Environmental group questions assessment model
Gilroy – Local environmentalists say the city’s farmland-preservation policy has a hole big enough for a 360-acre housing project to slip through.
They say that Glen Loma Ranch, a 1,700-unit housing development slated for the city’s southwest quadrant, could be the first of many projects in which developers avoid spending thousands of dollars to preserve farmland.
The city’s agricultural mitigation policy requires developers to preserve one acre of farmland for every acre of “significant” agricultural land they develop. The policy relies on the state-sanctioned Land Evaluation and Site Assessment model, commonly referred to as LESA, to determine if land is truly suitable for crops.
Members of the local Save Open Space group question the use of the LESA model in the case of Glen Loma Ranch, but city officials and project representatives defend the policy and their use of the LESA approach.
Their differences lie in the complex formulas used to assess the suitability of land for agriculture.
SOS v. Glen Loma
At an October city council meeting, SOS member Carolyn Tognetti questioned a small but critical portion of the LESA analysis that freed the developers from having to preserve land elsewhere. Specifically, she said the consultant hired by the Filice family, who make up the Glen Loma Group, identified rainfall as the only source of water available for crops. In the context of the 100-point LESA model, she said the “incorrect calculation” caused the developers to fall shy of the preservation threshold by just 1.25 points.
The city required several irrigation wells to be sealed off as part of its purchase four years ago of land that became the Ascension Solorsano Middle School, off Santa Teresa Boulevard.
“[B]ut this does not mean that water is not available from the underground aquifer if new wells were to be drilled,” Tognetti said. “We are afraid that simply ceasing irrigation and allowing formerly productive agricultural land to lay fallow for four years prior to development is a very big loophole for future developers to use to avoid complying with Gilroy’s agricultural mitigation policy.”
Tognetti claims that roughly 50 acres of the project would need to be replaced under the city’s preservation policy if the “water resource score” was ranked slightly higher based on the availability of groundwater.
Connie Rogers, another SOS member, criticized the consultant’s reliance on the history of water resources at the Glen Loma site. The LESA analysis is prefaced by six letters from Filice family members and others who at one point farmed portions of the land. Each letter generally argues that underground aquifers are incapable of producing enough water for a sustainable agricultural operation.
“Yeah, it’s information we have, but I don’t think there are any other authorities out there that can make statements about the property’s ability to support agricultural uses,” said Tim Filice, the family’s representative.
David Kelley, an environmental consultant hired by the Filice family to perform the analysis, allowed for the possibility that groundwater could once again be tapped for irrigation. But he raised serious concerns about the effect of new wells on Uvas Creek, as well as the costs involved in creating new wells compared to the potential returns.
Those considerations, he said, factored into his lower rating for the site’s water resources. He stressed that the water ranking is just a small piece of a much broader test that looks at the quality of soil, surrounding development, and other factors that influence the value of the land for farming. Kelley’s LESA analysis placed the land at the lower end of the scale in those areas, as well.
“In the grand scheme of things, the scores look pretty close, but by the time you get closer to the bottom of that (ranking), it’s really not the best land for farming,” he said. “You’re working at the bottom end of agricultural ground. In this particular case, it would be hard to make the case that that’s viable agricultural land.”
A series of
SOS members point out that the Glen Loma project is not the first to narrowly avoid triggering the city’s agricultural mitigation policy. The LESA analysis that accompanied the Hecker Pass Specific Plan, development guidelines for hundreds of acres of farmland and hillsides on the city’s western side, also missed the preservation threshold by a handful of points, according to Rogers and Tognetti.
They said SOS chose not to make an issue of the matter since council members insisted that farmland preservation goals be worked into the development guidelines approved for the area. But now, the same environmentalists worry that developers will be able to sidestep farmland preservation by simply letting the land lay fallow.
Richard Barberi, who owns 23 acres in South Gilroy, is doing just that in an attempt to get the family’s land annexed to the city. The Local Agency Formation Commission has so far rebuffed the city’s attempts to incorporate the land, which is surrounded by housing, car dealerships, and now the city’s sports complex.
City officials point out, however, that the Barberi land represents the first appropriate application of the agricultural mitigation policy.
City Planner Cydney Casper said the task force that crafted the policy envisioned its application for use on lands outside the city limits, typically as part of the annexation process. A LESA analysis included in Barberi’s latest bid for inclusion in the city’s borders shows they will have to preserve 23 acres of land elsewhere on the city’s outskirts if they hope to develop their parcel.
Rogers said she would stop short of asking ask city leaders to rewrite the agricultural mitigation policy.
“I guess Mr. Barberi’s land will be the test,” she said.