(A version of this post appeared in the Summer 2008 Green Footnotes. -Brian)
Proposed San Martin Incorporation: a reasonable purpose, wrong approach, and terrible execution
Heading south from San Jose, Monterey Highway and Santa Theresa Boulevard lets people see much of Santa Clara County that's not visible from Highway 101. The open fields, fruit stands, and greenhouses of Coyote Valley transform abruptly into the residential development of Morgan Hill. Leaving that city of fifty thousand people, a gradual transition back to farmland eventually arrives at the eighty thousand people of Gilroy, and then further south to still more farmland all the way to the county line at the Pajaro River, north of Hollister.
There's one exception though to the farmland between Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Half way in between is San Martin Avenue, the heart of the unincorporated town of San Martin with about five thousand people living there. Committee for Green Foothills has worked to protect this area, most recently fighting the expansion of San Martin Airport that is not meant to serve the local area but just to provide more corporate jet capacity for northern Santa Clara County.
The central part of San Martin can properly be called a town, with relatively dense development, stores, and even a Caltrain station. With a community identity and history of opposition to bad county planning in past years, some San Martin residents have proposed incorporating their town so they can take over land use planning. This purpose is reasonable although one could equally reasonably oppose it, since they propose none of the city services that usually accompany incorporation.
The real problem lies with the approach then taken by incorporation proponents, that every acre lying between the Morgan Hill, Gilroy, and their respective planning areas (called Spheres of Influence) should become part of San Martin. This turns normal city planning on its head – normally, cities are supposed to encompass the areas that are mostly developed, and only expand outward to bring in rural lands when the city's future growth requires the land. While at least some San Martin incorporation proponents expect to do a better job of protecting open space than the County has, they cannot control the future city, and a real risk of wholesale loss of thousands of acres of farmland could happen with any vote of the future city council.
Then where things have gone terribly wrong is with the execution of the process for determining whether San Martin will incorporate. This problem has nothing to with San Martin residents but everything to do with the agency that is supposed to oversee the process, Santa Clara County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). This agency is required by County policy and state law to protect the environment but has refused advice of its staff, its lawyer, a second team of lawyers, and and an environmental consultant. The advice revolved around shrinking the size of the proposed city, but on a series of consistent 3-2 votes, the LAFCO Commission has refused to do it job.
The situation became so serious that for the first time in Committee for Green Foothills' 46-year history, our Board of Directors passed a No Confidence Motion in Santa Clara County LAFCO. We can only hope the agencies responsible for appointments to LAFCO take notice of this situation, and take appropriate action to fix it.