A Year of Milestones

San Martin, the county’s quiet hamlet, will visit a number of
critical issues in 2006
Morgan Hill – San Martin residents have Jan. 31 circled in red on their calendars.

On that day, the Olin Corp. will announce how thoroughly it intends to clean the perchlorate that has contaminated South County’s groundwater for decades. On that day, nearly three years after the pollution was revealed, residents will at last have a good idea of when the pollution will be gone.

“I remember when we had those first meetings and we were told it would be 50 years before they could clean it up,” said Sylvia Hamilton, president of the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance and chairwoman of the Perchlorate Community Action Group. “Between the efforts of Olin and the other stakeholders, I’m absolutely amazed at the point we’ve reached.”

But that Tuesday at the end of January is just the first of many milestones in what promises to be a critical year for the future of San Martin.

By the time 2006 comes to a close, perchlorate cleanup could be under way or headed to court, the expansion of the South County Airport may be in motion and incorporation, the neighborhood alliance’s holy grail, could be in sight or finally out of reach.

“It’s very important to the people who live and work in San Martin,” Hamilton said. “That the destiny of San Martin and their quality of life is determined by the people who live here.”

But for that to happen, state lawmakers will have to pass legislation sponsored by Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, that changes the way vehicle licensing fees are distributed to all the cities in the state – legislation that died last year when it was opposed by the League of California Cities.

The Laird legislation seeks to remedy an unforeseen consequence of Proposition 1A. Passed in 2004, Prop. 1A protects cities and counties from having tax revenue taken by the state through a complicated process whereby schools hand over property tax revenue to their municipalities and are reimbursed by the state. It did not, however, include language dealing with new towns.

The Laird bill would help San Martin receive its annual share of vehicle registration fees up to about $450,000. Without that revenue, its residents cannot raise the approximately $2.3 million it would need each year to support city services.

The league of cities now supports the bill, AB 1602, but at present there are no hearings set to consider the new law.

“If the Laird bill doesn’t pass then some other bill will have to pass,” said Richard van’t Rood, chairman of the alliance’s incorporation committee. “We have to be funded to the same degree as other cities, otherwise we can’t incorporate.”

The SMNA was founded to rally San Martin’s 5,500 residents around the idea of forming their own city. Most San Martin residents believe they live in a little piece of heaven, but they are squeezed between Morgan Hill and Gilroy, two towns bent on growing in size and clout. And when it comes to planning and development, San Martin residents are at the mercy of county officials, who direct the area’s growth and have little incentive to take residents’ concerns seriously.

One project that’s especially galling to residents is the proposed expansion of the South County Airport to accommodate corporate jets. The airport the county wants to build includes a runway that will run through the county animal shelter and could devalue land near the airport. 

This spring, the Federal Aviation Administration will decide whether to fund the county’s environmental review of its expansion plan, a decision that could hinge on whether the county’s ends the lease it has with the San Martin Lions Club for the hall on airport property.

“We’re still waiting for county counsel to finish their review of what we can do with future leases out there,” county airport director Carl Honaker said, adding that the county must also find money for the state-mandated environmental impact report. “It’s going to take at least a year, but we’ll get it figured out one way or another.”

Van’t Rood said the alliance’s goals are to preserve San Martin’s rural residential character, limit industrial growth and improve San Martin’s small town center.

“Because there is no effective land use plan for San Martin, and the county won’t do anything about it,” he said, “we have to incorporate.”

If Laird’s bill or similar legislation passes, San Martin will be able to finalize a boundary map with the Santa Clara County Local Agency Formation Commission, Gilroy and Morgan Hill and complete an application proving that its residents will pay enough taxes and fees to support the necessary infrastructure and public safety services.

If its application is approved by LAFCO, the issue will go to the ballot, where it must be approved by a simple majority of San Martin voters. All that could happen as soon as November 2006.

“That’s under the very best of circumstances,” Hamilton said. “But I don’t expect that to happen. We’ll wait for the next regularly scheduled election.”

And to San Martin residents, the very best of circumstances means that Olin will have a plan to clean every last drop of perchlorate, a sodium ingredient used at the company’s now-closed Morgan Hill road-flare factory, from the South County groundwater basin.

“This is an important year for perchlorate because we need to make critical decisions,” Hamilton said. “It’s not up to just Olin. It’s an effort that will be contributed to by community members, PCAG, the water district, the regional board and others.”

But based on Olin’s actions, and a ruling by the State Water Quality Resources Board last May that the company did not have to provide bottled water to residents whose wells tested at or below the state’s public health goal of 6 parts per billion, there are concerns that Olin will invoke the health goal when it proposes a clean up level.

“I don’t know if that will be their main justification, but I expect them to address that. It would be foolish for them not to,” said David Athey, who oversees the cleanup for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Resources Board. “But they also have to address the economic feasibility and the technological capabilities. I’m not looking for a plan that will bankrupt them, but the cleanup level can be below the health goal.”

Olin representatives could not be reached for comment. 

Technology exists to clean perchlorate below 2 parts per billion. Under the state water code, a polluter can be made to clean its contamination to background levels or the level of contamination that existed in the past. A study to ascertain the historical level of perchlorate in the basin will be made this year by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which agreed to conduct the testing to keep the matter out of court after Olin resisted a water board order to conduct similar tests.

The tests could be key to setting the ultimate cleanup goal and keeping the cleanup process out of litigation.

“We know what the technological capabilities are at this point, but we need more information with regard to what the background level actually was before the contamination,” Hamilton said. “The more information we have, the better case we can present and the less likely it is we will end up in court.”

New Dates in 2006

– Jan. 31: Olin proposes clean up level for perchlorate

– Spring: State legislative hearings on AB 1602, to allow incorporation

– March 30: Olin’s plume characterization study due

– April /May: FAA decides whether to fund environmental review for expanded South County Airport

– June 30: Olin files cleanup plan; options and alternatives to clean perchlorate from groundwater

– September: Last chance for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign incorporation bill

– Fall: Water district completes study on background levels of perchlorate in groundwater