“No man is an island entire of itself,” begins one of the most famous poems in the English language, its verses asking readers to contemplate the plight of the individual within the context of all humankind.
John Donne’s 17th century poem may have some special resonance for the city of Gilroy as it continues to work out its place within a rapidly changing region.
In this Q&A, City Councilmember Roland Velasco, who also serves as a policy aide for Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, addresses the regional outlook as well as downtown revitalization and recreation in the city.
DISPATCH: With the failure of Measure F, how can Gilroy work towards creating more recreational opportunities for youth like they have in Morgan Hill?
VELASCO: Your question implies that Measure F was tied to the Recreation Department. It wasn’t. It was a general fund sales tax that would go into city coffers and the council would decide how to allocate the money based on competing needs. The voters of Gilroy decided it wasn’t right for them and we, as a city, are fortunate that revenue into the city has been greater than projected, and we are able to meet our current needs.
I believe our Recreation Department is the unsung hero of the city. The department offers quality and affordable programs, special events and activities. I’ve heard from many residents who absolutely love the programs that are offered. The Recreation Department has a program or activity for everyone from the very young to the elderly. But, we can try to do more. Recreation staff is working hard at identifying partnerships that would allow an expansion of programs. As our city budget improves, we should consider staffing levels to match the recreational demands of our population. Our goal should be to provide recreational choices that would serve the Gilroy community.
DISPATCH: With your experience serving on LAFCO and working as a land use policy analyst in the county, do you feel Gilroy has an issue with sprawl? Are large-scale projects on formerly undeveloped land (like the 721-acre Rancho Los Olivos proposal) the only way for Gilroy to accommodate future growth?
VELASCO: The term “sprawl” is very subjective and is really a policy decision of the council. The 721-acre Rancho Los Olivos proposal shined a bright light on Gilroy and exposed a project that would’ve added 4,000 or more new homes, more traffic and more noise to Gilroy. Further, it would have made our current jobs/housing imbalance worse. For the above reasons the Planning Commission voted against the project on a 7-0 vote. Later the council supported the project by a 4-3 vote—I opposed. It took two lawsuits against the city for the council to rescind the project.
It’s important to note that residential housing, more than any other land use designation, costs the city money in terms of the services the city provides to our residents. The revenue from our economic development efforts helps to offset the costs of new housing. Therefore, we need to be creative to attract new businesses and help existing businesses expand.
Up until this proposal, Gilroy residents were able to take pride in knowing that past councils managed to keep a tight and compact city as opposed to other jurisdictions that have spread out like fingers in all directions. Our Residential Development Ordinance helps ensure that new residential growth does not exceed our ability to maintain services. We have the capacity to handle future growth and already have new housing in the pipeline. My aim has always been to provide a variety of housing stock at various price points. We just need to be methodical about new housing to ensure we don’t put unnecessary pressure on the city budget. By keeping our city compact, without extending city services, we will be able to make sure our residents have the sustainable services [police, fire, recreation, etc.] that they deserve, and that local jobs are created.
DISPATCH: In a past Q&A with the paper, when you were running for City Council in 2014, you said about the Downtown Revitalization effort, “I would also want to push for smart and assertive economic development programs to entice new businesses to Gilroy.” Has that happened? If so, what are these incentives? The planner who was in charge of building permits and economic development, Lee Butler, has recently moved on. According to interim City Administrator Ed Tewes, there is currently no plan to fill this position, and his duties have been spread out among the department. How can the city move forward with any economic development without this key role filled? We have also heard complaints over the length of time it takes to get a building permit issued for the downtown district. Have you heard this as well? And how will the city address this as it seems this is a vital component to downtown revitalization.
VELASCO: California Senate Bill 7 requires the use of prevailing wages for construction projects that are paid for “in whole or in part, out of public funds.” This has had the effect of denying the use of city incentives to businesses. However, we can try other strategies such as evaluating the downtown impact fee structure when the new general plan and subsequent nexus studies are completed. I look forward to that debate. We can also try to make it easier for new types of businesses to open up in downtown. For example, the council expanded the allowable uses in downtown and removed a Conditional Use Permit requirement for hotel/motel use. The key is to be smart and creative to try and attract investors and businesses to downtown.
It’s not accurate to say that there’s “no plan” to fill Lee Butler’s former position. This position is a high-profile job that interacts with the business community and the downtown, in particular. To that end, economic development will be a key task of the new city administrator. He should decide who will be the most successful in the position. Meanwhile, we have [planning manager] Susan O’Strander acting as the interim development services manager to maintain a seamless interface with the development community.
I think everyone on the council has heard complaints, at one time or another, about the length of time it takes to get through the permitting process. The city takes those complaints seriously and believes some of those complaints were valid. To improve the processing speed and accuracy, city staff is relying on consultants who have specialized skills to help process applications. Internally, changes have been made as well. A one-stop building permit review process by can be made by appointment. A permit can be issued over the counter for suitable projects such as minor tenant improvements, façade improvements or a residential kitchen remodel. If an applicant is experiencing delays, please contact me and I’ll follow up with the appropriate city staff.
DISPATCH: Are you planning on running for office in November? If so, which one?
VELASCO: Yes, I plan on running for mayor of Gilroy.
DISPATCH: You also work as a policy aide for County Supervisor Mike Wasserman. How do you juggle the duties of a councilman and this role? What does serving at the county level bring to your work as a council member in Gilroy?
VELASCO: We all wear many hats … I don’t just juggle my duties as a councilman and employee. I also juggle my role as a husband, parent and search and rescue volunteer. I try to do the best I can in whatever role I’m in.
Gilroy has always been my home. I was born and raised in Gilroy and graduated from Gilroy High School. After my Army service, I returned home to stay. In addition to my concern and love for my home town, I bring a regional perspective to the council dais because of my work at the county level. I interact regularly with other elected officials, administrative staff and special interest groups. This provides me with insight to what is happening outside of Gilroy and how it might impact us. How are other jurisdictions dealing with some of the same issues we face? The unique position I’m in gives me the ability to see the bigger picture of Gilroy and how we relate and interact with the rest of the county.