MORGAN HILL — Asit Panwala, a defense attorney, admits that he wasn’t well versed in the definition of a city’s general plan, but the California Sixth District Court of Appeal still ruled in his favor, allowing voters in Morgan Hill to vote in a land use referendum.

With the help of co-council Randy Toch of the Law Office of Randall Toch, the appeals court rejected the City of Morgan Hill’s argument that the re-designation of a vacant lot would be inconsistent with the city’s general land use plan. 

The legal fight stemmed from an April 2015 decision by the Morgan Hill City Council to pass an ordinance to change the lot’s zoning designation to “general commercial” to allow River Park Hospitality to build a hotel on the land.

The following month, the Morgan Hill Hotel Coalition, a group of local hotel owners, filed a petition to hold a public referendum to prevent the development of the hotel.

“Hotel owners in town, including my father, started to show up at the town council meeting,” Panwala told the Northern California Record

Panwala attended three-hour meetings on behalf of his father and was commissioned by the coalition to represent the group. 

The coalition was not against commercial use, believing that office buildings would stand on the property, according to Panwala. 

“[The coalition’s] point was this land was going to bring jobs and careers to the city, but a hotel creates jobs, not careers that enable people to live and work in Morgan Hill.”

Panwala helped gather 2,500 signatures of registered voters who wanted to see the matter go to referendum. A trial court, however, ruled otherwise and struck down the petition, claiming any change in zoning would make it inconsistent with the city’s general land use plan. 

“In layman’s terms, they were saying, ‘We don’t like you disagreeing with us, so now I don’t think we are going to let you vote about it,’” Panwala said, adding that there were at least 11 other zoning classifications available to the city.

Panwala said the city “underestimated” him and the coalition.

“We just want the voters to have the same powers they did. I never [understood] how [the] city could legitimately argue that the voters could not have the same power [as] the city council did,” he said.

In the wake of the loss, it is not clear when the city will hold the referendum or what the city plans to do with the lot.

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