Possibly the most important committee or commission addressing land use in Santa Clara County is the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) which serves as a referee against sprawl. Having members appointed to the Commission who understand and uphold their duty to protect the environment is critical. When the Commissioners who serve on LAFCO fail to apply the rules that limit outward sprawl, the environment suffers and we erode opportunities for local climate resilience. That’s why for years we’ve supported candidates for the Commission who are committed to the agency’s mission and representing the interest of county residents as a whole.
Little-known Agency Plays Big Role in Sustainable Growth
Established by state law, every county has its own LAFCO. This little-known but critically important agency has a mandate to curb urban sprawl. It ensures cities and other local governments expand their jurisdiction outward only when necessary, and it encourages the protection of open space and efficient delivery of municipal services such as sewer and water. While most of the seven commissioners of the Santa Clara LAFCO are also county supervisors, city councilmembers, or special district agency board members (like water districts and open space districts), they must serve independently from those agencies. They are tasked with following LAFCO’s own set of rules, regulations and laws, and LAFCO’s professional staff advises the commissioners on how these rules apply to proposals on which Commissioners decide.
LAFCO Commissioners are expected to make decisions that promote sustainable growth and avoid the unnecessary loss of farmland and habitats. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. For several years prior to 2010, a closely divided Santa Clara LAFCO rejected its staff’s recommendations and approved sprawl proposals. One of those approvals permitted the City of Morgan Hill to unnecessarily expand its southwestern boundary for what the city inaccurately termed “infill.” This decision led the Green Foothills’ Board of Directors to take the unprecedented step of passing a “Vote of No Confidence” in the LAFCO Commission in a rebuke for the complete disregard of its own rules.
Appointments Determine Success of LAFCO Mandate
Spurred by the need to have LAFCO Commissioners who respected the agency’s mandate and the responsibility of representing the interest of county residents as a whole rather than that of the authority through which they were appointed, we began to advocate for better appointments.
In 2010, we welcomed and supported the appointment of then-Mountain View Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga to LAFCO. Throughout the following years, we also supported the appointment of then-Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority Director Sequoia Hall and Los Gatos Councilmember Rob Rennie. Since that time, these commissioners along with a majority of their fellow commissioners diligently applied LAFCO’s rules, rejecting a number of misguided applications for expansion by the City of Morgan Hill onto prime farmland, and successfully challenging Gilroy’s faulty environmental review of a proposal to prematurely expand its boundary by over 720 acres onto farmland and open space.
By judicious administration of its rules, the Santa Clara LAFCO has shifted from our vote of No Confidence to being awarded “Most Effective Commission” in 2018 at the statewide conference of LAFCOs.
In 2020, when Commissioner Sequoia Hall vacated his seat on LAFCO, we were again supportive of and pleased to see the appointment of Yoriko Kishimoto, who had served for seven years as the LAFCO Special District Alternate. She has a long career supporting environmental causes, both as Mayor and Council Member in Palo Alto and then as a MidPeninsula Regional Open Space Director.
Her promotion to the Commissioner seat created an opening for the alternate position. The appointment went to Helen Chapman, recently elected to the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. Alternate Commissioner Chapman also has a long career in environmental service, formerly serving on San Jose’s Parks Commission and the Green Foothills Board of Directors.
Santa Clara LAFCO’s votes in recent years to reject sprawl have not been unanimous. LAFCO Commissioners can reasonably disagree on various issues, and of course, do not always have to agree with staff recommendations. But to be clear, not all agency expansions are bad for the environment. For example, in 2004 the San Mateo County LAFCo approved Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District’s application to expand to the San Mateo Coast, helping preserve our coastline.
Future appointments can either support the current record of the Santa Clara LAFCO or reverse it, so it’s crucial Commissioners are committed to independently serving LAFCO’s mandate and policies.
LAFCOs Are Only the Start
As a nonprofit, we do not endorse or oppose candidates for elected offices, but we can support individual committee or commission appointments, and LAFCOs are only one type of many appointed positions in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties that impact our natural environment. Many city and county planning commissions, park commissions, and special environmental committees like those developing Climate Action Plans, are also in need of people. They all provide excellent ways for people to have a positive impact on their communities. We strongly encourage people to get involved.