Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 27, 2003

Can’t we all just get along?

As a reporter for The Morgan Hill Times, I covered many zoning and land-use issues. I am nevertheless still amazed by the emotion they frequently arouse. After the dust settles, often both sides are unhappy.

I understood the emotion surrounding the closure of Morgan Hill’s Saint Louise Hospital and the subsequent refusal by the city to rezone the site for San Jose Christian College. That decision is still in litigation, even though the college is pursuing another site. The lawsuit filed by SJCC under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act has the potential to test the new law in the U.S. Supreme Court.

I sat through numerous hearings as one emotion-filled speaker after another addressed council members. On one side were residents who wanted medical services to remain in town, some of whom gave substantial sums of money to help found Saint Louise Hospital in Morgan Hill, only to see it moved to Gilroy. It felt like a theft.

On the other side were pragmatists who believed two hospitals couldn’t thrive in South Valley, joined by religious folks who wanted to swell their ranks with fundamentalist Christian students, faculty and staff, and Catholic Healthcare West (then-owner of both South County hospitals) officials who wanted to sell the property to a non-medical entity.

A few years later, Morgan Hill has a beautiful but empty hospital and an expensive and possibly precedent-setting lawsuit; but, so far, has maintained the hospital zoning on the unused land.

The fracas over the proposed county courthouse near downtown Morgan Hill startled me. To advocates, the proposal seemed like a real winner – Morgan Hill was promised a beautiful county facility that would bring jobs and visitors that would invigorate downtown.

Neighbors saw it differently. They raised the specter of sexual predators and other criminals frequenting site (although I’d guess most bad guys prefer to avoid courthouses) and dismissed statistics that demonstrated that courthouses elsewhere in the county aren’t associated with increased crime.

The Morgan Hill Courthouse project to replace San Martin’s mold-infested facility eventually got a green light, but the design has not been well-received and bickering between the city and the county has marred its development.

Then came the Condit Road Ford dealership proposal. I was astounded to read that during the final council meeting on the topic, one neighbor compared the danger posed by the auto dealer to that of a serial child molester. Similarly, lots of emotion swirled around the Gilroy Unified School District’s choice of a Day Road site for a second Gilroy High School. I don’t have room to go into the Super Wal-Mart, Newman development, homeless shelter and airport expansion projects.

One thing that concerns me about these debates is that decision makers hear almost exclusively from opponents. Joe Citizen who doesn’t live near the proposed sites rarely lobbies leaders about these proposals. The few occasions a non-neighbor does his three minutes at the podium, his opinion is often dismissed by neighbors as less valid or even invalid because he doesn’t live nearby. I worry that decision makers get a skewed view of the entire community’s opinion of a proposal.

Finally, a word of advice to anyone who addresses trustees, commissioners or city council members – these are people, too. Although they try to set aside emotion and deal with facts, it’s difficult to ignore comments that label decision makers stupid, unqualified, unethical – and worse. Foul language will rarely advance your cause. Speakers damage their entire argument when they make ridiculous claims about a project’s pros and cons.

I’m all for engaged citizens lobbying their leaders and expressing their opinions. But I think everyone is better served when it’s done in a responsible way, with facts, not emotions, as criteria for decisions.

I don’t have statistics to prove this, but I wonder if all the negative energy and the neighbor-pitted-against-neighbor animosity sours these projects and keeps them from reaching their full potential.

Of course, neighbors, especially, should keep a close eye on development proposals to make sure they are well-designed and minimize negative impacts – and they should oppose proposals that are truly bad ideas. But to paraphrase Rodney King, when it comes to new projects in South Valley, can’t we all just get along a little better?

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