 signatures on a petition to oppose a controversial housing project in her showcase neighborhood. Her work was slowed, she explained, by conversations with fellow homeowners.

“The problem was that a lot of these people I’ve never met before,” Bond said. “The next thing I know I’m talking for half an hour with them. … I thought I was going to get a lot of, ‘Ho-hum. What can we do? This is politics.’ But everyone was just really upset about this.”

Bond, who lives with her husband at 7541 Miller Ave., is one of a growing number of residents opposing plans to build six homes where two now stand at 7861 and 7891 Miller Ave., just south of the First Street corridor. City council members in May narrowly approved a rezoning to clear the way for the project, but opponents hope a final push will convince councilmen to reconsider their position during a final vote next week.

Some officials and residents view the fight as a narrow case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). But the frustrations of Miller Avenue residents and their sympathizers may prove hard to ignore in light of the last council election, where just 70 votes spelled defeat for one candidate.

Some, like Bond, say the Monday night decision will determine who gets their vote in the fall city council election. Of three sitting councilmen running in November, two – Bob Dillon and Craig Gartman – have said they will vote against the project. Councilman Charles Morales, who represents a crucial swing vote on the seven-member governing body, has indicated he will likely vote in favor of the project.

“I definitely have voiced my opinion that I would not vote for Charles Morales,” Bond said. “Even if he changed his mind, I wouldn’t vote for him anyway.”

Other residents have expressed similar feelings.

Don and Bev Pierce, residents of Amanda Avenue, say they will not vote for any council member who supports the project, proposed by Neil Mussallem Sr. and Jr., a father-son development team. They say councilmen ignored their objections to another Mussallem project that went up behind their home.

“If you look at it overall, who really wants to live within touching distance of neighbors houses on little dinky lots with huge homes?” Don Pierce asked. “Once the city council allows this, you’re ruining the neighborhoods by packing us together like rats.”

The Mussallems did not return a call for comment.

Morales stressed that his May vote in favor of the project helps meet the city’s broader development goals.

“It is not a Charlie Morales policy,” he said. “It’s a matter of smart growth and in-fill policies.”

He pointed out that the developers have taken a number of steps to ease public and council concerns, such as scaling back the number of homes, setting them farther back from Miller Avenue, and reducing two of the houses from two stories to one.

City officials who supported the project point out that it lies on the outer edge of the showcase neighborhood, a few hundred feet from the First Street shopping corridor and next to an apartment complex.

Yet Morales remains keenly aware of the mounting political pressure surrounding the issue. In recent weeks, he has personally met with neighbors to find a “win-win solution” and the South County Democratic Club’s campaign coordinator Chris Coté, a local environmental advocate and developer, has made several phone calls to opposition leader Robb Alonzo to find common ground.

“I think that it’s important that everybody come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to compromise,” Coté said. He added that Morales, immediately after the Monday night vote, intends to propose a historic district to protect other large lots in the neighborhood.

The move prompted Alonzo to pull development permits for his own large lot on Miller Avenue.

Referring to Alonzo’s threat to develop if the Mussallem project is approved, Coté said “it really seems like he’s trying to cut off the whole neighborhood’s nose to spite their face. Somebody that really cares about a neighborhood doesn’t preserve it only as long as it’s convenient.”

Alonzo, who said he will shelve his development proposal if the city rejects the Mussallem project, said he has received dozens of supportive calls since the story went public.

“I haven’t had one phone call yet of somebody saying I’m in the wrong, that I should compromise with the developer,” he said. “We’ve taken a lot of calls since the paper ran the first story. I’m suspecting it must be affecting the elections, otherwise, Charlie’s camp wouldn’t be calling us.”

At the same time, Alonzo acknowledged that it takes more than a single councilman to push through a vote.

“It’s not really all up on Charlie’s shoulders to make this right,” Alonzo said. “I’m meeting with (Councilman) Paul Correa this weekend on this issue. The four that voted for the [initial rezoning] should look at what they’ve done and reconsider that.”

In addition to Correa and Morales, Mayor Al Pinheiro and Councilman Roland Velasco voted in favor of the rezoning that cleared the way for the Mussallem project.

“I’m going to meet with (Alonzo), hear him out and listen to the facts,” Correa said. “I’ll be open-minded, see if there is any other new information. I’m going to be looking to make sure that they put forth a design proposal that fits the neighborhood and that side of Miller Avenue.”

In the meantime, a handful of Miller Avenue residents will rally support for one last-ditch effort to win over council.

Albert Gagliardi, who lives in a home facing the Mussallem project, planned to spend his weekend gathering petition signatures.

“We’re going to fight,” Gagliardi promised. “It’s just like being a boxer. You go in thinking you’re going to win, even if you get the hell kicked out of you.”

WHAT: Miller Avenue vote

WHEN: Monday at 7pm

WHERE: City Council Chambers at City Hall, 7351 Rosanna St.

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