Government / Politics

City manager says new homes have been planned for decades

Bill Avera explains that the current construction boom is the result of decisions made years ago

There’s no mistaking the mood on the "What’s Happening in Hollister" Facebook page as gridlock slows traffic to a crawl throughout Hollister and San Benito County and every roadway entering town. Residents hurl angry comments at city leaders daily as more houses spring up and they wonder at the sanity of it all.

There’s no doubt about it, Hollister is in the midst of a surge of new construction—30 years in the making.

BenitoLink recently sat down with Hollister City Manager Bill Avera  to try to unravel what is going on. At the moment, there are 31 building projects, totaling 2,480 units, scattered throughout the city. And this does not even include Santana Ranch at Fairview and Sunnyslope roads—where 1,100 homes will ultimately be built—in the county.

Before the sewer connection moratorium caused by a breach in a levy around Hollister's water treatment ponds, the city had approved 1,200 allocations for building projects. Some of those dated back as far as the early 1990s. If a developer or landowner had 10 allocations approved before the moratorium, but had not built a single unit on the land during that time, when the moratorium ended and the economy finally began to turn around, they still had those 10 allocations. And if they decide to begin construction today or tomorrow, they can.

This scenario includes every level of development, from a single-family home on an empty lot in the heart of the city, to 697 homes—the largest project in the history of the city—on several acres along Fairview Road near St. Benedict Catholic Church. The most recent project that even took Avera by surprise at the speed it has ramped up, is the one on the acreage surrounded by Hillcrest Road, Meridian Road and the Highway 25 Bypass, where 241 homes are going to be built within earshot of Marguerite Maze Middle School.

Admittedly, there is a lot of construction going on at one time, but, as Avera explained it, if you average out the growth rate going back to the earliest days of Hollister, it is well within the projected 2 percent to 3 percent rate. This is because for more than eight years there was practically no growth at all, first because of the moratorium and then because of the recession.

“During the moratorium, we came up with our 2005 General Plan,” Avera said. “The big difference between 2005 and 1995 (when the previous General Plan was written), is that the planning area actually shrunk — not the city limits line or the sphere of influence, just the planning area. We condensed our planning area substantially and we were super aggressive creating these mixed-use zones so densities increased in the core area so we didn’t have sprawl that nobody wanted.”

Avera said that after the opening of the new water treatment plant in 2008, it was back to business as usual, and the city entered into an agreement with a planning group to develop a growth management rating scale. In 2009, the city accepted applications for 709 units that were available between 2008 and 2010.

“We’re not just approving anything,” Avera said. “We had those 1,200 units from before, then another 700, and then about 488. We were a little over 2,000 units going into 2012 that have not been built, but are planned to be built.”

Avera said those 697 homes to be built by Award Homes along Fairview Road were first approved in 1992 — nearly 25 years ago. He said Award Homes could begin building any day, if it wanted to. He wanted residents to appreciate the fact that none of the construction they see going on around town was even set in motion by the current administration.

“People who are supposed to know, knew,” he said. “These were all done at public meetings years ago, but you didn’t have development for essentially maybe 10 years. People need to go back in time and try to remember what this community was thinking, ‘nobody is at work’ and ‘why can’t we do anything?’ and ‘there’s no housing and no jobs.’

“It’s very important to understand that we can’t be so short-sighted. Nothing was ever done in a vacuum. Everything was always done publicly. In 1992, the Awards Home development agreement was a very political, long, drawn-out approval process. We were in two lengthy lawsuits with Award Homes. For the people who have been in this community for years to insinuate they didn’t know, that’s not genuine.”

One of the loudest complaints Avera is more than well aware of is that there are going to be too many homes and local schools will be overwhelmed. It’s a conundrum of how governments work. He explained that the planning commission and city council cannot deny the development of a project based on the lack of school facilities.

“How easy would it be for communities to deny developers by saying their schools will suffer?” he said.

Many residents have written their concerns on Facebook about how Santana Ranch will impact Hollister’s already congested streets. Some question what they perceive the continual annexation of developments being built in the county into the city. If Avera has his way, Santana Ranch will never be part of the city.

“Santana Ranch is in the county, which means Hollister has no real responsibility to provide them any service, but where do they shop?” he said. “My mission is to make sure that I can provide the greatest level of service for the people who live in this community. There is no incentive to annex Santana Ranch. Why would I want to annex them? Do I want to serve 1,100 more homes with police officers? Not really.”

Avera said he hears people demanding the city have a plan, any plan. He said the city has, in fact, had a plan in place since 2005.

“I tell people that between 2005 and 2008, nothing happened,” he said. “Then 2008 to 2012, nothing happened, again. So, you have a General Plan that was adopted for eight years and nothing happened. I would realistically say that we’re about four to five years into our current General Plan from a development perspective. Most general plans are for seven to 10 years, so we do need to start working on that.”

Avera described the General Plan as the driver for all of the other plans that dictate how a city runs and grows, and that they are updated on a regular basis. The master plans are what set impact fees.

Impact fees for new homes built within the city are about $38,000 per home. Fees for homes that are annexed can be more than $54,000 each. Those fees are used to pay for police, fire, the county jail and juvenile hall, water, sewer treatment and collection (two different fees), park acquisitions and construction, storm drains and traffic.

Drive by any of the developments, especially along Meridian where there is a huge canal-like trench being dug, and you will see one of the major expenses with any development today—water retention.

“Developers are required to spend a fortune to retain all water on-site,” Avera said. “There’s a pretty large fee per house to connect to the city’s storm system. I tell them they’re designing their system to hold water for that 100-year flood. Once it comes, water needs to go somewhere. That’s where we take over. You’re paying to retain water, having it percolate during these little rainy years. You have a 100-year flood and those ponds fill up and overflow and it goes into our system that goes to the river.”

One law that may not be common knowledge is that mitigation fees cannot be spent on anything but for what they’ve been collected. Avera said, for instance, that the city cannot take traffic impact fees and use them to buy land for a park.

“A few years ago, our traffic impact fee was about $22,000 per unit,” Avera explained. “Before that, Hollister and the county created COG (San Benito County Council of Governments) because they determined traffic was a regional need and not specific to the county or city. They created this regional model and traffic impact fee so if you were building a house in the county or city you would be paying essentially the same for impact fees because everybody is impacting the same roads.

“You identify a project that needs to be done. Each has a dollar amount. If it’s $100 million, you take what the development potential is in a general area, you do the math and just divide. If X-amount of trips are being generated by a house, and we’re building 1,000 houses, it’s simple math. But if you take a project like Highway 25, which is a $300 million project, out of it, your big number goes way down. So impact fees for quite a while went down to about $6,000. They ended up putting components of Highway 25 back in recently, which boosted the impact fee to $13,800.”

He said the city and county collect impact fees.

“All the fees work exactly the same way,” he said. “It’s all about what capital projects we have to do to accommodate new development, and that new development pays for the capital improvement because new developments can’t pay for existing deficiencies.”

Avera explained that Assembly Bill 1600 established impact fees and how they’re paid. So, even though Santana Ranch and its 1,100 homes will impact all of Fairview Road as commuters travel to and from work, the developer cannot be compelled to improve the entire road. It is only responsible for the frontage portion of Fairview that is adjacent to the property.

“Santana Ranch paid for the intersection,” Avera said.“Fairview will be four lanes someday, probably 100 years from now. I’m frustrated with 25. It’s a state highway and I wish we had more muscle at the state level. The problem is it’s not an inter-regional road. Caltrans and the state don’t have any desire to do anything, and they won’t. It’s like the Highway 25 Bypass. We spent $50 million on the bypass and had to turn it over to the state. We built that road; the state didn’t build that road. It was on the General Plan in the 1950s.”

Avera said that if people want traffic issues fixed or improved, stopping development won’t do that.

“Development can pay for its share in improving the roads,” he said. “I don’t think we’re any different than any growing community. What we need to realize is that we hadn’t had any substantial growth for the last 10 years.”

Avera believes the current growth spurt is sustainable.

“This is growth that I’d consider controlled from the perspective that all of these projects have gone through several years of planning and approval process,” he said. “We need rooftops in order to attract the commercial component that we need because the city relies almost solely on sales tax dollars to survive. When we get enough rooftops, the retailers will come and stop the leakage of retail dollars to the north. That’s the money we use to provide services.”

He reiterated that capacity on the roads cannot be addressed without new development, which is what pays for capacity issues.

“We are going to have to live with our existing deficiencies even if we don’t build one more house, because the city and the county will never have money to be able to say ‘we’re going to build Highway 25 to four lanes.’”

Avera touched on the failure of Measure P sales tax at the polls, which he said would have addressed residents’ concerns about inferior roads. He said it is a shame that some voted against the measure as a vote of non-confidence in the local political leadership.

“Measure P was solely for roads, administered by COG, which this community set up to take care of regional traffic needs. If this community wants to fix this problem, they’ve got to find the dollars in their pockets to do that. If you don’t like whose running the show, then you can run and be a part of it and fix the problem," Avera said.

“If Measure W (a proposed extension of an existing sales tax in Hollister) doesn’t pass (in November), it’s going to be a huge thing, and if it has to do with a trust issue with me, I’d be more than willing to step down if that’s the issue. It’s more important for this community to survive and have those essential services rather than who is sitting behind the desk figuring out how that money is to be spent.”

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]