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June 19, 2021

Planning commission seeks slow, measured growth

GILROY—Planning commissioners want compact development over the next 20 years, not sprawling, urban expansion.
The Gilroy Planning Commission’s April 30 decision upended a controversial vote by the General Plan Advisory Committee that advocated more and faster urbanization as the blueprint for city growth though 2040—particularly in north Gilroy.
The commission’s recommendation goes to the city council for review at a special 5 p.m. meeting May 18 as that body moves toward adoption of the new General Plan mandated every 20 years by state law.
If the council concurs with the commission’s vote, development would halt south of Day Road and not soon expand northward onto hundreds of acres of agriculture and open space land.
“Housing development all the way up to Masten Avenue doesn’t appear to be needed anytime soon,” said GPAC member and Planning Commissioner Elizabeth Sanford.
While seen as a small victory for environmentalists and slow growth advocates, the fight is far from over. The Gilroy City Council could accept planning commission decision or ignore it.
Commissioners also recommended the council impose prior conditions on specific areas of unincorporated Gilroy so that the city’s urban footprint doesn’t expand before in-fill development occurs within city limits.
“It seemed like a viable alternative to no-growth and opening the floodgates,” Commissioner Tom Fischer, who also serves on the GPAC, said.
However, the specifics of the conditions have not been hammered out. If approved by the council, the prerequisites would require an as yet undetermined number of homes to be built in the city’s existing boundaries before to development would be allowed outside the urban footprint.
A recent application to include 721 acres of land north of Gilroy in the city’s urban planning area, the first step in annexation, was a hot topic at the meeting. The parcels involved are bounded by Fitzgerald Avenue to the north, Day Road to the south and Santa Teresa Boulevard and Monterey Road to the west and east, respectively.
The commission’s vote means it wants to “slow the advance of development” on that property, Fischer said.
“We know that’s some place the city will grow eventually, but that doesn’t mean the city needs to grow there now,” he added.
The 23-member GPAC’s recommended plan would provide more than five times the capacity for housing than needed to meet the demand expected by analysts within the next 20 years, according to city documents.
That is too much, too soon, said Planning Commission Chairman Richard Gullen.
“If demand exceeds supply, (developers) can apply to change the plans,” he said.
A majority of speakers during the public comment period concurred.
David Almeida, of Gilroy, asked the planning commission to reverse the GPAC’s decision and recommend compact development instead.
“To say we need to grow outwards to thrive is dead wrong,” he said. “Attract people to want to live in Gilroy first.”
On the other hand, the President and CEO of the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation, Tammy Brownlow, advocated for approval of the GPAC’s preferred plan—one that allows a majority of 660 acres of agricultural land east of Gilroy to be used as a future employment center.
Development Center Manager Lee Butler, a city employee, said creating choices for future employers about where they can build is an attractive quality that would benefit the city.
“With larger choice, we have a higher probability of attracting new businesses,” he said.
The commission voted unanimously to gut portions of the GPAC plan and halt development south of Day Road and impose prior conditions before building is allowed north of Day Road.
Separately, the commission voted 6-1, with Sanford dissenting, to reverse the GPAC’s recommendation for growth in focus area eight, east of the Gilroy Premium Outlets and south of Leavesley Road, and endorse compact development and the preservation of more open space.
To Save Open Space Gilroy member, David Lima, the commission’s vote is a clear indication that its members took to heart concerns expressed by residents, throughout the nearly two-year General Plan process, who argued against urban sprawl and for keeping open space.
Pending the council’s May 18 action, Lima said he sees the tide turning in favor of compact development.
“There’s now a very public record of people appointed by the city council (the planning commission) along with public input that supports compact development. If the city council fails to recognize that and act accordingly, I think there is some potential for public outrage,” he added.
How the GPAC, commission’s plans differ
The March 18 vote by the 23-member GPAC has been a subject of much discussion and debate.
According to Fischer, the committee was instructed not to consider the pending application to add 720 acres to the city’s urban service area—the first step of the annexation process.
Fischer said he’s frustrated the council voted to expedite the application in 2014 to meet the expectations of those behind it, including Skip Spiering of Rancho 101 LLC, nearly a year after the city’s General Plan process began.
“It’s like we’re trying to close the barn door after the cows are already let out,” Fischer said. “Along comes this application to bring in 700-plus acres of land, and we haven’t even reviewed what we want the city to look like yet. It’s frustrating.”
Instead, he argues the council should have enacted a moratorium on applications to amend the city’s urban service area until the General Plan process was complete. “That way, everybody is blind to what might be out there and they’re going to make land use decisions based on what they think is best for the city—without knowing what’s coming. I think you’d get a more unbiased picture about what the city and its residents really want.”
The GPAC’s recommendation to support orderly growth relied heavily on the concept of urban reserve, which leaves agricultural land untouched unless the city runs out of space over the next two decades, Sanford told the Dispatch.
Still, Lima said he’s skeptical that the urban reserve requirements will preserve as much agricultural land as anticipated, pointing out the requirements were recommended by the GPAC and planning commission without being completed or vetted in public view. He cautions the city against putting “all their conservation eggs in that one basket.”
Planning Commissioner Paul Kloecker at the April 30 meeting suggested a community meeting for residents to weigh in on the urban reserve requirements.
The Gilroy City Council invites public comments at a special meeting at 5 p.m. May 18 when it will consider recommendations from the General Plan Advisory Committee, Planning Commission, staff and consultants in the council chambers at Gilroy City Hall, 7351 Rosanna St. Written comments can be submitted to City Clerk Shawna Freels at the above address.
In the article that ran in print May 8, David Lima was incorrectly identified as the founder of Open Space Gilroy. He is a member and editor of the group’s newsletter. The time of the city council hearing on the matter is at 5 p.m. May 18, not 6 p.m. as it ran in the print edition. We regret the errors.

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