LAFCO Loosens Policy

Joint county/state park moves closer to fruition

San Jose
– A regional land-use agency voted Wednesday to take a softer
approach to drafting farmland preservation policies after South
County cities complained there would be no legal way to enforce the
San Jose – A regional land-use agency voted Wednesday to take a softer approach to drafting farmland preservation policies after South County cities complained there would be no legal way to enforce the rules.

The action occurred at the Local Agency Formation Commission’s board meeting, where LAFCO officials voted to revise proposed agricultural mitigation policies to emphasize they are in fact “advisory” and not meant to replace existing local growth ordinances.

Additionally, the LAFCO commissioners voted to remove a four-year “deadline” for agricultural mitigation to occur for cities seeking to expand their boundaries.

“We appreciate the shift in direction,” said Morgan Hill Community Development Director Kathy Molloy Previsich, speaking before the commission. “We think cities have a number of mechanisms to effectively control growth.”

Critics of LAFCO’s proposed policies include developers and the officials from the cities of Gilroy and Morgan Hill, who feel they should have a strong say in how they grow. On the other hand, environmental groups think LAFCO should play a strong role in limiting sprawl, which the agency was created to do.

The proposed LAFCO policy would require cities to preserve one acre of “prime” farmland for every such acre developed.

But Gilroy has reached consensus on its own set of agricultural preservation policies and Morgan Hill is working to implement a greenbelt program. Both cities are concerned over how LAFCO’s pending policies could interfere with their own local efforts, with city officials having urged the agency to take an “advisory approach” in its future policies.

The request ties to an ongoing legal question LAFCO officials and cities are struggling with: How can the agency meet its state mandate of preventing sprawl without infringing on cities’ rights to have a strong say in how they grow?

Faced with the question, LAFCO’s Santa Clara County governing board directed staff to rewrite the policy.

The full set of revised policies will return to the board for a final vote in April.

“We support the direction LAFCO is going in,” said Anne Mudge, a land-use attorney for the Coyote Housing Group, adding the agency was aligning itself with LAFCOs in Sacramento and Ventura counties that recently drafted similar policies while downplaying their legal authority to enforce environmental-mitigation agreements between cities and developers.

It’s good news for Morgan Hill and Gilroy officials hoping to expand urban services to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax. In Gilroy, Westfield Corporation’s proposed mall on 119 acres east of Gilroy Premium Outlets requires the city to extend its urban service boundary with LAFCO approval. Meanwhile, to the north, an island of unincorporated land exists along U.S. 101 between Cochrane Road and Dunne Avenue as Morgan Hill looks for space to add another auto dealership to boost its economy. Again, LAFCO permission would be involved to change boundaries.

LAFCO is one of many agencies with power over city and county land and issues of annexation. All 58 California counties have LAFCO’s. The agencies were established by California’s legislature in 1963 to reduce urban sprawl. In Santa Clara County, five appointed commissioners serve on LAFCO’s governing board.

LAFCO commissioner Susan Vicklund Wilson said the policies should give cities an idea of what the agency is looking for in terms of farmland preservation.

County Supervisor Don Gage, also a commissioner, added the purpose of LAFCO’s policies would be to encourage cities to work out their own ordinances to govern against sprawl.

“Otherwise, someone’s going to pass a law that doesn’t fit everyone the same,” Gage said.

Greenbelt Alliance representative Michele Beasley told the commission she’s concerned about “advisory” language entering the policies.

Supervisor Blanca Alvarado, chair of the LAFCO commission, expressed similar concerns that the agency was removing the teeth from its proposed policies. However, Alvarado said she was encouraged to hear LAFCO would continue to work with cities on mitigation agreements with developers as part of the process of requesting border expansions.