In a rare move, the Belmont City Council Tuesday unanimously approved a new zoning designation to preserve its open space portion of the San Juan Hills.
The council directed city staff in September to amend the original zoning designation of the properties to reflect its desire to keep its section of the hills as dedicated open space. Consequentially an entirely new zoning classification was required. The city’s Community Development Director Carlos de Melo presented his research and proposal at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
“It’s very rare that the city creates a brand-new zoning district,” de Melo said.
The ordinance establishing Open Space-Public zoning district was immediately attached to the city’s remaining acres of the San Juan Hills.
The initiative came after Belmont took out a $1.5 million loan from itself to purchase 35 acres in the valley from the U.S. Marshals Service in 2009. It was able to recoup its investment after the sale of eight acres for $2 million earlier in the month. The city put a condition of the sale that the owners designate six of their acres back as open space.
When first purchased, the city’s portion was classified as hillside residential and open space and the surrounding privately-owned lots are zoned as both hillside residential and open space or single family residential. The Open Space-Public designation is extremely unique as it doesn’t allow for any residential developments; even its agricultural zone allows for a single residential home, Councilman Dave Warden said.
Jeanette Sacco-Belli, member of the Friends of San Juan Canyon, said she is thankful for the environmentally-conscious City Council, but the classification is only a step.
At the meeting, several members of the public, along with Councilwoman Coralin Feierbach, expressed concern about the ability to keep the land protected in perpetuity. Technically, a future council could create new ordinances to change the language of its zoning district, City Attorney Scott Rennie said. There are three open council seats on the Nov. 5 ballot.
“We’re very concerned. We don’t know who will get on the council and we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. There’s a lot of people who would love to get on that land ... but money shouldn’t be put in front of preserving nature,” Sacco-Belli said.
When initially presented, the ordinance contained a conditional use section permitting wireless communications facilities. The language was removed from the final ordinance but drew concerns over what could happen in the future.
Designating the property as a park will provide a higher level of protection and would take a public vote to undo, Rennie said. Although it became clear nothing would be in perpetuity, the city is determined to make it as hard as possible to alter its new zoning district and vision for the property, Mayor Christine Wozniak said.
The Friends of San Juan Canyon are considering a ballot petition to make the area a park, Sacco-Belli said. The city plans on taking immediate actions to declare it a park by labeling it on the city map and using some of its profits from the land sale to install a sign, Wozniak said.
The city made a profit of $352,119 between its purchase and selling of parts of the San Juan Valley. Seeing this positive return is encouraging and it may consider purchasing other property to designate as open space, Wozniak said.
The city was presented with an offer to buy approximately 18 acres in the area, however, the details are currently private.
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