City, LAFCO stalemate lingers

Catholic school rejection leaves city with few options

The map outlines existing Morgan Hill boundaries.

In the final month of 2018, Morgan Hill City Council’s application to annex land for a new Catholic high school was thwarted by a little-known appointed commission, the county’s Local Agency Formation Committee.

The city felt they represented community needs, attempting to annex land long owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese into the city’s Urban Service Area. LAFCO denied the request for the third time in three years, postponing the project indefinitely.

The commission’s apparent hard line against Morgan Hill’s plans to annex pieces of the Southeast Quadrant has been consistent, and frustrating to many city officials and residents. In this case, the Santa Clara County LAFCO rejected a plan that had been 10 years in the making.

The diocese’s South Valley Catholic High School project was doomed—by a 4-3 vote—because of a deteriorating relationship between Morgan Hill and LAFCO, members of both bodies have acknowledged.

The motion to approve the annexation was made by County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who represents the South County, and was initially rejected in a 5-2 vote, supported only by John Varela, his South County counterpart from the Santa Clara Valley Water District board.

Then, on a final vote to deny the application, LAFCO Commissioner Rob Rennie of Los Gatos switched his vote, leaving Susan Vicklund Wilson, Sequoia Hall, Ken Yeager and Sergio Jimenez in the 4-3 majority.

“This was the third one in a row, and we asked them not to bring it back.” Hall told the Times. “We tried this with Morgan Hill a few times, and it didn’t work.”

In an email to the Times, Morgan Hill Communication and Engagement Manager Maureen Tobin estimated that the city had submitted four applications to LAFCO in the last 10 years. Of those applications, only one was partially approved—the application Hall referenced at the meeting and in conversation with the Times. One application was withdrawn by the city, while the other two were denied by LAFCO.

At the Dec. 5 LAFCO meeting, commissioners Hall and Wilson cited these past applications from the City of Morgan Hill multiple times.

A representative of the archdiocese, the Rev. Steve Kim, told LAFCO at that meeting that the archdiocese hoped to use the agricultural land next to the proposed high school as a teaching experience for the students. The plea fell on deaf ears.

Two very different staff reports

When LAFCO staff presented its findings about the Morgan Hill application to commissioners, the staff report recommended commissioners deny the request. This came after two months of meetings between the city and LAFCO.

According to the staff report, the application did not meet requirements for LAFCO approval because:

  • There was land available within Morgan Hill city limits as an alternate site for the school;
  • The annexation wouldn’t create logical city boundaries;
  • There would be a significant impact on valuable agricultural land;
  • The city didn’t have the infrastructure to provide the public safety, sewer, water and storm drainage to the area;
  • The plan wasn’t consistent with the regional transportation plan;
  • The city hasn’t annexed all of the unincorporated land still within the urban service area; and
  • The plan wasn’t consistent with county policies.

The Morgan Hill staff report came to nearly opposite conclusions.

Tobin said the discrepancies between the two reports occurred because “LAFCO policies are a collection of recommendations (some poorly defined) regarding how to evaluate USA (Urban Service Area) Amendment requests and recommendations for agricultural mitigation.”

“In the City’s USA Amendment request to LAFCO,” Tobin added, “the City provided its own assessment of each of the evaluation factors LAFCO uses to review such requests and described how the request was consistent with LAFCO policy recommendations.”

Hall said it was the commission’s job to only look at the “macro picture” and determine whether or not the application violated policy.

The commissioners who voted to deny the project—Yeager, Wilson, Sergio Jimenez and Hall—also urged the City and the archdiocese to continue searching for land within the city’s existing Urban Service Area. This contrasted with Morgan Hill city staff’s finding that not enough contiguous land exists within the city for such a project.

Kim, speaking for the archdiocese, said he felt the LAFCO commissioners did not understand the work that the church and the city had put into finding appropriate land.

“I pointed out that the California Department of Education requires 44.5 acres for a high school size of 1,800 students,” said Kim. “Sobrato High School is 77 acres, and Live Oak is 48 acres.  Comparable local Catholic schools are suffering from being landlocked, which requires the school to cross the street and rent out other parking space and facilities.”

Commissioners said the application had not addressed past LAFCO concerns.

The city settled a lawsuit with LAFCO in 2016 over Morgan Hill’s General Plan that plotted city growth through 2035. City Attorney Larkin said LAFCO didn’t believe the General Plan was sufficient. The parties reached a legal settlement, but they did not seem to reach a consensus when it came to how the city should be growing.

“To resolve the dispute, the City agreed to do further environmental analysis before any amendment to the City’s Urban Services Area and/or initiating an annexation, unless there was a pre-existing EIR that studied the project,” Larkin told the Times in an email. “In the case of the application for the Catholic High School, an EIR for the project was completed in 2014, so the settlement agreement requirements did not apply.”

Despite the settlement, the original Environmental Impact Report was mentioned multiple times throughout the December LAFCO meeting, and was cited by Hall as an example of how the project had not changed throughout the three applications.

“The project was no different; they should have done a new EIR on it,” Hall said at the meeting.  However, in an interview with the Times, Hall said it was understood that the city was allowed to use the initial EIR in its application.

The archdiocese now owns land outside of an Urban Service Area, surrounded by farmland that the county has deemed “prime,” but which has been called unusable by the farmers who own it.

When asked by the Times if he believed the December meeting had led to any productive conversation, Kim replied, “No.”

Former mayor Steve Tate made his case for the Catholic school and the annexation once again in an editorial piece for the San Jose Mercury News. Tate reiterated the city’s message, that this annexation would be the last of its kind in the city.

“I am very disappointed that we will not have that opportunity and will apparently lose our chance for the South County Catholic High School to meet the demand for educational services in underserved South County,” wrote Tate.

What is LAFCO?

LAFCO is a county agency mandated by the state. There are seven commissioners, made up of local government officials from across Santa Clara County along with a public member. There are also five alternative commissioners.

According to the Santa Clara LAFCO website, the committee’s mission is to regulate, “through approval or denial, the boundary changes proposed by other public agencies or individuals such as annexations to or detachments from, special districts or cities; formation of new districts; incorporation of cities; consolidation of districts; merger of a district with a city; creation of a subsidiary district; and dissolution of a district.”

When a city receives a request for a Urban Service Area amendment, the City Council must hear the request and choose whether to move forward with an application to LAFCO. Because cities are only allotted one such application per year, requests are often bundled.

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