Catholic high school denied again

LAFCO rejects annexation, key to project

A Catholic high school has been talked about in the South County for nearly a decade, but the Diocese of San Jose has run into a series of setbacks getting its 40 acres of land—their preferred site of the future school—annexed to southeast Morgan Hill.

The latest of these hurdles was the denial of an annexation proposal Dec. 5 by the county commission charged with authorizing city boundary line extensions.

The school site sits outside of Morgan Hill’s Urban Services Area, so it must be annexed in order to receive city services like water, sewer and public safety. The area the city attempted to annex sits north of Tennant Avenue and east of Condit Road.

Plans to annex the high school site were submitted by the City of Morgan Hill to the Local Agency Formation Committee (LAFCO) for a second time, resulting in the ruling at the Dec. 5 committee meeting.

Committee staff had recommended in their report that LAFCO commissioners deny the city’s request, because staff believed the plans did not comply with committee standards. The annexation proposal failed in a 5-2 vote, with Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman and Santa Clara Valley Water District Director John L. Varela voting to approve the city’s request.

The failure of the annexation comes as the City of Gilroy is gearing up to submit plans to annex land for the city’s sports park off south Monterey Street. At a Dec. 3 Gilroy City Council meeting, the council directed staff to proceed with updating an Environmental Impact Report for the area.

Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco said plans would still have to go through the Planning Commission and City Council before being submitted to LAFCO, but he and city staff attended the Dec. 5 LAFCO meeting to see what the commissioners expected from such a proposal.

Velasco said observing the meeting was helpful in informing how Gilroy city staff should prepare the sports park plans when they are eventually brought in front of the LAFCO commissioners. “We know what LAFCO staff is thinking, and we have to make sure that we’re addressing all of those issues,” said Velasco.

Morgan Hill and the LAFCO committee have a complicated history when it comes to the Catholic high school project and what is designated as the city’s “Southeast Quadrant.” Many commissioners at the Dec. 5 meeting brought up past decisions by the committee to deny the city’s annexation requests in the area, which is mostly farmland.

LAFCO is an appointed body of citizens and elected officials throughout the county. The committee’s mission is, “Encouraging orderly boundaries, discouraging urban sprawl, and preserving agricultural and open space lands.”

The annexation is considered critical to the success of the diocese’s plans for Catholic high school in Morgan Hill. The Morgan Hill City Council voted 3-2 in September to send the plans to LAFCO for approval. Council members Rich Constantine and Rene Spring voted against the plans.

Spring has proven an anti-growth advocate during his council tenure. Constantine previously said he could not vote to approve the plans because he did not feel it had been improved since the last time it was submitted two years ago.

In 2016, LAFCO denied an annexation request—also submitted by the City of Morgan Hill—for a large portion of the Southeast Quadrant by a 5-2 vote. The City then submitted a request to annex only the land for the South County Catholic High School. The request was denied in June 2016.

The original request was part of a plan to annex most of the Southeast Quadrant bound by Tennant Avenue to the south, Murphy Avenue to the west, Barrett Avenue to the north and abutting an agricultural field to the east. This land has been identified in the county’s agricultural plan as prime agricultural land.

The request presented to the committee at the Dec. 5 meeting included 66 acres of land, nearly 40 of which would be used for the high school. Committee staff recommended annexation be denied based on several points of the plan they said violate LAFCO standards.

The LAFCO staff report said there was land available within Morgan Hill city limits as an alternate site for the school; the annexation wouldn’t create logical city boundaries; there would be a significant impact to agricultural land; the city didn’t have the infrastructure to provide the public safety, sewer, water and storm drainage to the area; the plan isn’t consistent with the regional transportation plan; the city hasn’t annexed all of the unincorporated land still within the urban service area; and the plan wasn’t consistent with county policies.

The Dec. 5 meeting was tense, with reports and comments from LAFCO staff being contradicted by Morgan Hill city staff’s presentation. Commissioner Sergio Jimenez, when attempting to make his decision, said, “You all are viewing things much differently.”

A major topic of discussion was the designation of the parcels as “prime farmland.” Morgan Hill farmers made public comments about the quality of land in the annexation site and said it was not suitable for long-term farming use.

George Chiala Jr. of Chiala Farms told the commission his family had trouble in the past farming on the land. “That land isn’t good farmland; if you need data to prove that, I can provide it,” said Chiala. “If we can’t do it, it’s going to be hard for somebody else to do it.”

Still, many commissioners said it would be against LAFCO standards to approve the annexation. Commissioner Rob Rennie said the answer wasn’t black and white to him, but he didn’t believe Morgan Hill had the proper plans in place for the annexation.

“These kind of annexation plans would be called sprawl,” Rennie said before eventually voting down the annexation plan.

Maureen Tobin, communications and engagement manager for Morgan Hill, told the Times that the city does not currently have any new plans in place following the denial of the annexation request.