Hecker Pass is latest battleground over growth


NEW NEIGHBORHOOD East of the Gilroy Municipal Golf Course, the North Hecker Pass Residential Cluster will see the development of 72 new homes. Picture by: Bryce Stoepfel

The Hecker Pass Corridor is the western gateway to Gilroy—a passageway connecting Gilroy and Santa Cruz County that features both natural beauty and commercial potential.

These twin features of CA 152 define the latest frontline pitting neighborhoods against business developers, and these were in the spotlight at this month’s Gilroy Planning Commission meeting. After a raucous debate on June 7, the commission deadlocked over the latest Hecker Pass development proposal.

The commission’s inconclusive 3-3 tie meant the new plan will likely be decided by the Gilroy City Council.

The latest issue is a proposed development spearheaded by developer Skip Spiering. The development, on six acres between Lone Oak Lane and Hecker Pass Highway, would be a mixed-use, residential/commercial development that features three buildings with 32,758 square feet of commercial space.

The plan calls for a winery, restaurants, a deli, a wine shop and 22 live/work apartments designed to include workspace along with living quarters. The project would have 178 parking spots for customers and 39 for the residential units.

After four hours of debate, impassioned pleas from Gilroy citizens opposed to the development, and those in favor, including Spiering and members of Gilroy’s business community, commissioners Tom Fischer, Rebeca Armendariz and Sam Kim voted to reject the proposal, while Steve Ashford, Casey Estorga and Rebecca Scheel voted for the project to proceed.

Since the Planning Commission cannot issue binding decisions, the tie vote meant that the commission gave the council no recommendation as to how to proceed.

Spiering often had his name drawn through the mud, both by attendees and by Commissioner Sam Kim. Kim, who lives near the proposed development, pulled no punches, much to the delight of the audience.

“I am concerned that the applicant won’t compromise or make accommodations,” Kim said. “I found the (applicant’s) approach and attitude to be condescending, hostile and punitive.”

Spiering defended his project, saying it completely fulfilled the requirements set forth by the city’s approved Hecker Pass Specific Plan.

“We have worked for two years to come up with something that meets the goals of the plan’s guidelines, and I feel that we have done that,” Spiering said. “You can disagree, but based on what we have here, we’re not going to change the size or location of the buildings. We feel we have come up with a plan that works and fits in.”

Kim gripped tight on the term “mom-and-pop shop,” found in the Hecker Pass Specific Plan, which offers guidelines to acceptable agri-tourist commercial projects.

“The Hecker Pass Specific Plan says mom-and-pop shop and small coffeehouse,” Kim said. “I wonder how this (project) is consistent with the plan.”

The plan states that agri-tourist zones include small-scale commercial uses serving residents and consumers. “Examples of such local-serving uses include but are not limited to a delicatessen, ‘mom-and-pop’ grocery market, cafe, bistro, or small coffeehouse,” the plan reads.

Spiering’s project did comply with the letter of the Hecker Pass Specific Plan, but the feeling expressed by much of the audience was that it did not fit with the spirit of the plan. City staff, along with Spiering, developer Chris Vanni, and commissioner Estorga maintained that the development adhered to the precepts of the Hecker Pass Specific Plan. Commision chair Fischer agreed but did not decide that the project fit the spirit of the plan initially conceived in 2005.

Slow-growth advocate Connie Rogers is leading the charge against the development. Rogers is the chairwoman of Gilroy Growing Smarter and  a former Gilroy councilmember, planning commissioner, and parks and recreation commissioner. Gilroy Growing Smarter played a crucial role in passing Measure H, which established a growth boundary around Gilroy. Measure H scuttled plans for a large scale 721-acre, 4,000-unit development on the city’s north end.

“I am very passionate about the plan and its goals,” Rogers said. “The theme was agriculture, and low-density uses to capitalize on tourism, and developments should reflect that, and this project does not meet those goals.”

The Planning Commission did approve a 22.44-acre, 72-unit subdivision directly east of the Gilroy Municipal Golf Course. The North Hecker Pass Residential Cluster is a continuation of the ongoing new home construction that continually inches west. The highway entrance for the golf course will be eliminated and replaced with a roundabout in the new neighborhood.

Hecker Pass Highway will also get roadway facelift. To help accommodate the new additions, the Planning Commision approved a roundabout where Hecker Pass Highway, Third Street and Autumn Drive meet at the new outlet for the North Hecker Pass Corridor.

“The city council has identified economic development as a number one priority,” Gilroy Economic Development Corporation President/CEO Tammy Brownlow said.  “They also adopted a resolution earlier this year in support of tourism in the Hecker Pass Corridor and implementation of efficient city approvals and processes for projects in this corridor. As staff reported, not only does this project meet the intent and requirements of the specific plan and the Ag-Tourism Commercial designation, it also supports the ‘Liveable Community’ principles that are found throughout the specific plan.”