San Benito County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Nov. 8 to approve the final environmental impact report and conditional use permit for the Betabel Commercial Development project. Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki was the dissenting vote.
In doing so, the board set aside appeals filed by Andy Hsia-Coron for Protect San Benito County and the Center for Biological Diversity, and Sara Clark, of the law firm Shute, Mihally & Weinberger LLP, for the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Amah Mutsun Land Trust against the Planning Commission’s Oct. 12 decision to approve the project.
The county will immediately file a notice of determination, a written notification of the final decision or order issued by the supervisors to the county clerk’s office and submit it to CEQAnet, the portal for the California Environmental Quality Act. Opponents of the project have 30 days to file a lawsuit to challenge the EIR, said Joel Ellinwood, assistant county counsel.
According to the agenda packet, the appeal submitted by Hsia-Coron asserted the Planning Commission unlawfully certified the final EIR as CEQA-compliant. The appeal submitted by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Amah Mutsun Land Trust claimed the final EIR failed to adequately identify, analyze and mitigate significant impacts on the environment, including tribal cultural resources, cultural resources, traffic, greenhouse gasses, biological resources, water resources and land use planning.
The appeals accused the supervisors of ignoring the public’s will after residents overwhelmingly voted against Measure K.
Though Measure K (2020) proponents argued the measure was to stop zoning of four commercial properties along Highway 101, it actually removed the development guidelines for Regional Commercial (C-3) zone but did nothing to change the zoning. The county identified 13 commercial zones or nodes in its General Plan, primarily on highway intersections including four along Hwy 101.
Several people objected to the perceived rush to approve the project before Measures R and Q could be voted on that night (both are currently appear to be defeated but have thousands of votes yet to be processed). Hsia-Coron said supervisors were too actively involved in the process and “put their thumbs on the scale in ways that are questionably legal regarding Q.”
Valentine Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, was critical of the board for not taking the history of how Native Americans were treated in California seriously and questioned why none of the board had contacted the tribe about its concerns. Supervisor Bea Gonzales said later no one from the tribes had ever reached out to her. Some speakers questioned developer Rider McDowell’s motives related to funding pediatric cancer research through the project.
Four supervisors were united in their support of Betabel, saying that the appeals did not present any new information. They addressed repeated accusations that the project was being rushed in order to be approved before that night’s election. At the board’s request, Abraham Prado, assistant director of planning and building services, explained that there were 18 projects in the pipeline and that the board had instructed him not to show preference to any one project, to only bring them to the board for approval after the normal planning process was completed.
Supervisor Kosmicki remained adamant that the project need not be rushed and suggested that a compromise between the developer and opponents would be a better approach. He questioned the concept of using cancer research “as the pitch to sell this project and to this county, to soften the blow with regard to land-use concerns to sell this to the public. We’re setting a really dangerous precedent by allowing this to be considered.” He asked what would happen should the land be sold by the McDowells.
He was told the property is in an irrevocable trust to fund the charity Cancer-A-Gogo and that after the death of both Victoria and Rider McDowell, the land would transfer to the charity. In response, Kosmicki said he would rather the money go to the failing Hazel Hawkins Hospital than the charity, adding that while he admired the concept, “a few million dollars a year toward pediatric cancer research is probably not going to put a dent in the effort.”
The Betabel project consists of approximately 26 acres of a 111.61-acre property at 9644 Betabel Road along Hwy. 101 in unincorporated San Benito County. Groundbreaking took place June 2, 2021. The first phase of the project, already under construction, includes a farm stand, mercantile and outdoor restrooms, which did not require an EIR because the use is allowed under county agriculture zoning laws. The next phase will consist of a gas station, visitor’s center, restaurant and hotel.
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