City tries to save farms

The long-awaited environmental study of the city’s southeast
quadrant – a patchwork of small farms, orchards and sports fields –
will have to wait even longer as the city determines what’s the
best way to preserve east Morgan Hill’s trademark idyllic aura.
The long-awaited environmental study of the city’s southeast quadrant – a patchwork of small farms, orchards and sports fields – will have to wait even longer as the city determines what’s the best way to preserve east Morgan Hill’s trademark idyllic aura.

City staff and a consultant are currently evaluating options for “agricultural mitigation policies” that are intended to preserve some of the prime farmland on the east side of U.S. 101, according to Morgan Hill senior planner Rebecca Tolentino.

The policy would ideally provide acre-for-acre displacement of new non-agricultural construction projects, so that when a developer wants to build a shopping center on land that is currently used for farming, for example, they would have to pay a fee or otherwise offset the impact. The idea is to require the developer to ensure that farmland in other parts of the city – likely the southeast quadrant – can still be used for agriculture forever.

“It will establish a citywide program to promote the preservation of agriculture, so that when we have projects in Morgan Hill that (propose to) convert agricultural land uses to non-agricultural uses, (developers) would mitigate that,” Tolentino said.

City staff hope to have a draft of the mitigation policy presented to the public within the next 30 days, Tolentino said. After that, the city will continue the environmental study of the 1,200-acre southeast quadrant, which is roughly bound by U.S. 101, Maple Avenue, San Pedro Avenue and Carey Lane.

Earlier this year, the city had hoped the environmental impact report would be done by now, but the drafting of the agricultural policy has slowed the process down, Tolentino said.

Currently, the area is in unincorporated Santa Clara County but within Morgan Hill’s sphere of influence. The city hopes to eventually bring about 660 acres of the quadrant into the city limits, control growth with land use guidelines and preserve a greenbelt around the southeast side of Morgan Hill.

The properties currently consist significantly of prime farmland, and single-family homes on larger parcels. The city’s Outdoor Sports Center and Aquatics Center, as well as privately owned hotels and other businesses on Condit Road are considered part of the SEQ.

The proposed agricultural policy will be considered as part of the overall environmental study, Tolentino noted.

There are number of ways the city could mitigate the loss of agriculture to development, Tolentino said. One is to record a permanent agricultural easement for property elsewhere in the city. Another is to require developers to pay a fee that could finance the acquisition of future agricultural or greenspace easements.

The city’s preference is to preserve agricultural land within Morgan Hill’s sphere of influence, which extends to Maple Avenue on the south side of town, and east to Hill Road.

“The city council has clearly indicated its intent to establish an urban limit line that is not as extensive as the city’s sphere of influence on the south side of Morgan Hill,” city manager Ed Tewes said. “The agricultural mitigation policies would apply wherever anybody in the city proposes to convert agricultural land to urban uses, and we propose that would be in the southeast quadrant.”

While the mitigation policy is up for public review, the city will proceed on the overall environmental study.

That study will consider the general impact of projects currently planned in the area by the quadrant’s property owners, which include the city. Those projects include a sports retail and restaurant complex, a residential development planned by the Chiala family, and about 194 acres’ worth of “sports-recreation-leisure” uses – a new zoning designation under the plan that would include outdoor sports fields, equestrian facilities and indoor facilities such as soccer fields.

The Catholic Diocese of San Jose also plans to build a private Catholic high school on property it owns in the southeast quadrant. The school would be built in phases, eventually to support a capacity of 1,600 students from Morgan Hill, Gilroy, San Martin, Hollister and northern San Benito County, according to previously released plans for the project. The property is surrounded by Murphy, Barrett and Tennant avenues.

The city’s plans have been met with some opposition. The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission’s executive director last year sent the city a letter saying the plan is not responsible because it encourages the development of vacant properties outside the city limits, while there is plenty of undeveloped land inside the city that should be built on first.

The community advocacy group Thrive!Morgan Hill also questions the city’s plans, and particularly its efforts – or lack thereof – to publicize the process, while other, smaller areas in town – such as downtown Morgan Hill – have been the subject of intense public outreach.

“They’re choosing to go into an area that’s undeveloped, and have not gotten any community-wide input,” said Julie Hutcheson of Thrive!Morgan Hill. “And it’s a much larger swath of land (than downtown) and it’s in a greenbelt.”

– 1,200: Total acreage in the “southeast quadrant” of MorganHill
– 40: Acres owned by the Catholic Diocese, which will be usedfor private high school to serve up to 1,600 students.
– 80: Minimum SEQ acres currently planned for a new“sports-recreation-leisure” land use designation.
– 306: Acres planned for the “Chiala Planned Development,” alarge-lot residential subdivision, with open space, agriculturalpreserve and more SRL uses.
– $480,000: Total cost of environmental impact report.
– $173,000: City of Morgan Hill’s share of EIR cost, withprivate SEQ property owners picking up the rest.
Source: City of Morgan Hill

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