wren avenue field santa clara lafco annexation
The City of Gilroy seeks to add this 55-acre property on Wren Avenue to its limits. Photo: Tarmo Hannula
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For the third time this year, the Santa Clara County Local Agency Formation Commission postponed its decision on allowing Gilroy to annex 55 acres into its limits June 7, citing the need for more time to digest information submitted by city officials a week before the meeting.

While LAFCO staff recommended the commissioners deny the request, Commissioner Sylvia Arenas, the county supervisor who represents Gilroy, motioned to delay the vote to Aug. 2, which the commission unanimously agreed to do.

Known as the Wren Investors and Hewell Urban Service Area Amendment, 50 acres of the property extends west of Wren Avenue, south of Vickery Avenue and north of Tatum Avenue. Another five-acre property nearby, northeast of the intersection of Vickery Lane and Kern Avenue, is also included in the proposal.

Most of the northern Gilroy property sits across from the former Antonio Del Buono Elementary School, now the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s South County Annex. The property is often considered an “unincorporated pocket,” meaning it is surrounded by incorporated city limits.

While no development plans have been submitted, a conceptual plan for the site shows 307 residential units along with a little less than an acre dedicated to a commercial project.

In a report by LAFCO Executive Officer Neelima Palacherla and Assistant Executive Officer Dunio Noel, the officials recommended that the board deny the annexation, calling the proposed expansion of the city’s limits “premature at this time and does not represent orderly growth and development for the city.”

Based on information submitted by the city, LAFCO staff determined that the city has “adequate land” already to accommodate residential growth over the next eight years. According to the report, state law and LAFCO policies encourage the development of vacant or underutilized lands within existing city boundaries when a city has more than a five-year supply of vacant land.

However, city officials anticipate that much of its vacant land would be developed over the next five years, stressing the need for such an annexation “to have adequate residential land to meet future residential growth requirements,” according to a 2021 letter. 

The LAFCO officers also questioned how Gilroy could provide services such as police, fire and wastewater, noting that the city “has not adequately demonstrated its ability to provide and fund” such things, especially when a fourth fire station is dependent on the continuing development of Glen Loma Ranch in the western portion of the city, while sewer line upgrades “remain uncertain.”

Cindy McCormick, the city’s project manager for the annexation request, submitted a response to LAFCO’s concerns on May 31, outlining how Gilroy will provide services for the project, among other things.

But Palacherla said the responses didn’t answer many of the questions LAFCO staff still has.

“We have gone over this with the city a number of times, and this is all we receive,” she said. “Based on that information, they have not demonstrated the ability to provide services.”

The annexation proposal has taken different shapes since Wren Investors first began the process in 2000. That early plan, which included the current property under review as well as one additional parcel, was rejected by the City Council for various reasons, such as negative fiscal impacts on the city and school district, according to a 2020 staff report.

The application was revised in 2012, and another proposal for the additional five acres was submitted by Mark Hewell in 2014. In addition, another proposal to annex 721 acres in northern Gilroy was submitted in 2014, which included the two other plans.

That larger proposal was eventually scrapped by the council after LAFCO filed a lawsuit in 2016, claiming the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved an environmental impact report, but the smaller annexation requests continued to go through the process.

The Wren Investors and Hewell properties are within the 2016 voter-approved urban growth boundary.

In the days leading up to the June 7 meeting, LAFCO received more than 300 letters, many of which were from people outside of Gilroy, and most in opposition that were submitted through a letter-writing campaign service.

A joint letter from CLEAN South Bay, Green Foothills, Greenbelt Alliance and Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter stated that such an annexation would “facilitate sprawl,” worsening the city’s ability to provide services that are already challenged.

“Gilroy has some very real challenges,” Jordan Grimes of Greenbelt Alliance told the commissioners on June 7. “The proposed annexation is not only entirely unnecessary, but it will in fact worsen the very problems they seek to solve.”

Mayor Marie Blankley said the project doesn’t constitute “urban sprawl,” but rather is an infill project, being surrounded by developed city limits. With the city facing pressure from the state to approve housing units, Blankley added that most of Gilroy’s vacant land will already be developed by the time a project on the Wren property goes through a years-long entitlement process.

“Our request shows responsible governance, orderly growth and timely planning for critical housing needs,” she said.

Dick Oliver of Dividend Homes, who noted he has been working on the project since 2001, said the property hasn’t been farmed for more than 20 years since the adjacent school was built, responding to opponents who say developing the area would result in the loss of prime agricultural land. Mark Hewell, one of the owners of the land, added that there are no agricultural wells on the property, and no access for farm equipment other than through city streets or neighboring properties, making it “impossible” to farm.

“The property is within the urban growth boundary and qualifies for annexation,” Oliver said. “I believe the city has addressed the issues required by LAFCO. We really need to take a fair shot at giving us project approval.”

Arenas said there were “a lot of open-ended points” that needed to be answered.

“I understand that we need to protect our open spaces and I’m not trying to promote urban sprawl,” she said. “We need to be fair to all parties involved, and we need to have all the information to make a decision.”

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Erik Chalhoub joined Weeklys as an editor in 2019. Prior to his current position, Chalhoub worked at The Pajaronian in Watsonville for seven years, serving as managing editor from 2014-2019.


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