Spring vs. Sprawl

Election of Rene Spring to City Council could mean relief for city’s growth woes

rene spring councilmember PROUD AMERICAN Spring, a native of Switzerland, became a U.S. citizen in 2006. Photo: Lora Schraft

Rene Spring has the kind of paternal love for Morgan Hill typical of folks born and living into adulthood in hometowns that dot the American landscape.

From Maine to Miami, Seattle to San Diego and throughout the heartland, the phrase born and raised is spoken with chest-swelling pride by people contentedly living out lives in one place. The rest of the nation appears to be moving hither and yon with the rhythm and regularity of pack rats, while once-quaint downtowns and farmlands vanish under a vexing veneer of strip malls, fast-food joints and densely packed subdivisions as far as the eye can see.

Thing is, Rene Spring is not from Morgan Hill; he’s not even from the United States of America, he was born in Switzerland. And that just might put the newly minted Morgan Hill City Councilman among the most typical of Americans—an immigrant.

Spring is also married and a stepfather and step-grandfather, a homeowner and a successful Silicon Valley professional, in addition to being one of the South Bay’s rising political stars and the city’s first openly gay council member.

Having served as president of the Morgan Hill Foundation and Leadership Morgan Hill, Spring so loves the city that he started a website to celebrate it, and sat on the planning commission. In November, he won election to the council with more than 32 percent of the vote—far ahead of the second place winner.

People like him.

It seems that for many, Spring is likeable because he’s become a sort of White Knight, defending Morgan Hill city—variously called the Willow Glen and the Los Gatos of South Valley—against the ugly ogre of urban sprawl that was the death knell for so many once-rural Bay Area towns.

Liza Garibaldi met Spring at a gathering in 2013 when he was still a planning commissioner, and says she has been impressed ever since.

“He sat down at a table where we were eating and we just started talking and immediately became fast friends, like I had known him for a long time,” says Garibaldi, 53, a paralegal.

He’s approachable, the type of guy who tells it like it is and follows through, friends and supporters say. They use words such as transparent, genuine and authentic to describe him.

“You don’t have to worry about his motives,” says Garibaldi, who grew up on a Morgan Hill farm, moved away, then returned and supported Spring’s election campaign.

His campaign focused on growth—the very same issue that, 40 years ago this year, was so cataclysmic that it galvanized newcomers from the nascent, northerly netherworld of high-tech and long-time residents and pitted them against a robust, muscled good-old-boys network of business owners, politicians, land developers and residential construction firms looking to make a killing developing the sleepy, orchard-flecked Morgan Hill.

In the 1970s, the worry was that there was too much growth, too fast, too soon and in all the wrong places—such as the huge Jackson Oaks subdivision that sprouted in the annexed eastern hills of the city, surrounding Lake Anderson.

Not so different from what is happening today—at least that’s how Spring and his supporters view it. Spring’s supporters see their new champion as a voice for the unheard thousands of residents who moved to Morgan Hill over the years to escape urban life, and who now endure hours in commute traffic in return for the sublime pleasure of living in a city whose bucolic serenity, beauty and remaining open space they feel are threatened.

That’s just how things were in the late ’70s, when growth took on an ominous quality and city voters enacted one of the state’s first growth control ordinances, Measure E.

And so, too, did Spring and his supporters rise to the challenge addressing growth ordinances, when Measure S appeared on the ballot last November, which proposed to put more bite in the old growth control laws by limiting construction to 215 homes a year, with a mandatory population ceiling that would take the number from about 38,000 now to about 58,000 by 2035.

“I did not support measure S as I had some issues the way it was written,” says Spring. “Of course, I support a strong growth control measure and lower residential allocations.”

The measure passed with a whopping 76.5 percent voter approval.

Many say Spring’s campaign platform, which attacked urban sprawl and sought to protect the city from rampant growth and the wholesale ruin of a once-thriving agricultural industry, had a lot to do with the victory of Measure S, and that his voice is needed to protect what’s been won.

“Rene is more representative of a majority of the people who moved here, we spend a lot more time on the freeway,” says supporter Yvonne Smith.

“He really and truly cares for Morgan Hill; he cares for Morgan Hill in a way that I care about Morgan Hill,” she added.

A shared investment in the city, represented by endless commutes, is a critical issue that Smith says, “I didn’t feel was being represented on the city council,” before Spring’s election.


Spring Ahead

“It was a wonderful surprise, and a very humbling experience. We had no idea how our campaign would be received,” says Spring, 53, Director of Project Management for Cadence Design Systems since 2001.

In the run up to launching his campaign, he listened closely to residents.

“Many of their concerns were my concerns and it was a voice that was missing on the city council at that time,” he says. “I worked very hard to get elected and had a small but wonderful campaign team—I am so grateful to the many moms and pops of our town who joined and supported our campaign.”

Born Rene Marti in Bern, Switzerland on Jan. 14, 1964 to a farmer’s daughter and a factory worker, his parents divorced before he was 2. Because his mother was unmarried and working, the state put him and two siblings in a home for orphans and foster children in the Bernese Mountains.

“Sad as it might sound, it was really wonderful,” he says. “It was in a beautiful area of the Alps. I was very blessed.

“It was run by two elderly ladies. One cared a lot about me and gave me the best of training and there was nature and animals—I will be grateful for the rest of my life.”

After several years, his mother remarried and reunited with her children, who took their stepfather’s name, Spring.

In his late teens, Spring spent time in upstate New York as an exchange student before returning home to earn a degree in computer science and engineering.

The visit made all the difference in his life.

“That is when I fell in love with this country and I knew one day I would go back to the states,” he says.

That happened on March 23, 1998. He was 34 and moved into an apartment in San Francisco. He worked in the high-tech world on a H1B visa tied to his employer—if the job ended he’d be deported.

It was a difficult time. A month after immigrating, he met his future husband, Mark Hoffmann, and they moved in together as domestic partners. If Spring lost his job, it would mean a lot more now to be deported because it would mean saying goodbye to this new relationship.

“I’d built a life here and I did not want to lose that, the fear [of deportation] was always there,” he recalled.

But luck stepped in. He received his green card, allowing permanent residence. A month later, in February 2001, he was laid off.

Spring earned his citizenship in 2006 and just two years later the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to same-sex marriage and Rene Spring and Mark Hoffmann were married in 2008.

That court decision, he says, was “Extremely personal, it impacted us a lot. As a married couple, it made things much easier, and helped us in many ways to be less discriminate against.”

Hoffmann, 59, a letter carrier and artist who specializes in Disney characters, describes his husband and walks-in-the-country partner as a thoughtful, very quiet and kind man with “the patience of a saint and a good heart—he gets along with everybody.”

But don’t let all that fool you into thinking you can walk all over him, because you can’t,” he says.

Spring’s devotion to Morgan Hill is huge, according to Hoffmann, who was married for 18 years and had three adult children with his ex-wife before meeting Spring.

rene spring with family

HAPPILY EVER AFTER Rene Spring and Mark Hoffmann with their family at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. Photo: Lora Schraft

“We moved down here for reason,” he says, “and we don’t want it to be another San Jose.”

“Rene was involved in politics in Switzerland and I always knew he had that passion, he really loves it.”

Both men say that the fact that they are gay played no part in the election and that the community has accepted them.

“People have made us feel welcome,” says Hoffmann, a native of St. Louis, Missouri.

But for Martha Carranza Artiles, 57, it’s part of why she voted for him.

“He is openly gay, and that perspective in which he experienced his life is absolutely an essential part of what makes him valuable to the community—he is sensitive to populations who may not represent the mainstream and makes sure they are included,” she says.

That may be true, but the first-time elected official is under no illusions about easy sailing for the city.

“We still have big battles coming up,” he says, citing high-speed rail and the preservation of agricultural land in the southeast quadrant.

But he seems ready for battle, armed with the same philosophy he campaigned on that informs his love of Morgan Hill.

“I really don’t want us to grow out to our city limits, into the green [zones], I want to protect the agricultural land as much as we can and slow down growth, we have had so much that it has changed the city drastically.”

Yvonne Smith agrees. See believes in Spring’s vision and that he will do what he says, and she finds compelling proof of that in what she sees as his courage and honesty.

“People distrust politicians, they say one thing to get elected and they do something else,” she says. “The fact that Rene did not hide he is gay told me that here is a person who would stand up and hold strong for his beliefs. That is a hard thing to do. He has proven integrity.”

Jack Foley
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About Jack Foley
Longtime local journalist and Pulitzer co-winner Jack Foley has worked for San Jose Mercury News and Gilroy Dispatch for more than 20 years and has covered Gilroy for much of his 30-year journalism career. Since 1976, Foley has lived in and around Gilroy.