Tempers run high on proposed development

Tempers run high on proposed development

Angry residents from the Mesa Ranch area packed City Hall to
oppose a proposed development seeking a building exemption under

shovel ready

regulations passed by the Council this summer.
Angry residents from the Mesa Ranch area packed City Hall to oppose a proposed development seeking a building exemption under the “shovel ready” regulations passed by the Council this summer.

Residents said a plan to build such a large number of homes wouldn’t have been approved in the area if it weren’t for the “shovel-ready” exemption, endorsed by the Gilroy City Council in August, which allows speedy development bypassing the normal residential unit allocation process.

The exemption allows the developer to apply to increase the approved density for the Terra Bella development on Wildflower Court near their homes from 12 to 42 homes, bypassing the city’s normal competition for allotments, which regulates residential growth.

“We were shocked to find that they could change the designation so easily,” said Thomas Fischer, a nearby homeowner and the de-facto spokesman of the group.

A parade of residents clapped loudly at the Nov. 1 meeting when Councilman Dion Bracco voiced a supportive sentiment for neighbors.

“Neighbors are asking us a simple question: When is the Council word good? The Council said 12 units.” said Bracco.

Mayor Al Pinheiro jokingly told the audience to be quiet, citing recent press attention to clapping in the Council chambers.

“The Dispatch loves that stuff,” he said.

After an hour-long discussion, the Council voted 4-3 to comply with a request by the developer to continue the matter until Dec. 20 so as not to interfere with the seating of the new councilmen voted in Tuesday.

Despite a postponed hearing, Pinheiro allowed the opponents to speak. They, in turn, handed the council a hefty petition.

“He has 12 lots, and we ask him to build 42 in a more suitable location,” said resident Peter Burge. “Over 90 signatures feel the same way.”

Councilman Perry Woodward said he felt complicity in the residents’ troubles for favoring the “shovel-ready” exemption when it was voted on in the summer.

“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the ‘shovel-ready’ exception,” Woodward said when the item was introduced. “I was told ‘you’re opening up a real can of worms if you do this.’ ”

Residents knew a development in the land was in the works since the ’90s, and that it had been volleyed back and forth with the Planning Commission several times before it was finally approved. But the new density plan, they said, would clog the streets with traffic, strain the sewage system and devalue their property.

Under the city’s new policy, however, Wildflower Court may be able to bypass the lengthy Residential Development Ordinance allocation process, which limits the development growth of the city, provided developers build within 36 months. This time they are petitioning for more units than had ever been granted by the City Council for the development of this property.

This does not mean the development is jumping over the regular hoops the city imposes, said City Planner Melissa Durkin. According to city code, for a development to qualify, “all street improvements must be in place, including water, sewer and storm drains; and … The project must be surrounded by developed property.”

Durkin said the development was considered under the “shovel-ready” exemption because the city doesn’t plan to have an RDO competition in the near future. The economic downturn has lead to stalled projects off Hecker Pass and Santa Teresa Boulevard, so a large portion of land is not available for developers who want to build now.

The 16-acre property, which is currently covered in wild grass, has an open gate and a narrow road leading to a cul-de-sac and a large home with thick wooden accents, which belongs to Gail and Jake Williams, also present at the City Council meeting. Gail said she is concerned they will not be able to access their property due to the traffic.

According to Fischer, the residents of the single family homes surrounding the Wildflower Court development are mostly seniors.

“Residents have been living there for 25 years, and have lived in Gilroy all their lives” said Gail Williams. “They are Gilroy.”

Ralph Guenther, the applicant, asked the Council to give him more time to reach out to the community and continue the discussion on Dec. 6. The Council then made its Dec. 20 continuation decision.

Mayor Pinheiro informed the Council of the request for continuance and council members seemed prepared to grant it. But when the floor was opened for public comment, Fischer took the stand and asked 30 disgruntled residents to stand up and show their opposition towards the development.

The hour-long discussion ensued, in which the City Council deliberated whether to grant the continuance given the strong opposition present at the chambers and the fact that the request for continuance was sent at the eleventh hour.

Councilmembers Cat Tucker, Dion Bracco and Woodward voted in favor of reviewing the matter at the session. Other councilmen argued the Council has never denied a continuance when requested by a developer. They said doing so would set a precedent.

“This is when you hate to be the mayor,” Pinheiro told the public. “It’s very important that the community understands how things are done and that if we don’t adhere to them they’ll say that we’re not doing the right thing.”

Though Pinheiro voted for the continuance, he indicated he would not be in favor of granting the developer 42 residential units.

Some of the owners of eight homes surrounding the planned property received a Sept. 25 notice from the planning department stating the applicant, Duffy & Guenther, was planning to increase the units for the land from 12 to 42. They were notified that the Planning Commission would hear the matter Oct. 7. They responded by sending a letter to the Council.

“Sometimes even the best intentions have unintended consequences. The proposed Shovel Ready project on Wildflower Court … is a prime example,” stated the letter. “The normal RDO process requires developers to compete for building allotments based on a point system that adds or subtracts points for things such as location, traffic impact and amenities.”

The Williams own a dental laboratory on Arroyo Circle and asked their attorney Kevin Cody to speak at Monday’s meeting.

“(The Williams couple) is committed to taking whatever legal action for this development not to go forward,” he said. “Hopefully those actions won’t be necessary with all the presence here.”

Cody said the residents of the area have a right to access streets and the increase in the density of this project makes it difficult for them to do so, making the development subject to injunction.

Cody did not return a call by press time, but Gail Williams said she did not expect legal action to be necessary. The couple said they felt a lawyer would help them understand their case. She would not say whether the legal action would be taken against the applicant or the owner of the property.

“We’re a dental lab, we don’t know property. Everyone else had an attorney,” she said, referring to the city attorney at the dais and Duffy & Guenther, the law firm representing owners Vince Giacalone and Michael McDermot.

McDermott, one of the owners of Terra Bella, has fielded complaints from residents before when the first project under “shovel-ready” was proposed: A 32-unit housing project off of Ronan Avenue. It was approved by the Council as a 29-unit development. McDermott could not be reached for comment before press time.

The 51-unit Oliveri development off Monterey Road, also under “shovel-ready,” sailed by with little resistance from residents Nov. 1. But Terra Bella hasn’t been as lucky. Guenther could not be reached by press time.

Negotiations for the Wildflower Court area has been ongoing for six years. Wildflower Court was previously owned by Karen Christopher, who entered into the building competition three times, twice with 32-units. Finally, Christopher received permission to build 12 units, but then sold the land.

Though most residents knew of the 12-unit plan, they complained they hadn’t received enough information from the applicant on the increase in density.

“I haven’t received any information and I believe its incumbent upon them come to us. I don’t know how hard it is for them to come up to us, it’s eight houses,” said Fischer.

Guenther said he gave disgruntled residents his business card after the Oct. 7 Planning Commission meeting but no one contacted him.

Fischer said he received no business card but rather was asked to sign a sheet. Most residents refused, he said – tempers were running high.

“We’re going to stay diligent,” he said. “I fully intend to bring a lot more people to the next Council meeting and get more of them to speak.”

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