Big Benefit Egg Hunt Scrambled by County

Operation Freedom Paws Egg Hunt

It was billed as a fun family event for kids, with bags of candy, the Easter Bunny and proceeds earmarked to train service dogs for military veterans home from war and hurting.
But on Good Friday, a day before Operation Freedom Paws’ annual Easter Egg Hunt in San Martin, founder Mary Cortani received a phone call from the Santa Clara County Planning Department that changed everything.
She was told a special event permit was needed for the hunt but that it was too late to apply for one, she said Tuesday.
She also was told that if the event happened and anyone complained, it could impact OFP’s request to expand its Canine Education Center on Llagas Avenue when it’s reviewed as expected by the county planning commission in May.
Cortani said she understood the comments from county Associate Planner Valerie Negrete to be a threat even though she was not ordered to cancel the Easter Egg Hunt.
“She did not say cancel it, she said that it is our choice but that she needed to advise us that should anyone complain it could be included in the (staff) report to the planning commission and could have an impact” on OFP’s expansion plans.
Cortani said after thinking about it, she told her staff, “Let’s just cancel it. If we are truly that close to getting planning commission (approval) in May, I didn’t want to risk it.”
Negrete, a former planning staffer for the City of Gilroy, said her call to Cortani was done as a “courtesy” not as a threat, because of the potential for complaints having a negative effect on the permit modification request when it goes to the commission.
And while she did tell Cortani a special event permit would be needed for the egg hunt, and that it was too late to apply for one, her primary determination was on another matter.
It was that, as advertised, the egg hunt is not permitted under OFP’s current use permit, Negrete said, regardless of the special event requirements.
In any event, fearful of a negative planning staff report to commissioners, Cortani instructed her staff to call every family registered to participate and tell them the event was cancelled and refunds would be sent.
On the day of the non-event, staff turned away kids and parents who had not pre-registered and arrived looking forward to candy and eggs and helping OFP’s mission, she said.
In all, as many as 150 kids and parents were impacted and an amount estimated at several thousands of dollars was lost in donations and expenses incurred for the event.
Printing flyers and other advertising that began three months ago probably cost $1,000, Cortani said.
When the decision was made to call off the Easter fundraiser, Cortani emailed this note to Negrete:
“After careful consideration and listening to your comments and concerns this decision was made to prevent any issues with the planning commission hearing or any complaints you felt you might receive. Our intentions were and will always be to be in compliance with the conditional use permit, while still being able to raise funds and fulfil our nonprofit status mission As for advertising for the dinner gala in August we have no choice. In order to secure sponsors so that costs are covered and funds are able to be raised. Again, so that we can continue to help disabled veterans have a decent life.”
Cortani said, however, that she and her staff reviewed the special events ordinance in advance and it did not apply to their event, which was to be held on the grounds of the training center, away from Llagas Avenue.
The ordinance, according to Cortani, addresses events that take place on or require the closing of a road, neither of which applied to the OFP event, she said.
A reading of the ordinance seems to support Cortani’s contention that a special event permit was not needed for the egg hunt because it did not take place on or require the closing of a road, as would, for example, a neighborhood block party.
Negrete said that a determination of whether the special events ordinance applies to the egg hunt would have been made if an application had been submitted 60 days in advance of the planned event, as required.
The Easter Egg non-hunt was not the first time that county planners have dealt OFP what Cortani believes are unfair blows to an organization that two years ago was signalled out for national recognition for its service dog work with and for war veterans.
Each time a county employee lifts a finger or a phone to work on OFP issues, the county makes money, according to Cortani.
That is because OFP is being billed by “time and materials” at the rate of $120 per hour for work needed to research and process the conditional use permit modification sought by the group, she said.
She believes county planners spend too much time looking for problems.
“It feels like we’re under a microscope, and like they are looking for a needle in the haystack when none exists,” Cortani said, adding she was “Livid” after getting the Good Friday call when her research indicated a special event permit was not required and she thought everything was fine with their plan.
In addition, she said, the report to the planning commission was supposed to have been completed long ago, but the planning staff kept asking for more time.
“We granted them two extensions, one for 20 days and one for 30 says,” she said.
The county staff is “very cognizant” of the time spent on applications, Negrete said, and is “being sensitive to (OFP’s) mission (and) mindful of the applicant’s expenses.”
Cortani’s other frustrations with the planning department’s methods include the fact that OFP’s efforts to erect a 60-foot-high flag pole capable of flying a huge “garrison” size American flag to honor veterans have been consistently stymied by planners.
One told her that an object of such height close to the county’s San Martin Airport requires review and approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, she said in disbelief.
And in addition to other hoops OPF must jump through to expand its modern kennel and training center to house 250 doges, county regulators required the group to commission and pay for five noise studies, according to Cortani, all because a single neighbor had complained in the past about barking.
The center is next door to the busy and noisy San Martin garbage transfer station operated by Ecology.
It has a handful of residential neighbors to the south and east, most on large, county lots.
The one that has complained in the past, according to Cortani, lives on Murphy Avenue. That is the next street east of Llagas Avenue, where the din from traffic on nearby Highway 101 can be almost constant.