LAFCO holds hammer over city

Purpose of powerful Local Agency Formation Commission is to
prevent urban sprawl by forcing cities to grow contiguously and
avoid development islands; some believe it has too much
authority
Gilroy – Gilroy has grown so quickly over the last few years that it can be hard to believe that any growth proposals have been rejected. But retail explosions and mushrooming housing developments aside, Gilroy’s recent history is one of roads not widened, houses not built and development plans thwarted by the mysterious and powerful Local Agency Formation Commission, a body that has braked Gilroy development and incurred the wrath of local leaders.

“There are some problems with LAFCO’s land use recognition in Gilroy,” Councilman Bob Dillon said Tuesday. “It looks to me, that having paved the entire half of the county north of Bernal Road, they want every open space in the county to be in South County. They approved a road to nowhere for Coyote Valley and meanwhile we’ve been trying to get a highway exit north of the outlets for 10 years.”

Dillon was referring to the new Bailey Avenue interchange and Gilroy’s frustrated efforts to build an off ramp from Highway 101 to Buena Vista Road, a project that would also provide greater access to Saint Louise Regional Hospital, and one of several Gilroy projects that LAFCO has rejected in the last decade. Since the mid 1990’s, LAFCO has torpedoed a plan to build a new municipal golf course and housing developments in Uvas Valley, tried to prevent the city from incorporating 660 acres east of the outlets into the city’s general pan, complicated the development of the city’s new sports park and stopped a widening project of another road leading to the hospital.

“To say the least it’s been a bumpy road,” Santa Clara Supervisor Don Gage said Tuesday. Gage, a former Gilroy mayor, is currently a member of LAFCO’s board. He said LAFCO wields more power in South County because so much of the land is unincorporated, and that North County commissioners don’t understand the needs of rural areas.

“The biggest problem I have is that the other commissioners don’t understand [my] district,” Gage said. “There are some square pegs that won’t fit into round holes.”

There is a LAFCO in every California county except San Francisco. The commission derives it authority from a 1963 state law that was amended in 2000 to make it independent of the county, though it is funded by the county and its 15 cities, based on population.

Its purpose is to prevent urban sprawl by forcing cities to grow contiguously and avoid development islands or hopscotch growth patterns. Like other cities, Gilroy has a 20-year master plan that includes plans for growth beyond its current borders. To annex unincorporated land, the city must first extend public safety, sewer and water services to the area and then include the land in its so-called urban services area, which must extend as far as the city plans to expand over the next five years.

But LAFCO has the authority to deny annexation requests, as it did when a developer wanted to build houses and a golf course on the Lucky Hereford Ranch, west of Coyote Estates. And as it did last year, when the city wanted to annex an island of land to construct a new sports park near the intersection of Monterey Road and Luchessa Avenue.

“I think it has too much authority,” Gage said of LAFCO. “Cities should have some authority to do what they need to do within their sphere of influence.”

Gage said the golf course was rejected because the LAFCO commission believed that land to be prime farm land that shouldn’t be developed. The sports park annexation was turned down because, under rules developed by LAFCO, the city already has too much land available for commercial and industrial development.

Bill Faus, the city’s planning division manager, said those rules often work against Gilroy because they don’t allow developments that are congruous with the intent of the rules.

“There’s an argument on both sides,” Faus said. “If that rule is played to the letter I think it works against the city in terms of accomplishing its long-term goals. LAFCO, I think, more often than not, will apply a very strict letter of the law approach. They tend to work with short-term goals.”

LAFCO isn’t all-powerful. Because Gilroy owns the land where it wants to build the sports park, it still can, though it must deal with annoyances such as paying property taxes to the county. And in 2002, the city included the 660 acres of land east of the outlets in defiance of LAFCO’s wishes.

Dillon said the commission’s lingering pique over that action was the real reason it turned down the city’s bid to annex the sports park land.

“I thought shooting down the sports park was a kind of spanking for us daring to cross them,” Dillon said. “We get turned down but they’re behind Coyote Valley, which is going to dump 60,000 people in the middle of one of the largest undeveloped areas in the county. That’s going to make an island.”

Realizing they need LAFCO to further their development goals, local officials are willing to reach out and improve the relationship. Mayor Al Pinheiro said Tuesday he hopes to soon host LAFCO for a South County meeting that will help the city and the agency work together.

“There has been some tension and things have gotten convoluted with different issues,” Pinheiro said. “But I sincerely believe that at the end of the day we all want the same thing. We just need a better understanding between the city and LAFCO so we can all work together.”

And Lee Weider, a consultant with Access Land Development, who worked on bringing the 660 acres into the city’s general plan, said there are signs that LAFCO is willing to rule South County benevolently. Recently, he said, the commission rejected a proposal to freeze all annexations until cities had fully developed every bare patch of land within their borders.

“That would have been a bit heavy-handed,” he said. “LAFCO’s power is still to be tested. I think it needs to be tested what its relationship with Gilroy will be. LAFCO should manage the process, but give cities the flexibility to do what they need to do. Cities are the ones who know what they need to do to have orderly growth.”

What is LAFCO?

LAFCO is authorized by the state to set municipal borders and allow cities to annex land.

LAFCO members are not directly elected. Of the five members, two represent the county board of supervisors, one represents San Jose and one is a city council member from another city. The fifth member is a public representative appointed by the other members.

Current LAFCO Commissioners:

• Supervisor Blanca Alvarado

• Supervisor Don Gage

• Sunnyvale Councilman John Howe

• San Jose Councilwoman Linda J. LeZotte

• Morgan Hill public rep. Susan Vicklund-Wilson

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