Should residential sprawl be allowed on farmland outside of Gilroy city limits? Santa Clara County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) considered this on August 2, and ultimately voted to allow development to proceed on approximately half of the proposed site. Unfortunately, this compromise still impacts Gilroy’s climate resilience, residents’ safety, and taxpayers’ wallets throughout the county.
Gilroy Proposal Violated LAFCO Policy on Sprawl
LAFCOs are local agencies charged by state law with preventing sprawl, preserving open space and farmland, and ensuring orderly growth of cities and efficient delivery of services. Thus, when developers wanted to build a residential subdivision on unincorporated farmland just outside of Gilroy city limits, the first step was for the city of Gilroy to ask the Santa Clara County LAFCO for an expansion of Gilroy’s Urban Service Area.
The low-density residential development being proposed by these developers is a textbook example of sprawl. LAFCO’s policies require a city to build infill development on land already within city limits before gobbling up surrounding open space. In this case, LAFCO’s analysis showed that Gilroy still has plenty of available land for housing inside existing city boundaries. In fact, expanding their city boundaries in order to build low-density housing on farmland is precisely the opposite of the kind of climate-resilient smart growth that we need in order to protect our communities and address the impacts of climate change.
LAFCO’s policies also require Gilroy to be able to provide adequate urban services to the new development, including police and fire protection, sewer service and water supply, trash collection, road maintenance, and schools, parks and libraries. However, Gilroy is already struggling to provide adequate fire protection and maintain its roads within its existing borders. In fact, the city’s own economic analysis found that the proposed development would have a negative fiscal impact on both Gilroy and Santa Clara County.
This situation illustrates a fundamental fact about sprawl development: it’s expensive. It simply costs taxpayers more when police and fire departments have to cover a larger area, or when there are more miles of roadways to repair.
And of course, this development will result in the loss of agricultural land. Although the land is not being farmed at the moment, converting rural open space to development forces residents to drive more and emit more greenhouse gases, while simultaneously destroying the green space that would otherwise absorb some of those carbon emissions.
LAFCO Compromise Did Not Solve the Problem
The LAFCO Board voted at its August 2 meeting for a compromise: instead of allowing Gilroy to expand its Urban Service Area to encompass the entire proposed development site, only about half of the site will be within the boundary. However, the half of the site that was approved fails to meet LAFCO’s criteria just as much as if the whole site was approved.
Nevertheless, the city has now been granted a large chunk of vacant land on which to build housing. The next time Gilroy applies to LAFCO with a request to expand its Urban Service Area even further, it should first meet the requirements of building infill development on its available land and demonstrating that it can provide adequate services to all of its residents instead of further impacting their wallets and their safety.