Features & Columns

MAN WITH A PLAN: Developer Chester "Skip" Spiering shoots ducks with the new mayor and says he wants to do the "right thing" by creating a project that returns community benefits.

The Emperor's
New Cloves

Sandie Silva, a third generation dairy farmer whose family traces its roots back to Portugal's Azores, raises 40 cows and calves on a 200-acre farm with a red barn on the Pacheco Pass Highway. Its history, dating back at least to the 1880s, is documented in the U.S. Library of Congress. She met her neighbor up the road, Jenny Mosher, when Mosher's mechanic husband repaired one of Silva's tractors.

Like many moms in their 30s, the two post family photos and communicate frequently on Facebook. When they started expressing their concerns about the urbanization of Gilroy, they found that the message resonated. They quickly set up an invitation page and an online petition. In less than 28 days, they've collected more than 2,200 online signatures and a flood of comments, virtually all of them critical of a city government they feel is unresponsive to their concerns.

Mosher says she'll do what it takes to stop what they view as the destruction of the region's agricultural heritage, including a ballot measure. "I'll be in there in front of the tractor" if necessary, she says.

The council leadership doesn't seem to be swayed by the planning commission's negative declaration or the overwhelming opposition that has been expressed in comments from community members since the early December vote.

At his last meeting as mayor, on Dec. 14, Gage used his folksy charm to sideline citizens who approached the podium to offer public comments. "I've known your mother for 50 years," he told one. "Give me a call. ... Maybe we can have a cup of coffee. I'm in the phone book."

Gage's cozy relationship with the development community became clear when Brandenburg Properties' Bill Baron emailed Gage on Dec. 9 to congratulate him on his retirement. "If there is anything we can do for you, please let us know," Baron offered. "Lee and Eric [Brandenurg] were like family," Gage wrote back. "I will look forward to future meetings with all of you."

Gage's chief ally on the council and chief engineer of the annexation vote, San Jose land use attorney Perry Woodward, was chosen as Gilroy's new mayor on Monday. Woodward is friendly with the project's developer, Chester "Skip" Spiering, and the two have bonded on duck hunting outings in Los Banos.

When one constituent wrote Woodward about the "condescending and dismissive tone of your closing comments," at the Dec. 7 meeting, when Woodward described critics as zero-growthers and "tho-o-o-se people," Woodward responded, "My sincere belief is that I am doing what needs to be done for the good of Gilroy."

ACTIVISTS: Jenny Mosher and Sandie Silva like Gilroy's agricultural lifestyle and friendly, small town vibe.

After being chosen as mayor this week and promising to represent all Gilroyans, even those who disagreed with him, Woodward nominated Peter Leroe-Muñoz to serve as his vice mayor. Leroe-Muñoz, who was elected in 2014 with five maximum contributions from developer Spiering and members of his family, is as enthusiastic as the new mayor is about expanding Gilroy's borders. The open closeness between the new mayor, the former mayor, the nominated mayor pro-tempore and Gilroy's largest developers and land owners has done little to dispel the notion of a good ol' boy network at the center of the city's political culture. This month the council will appoint a new council member and consider a 24-year general plan that favors growth through annexation of farm lands over compact infill growth that would build on vacant parcels, including many in the city's blighted and neglected downtown.

While other cities around Santa Clara Valley have revitalized their downtowns through redevelopment and beautification initiatives, Gilroy's languishes with boarded up storefronts, empty lots, galvanized sheds and unsafe, fenced-off buildings. Downtown property owner Gary Walton doesn't mince words and calls it "the worst downtown in Santa Clara County."

Gilroy built a large outlet mall that bustled while downtown retail withered, repeating the mistake that San Jose made when its department stores moved to the Valley Fair Shopping Center in 1956 and Santana Row opened in 2002.

In addition to restarting its downtown, Gilroy faces the same tests as San Jose, which has borne the costs of housing Silicon Valley's workers in suburban sprawl while communities to the north reaped a disproportionate share of the jobs and accompanying economic benefits, such as nicely maintained parks, well-staffed public safety departments and perfectly paved streets. Growth critics fear a traffic-choked, auto-dependent suburban nightmare could result from housing expansion without providing jobs locally.

The flipside is that Gilroy is a community with historical architecture, an abundance of natural beauty, a strong sense of community, an emerging wine country artisanal aesthetic and an opportunity to reinvent itself as a high-speed rail hub. Given the right leadership, it has nowhere to go but up.

If a $3 billion housing project isn't in the cards, will there be a fair resolution for investors who've been led on by city and county officials for three decades? One solution might be a buyout of development rights by a land trust agency or foundation to compensate the principals and preserve open space and agriculture. Both Martin and Spiering say that if that option presents itself, they're willing to have the conversation.

Metro Executive Editor Dan Pulcrano moonlights as publisher of the Gilroy Dispatch because publishing's a tough business these days.