Business / Economy

County General Plan amendments in 2017 may address high-speed rail, affordable housing

San Benito County may have a maintenance yard for high-speed rail; county looks to clarify affordable housing policies

Brent Barnes, Resource Management Agency director, gave the end-of-year update on the county’s General Plan at the Dec. 13 San Benito County Board of Supervisors' meeting, starting off by telling the supervisors that quite a bit had been accomplished in 2016, despite having a limited staff.

“We got the housing element adopted; the economic development workshop; we started the regional park process; and we executed an agreement with California High Speed Rail,” he said. “There is lots more to do. This is a living document. It will never be fully implemented.”

Barnes told the supervisors he was presenting a list of priorities and wanted to reaffirm in which order the supervisors would want to move forward as they move into the new year. One high-visibility project is the county’s involvement in planning a possible maintenance yard for high-speed rail.

“This would obviously generate jobs in the far north end of the county,” he said. “This is something not contemplated in the General Plan at this point. We would have to amend the General Plan to include that.”

Related to the high-speed rail, Barnes said, is Highway 152/25 realignment project.

“That’s a big change for North County and could include significant urbanization of the Dunneville and Frazier Lake areas, which are also not contemplated in the General Plan.”

He said there will also need to be zoning changes regarding marijuana regulations addressing land-use concerns.

“We are seeking to re-balance the design parameters between access and mobility that exists in our roadway design standards,” Barnes noted. “Right now, our roads are all about high speed and achieving through-put. Most jurisdictions across the country are now looking to tame streets, calm them a bit and focus more on access to land, at least at the local street level. Our design standards don’t allow us to do that, so we need to move the subdivision ordinance provisions around a little bit.”

Next, Barnes addressed community studies, particularly on the south side of the county.

“The south side is very active and we’ve had discussions with the development team and consultant for that area right up until this past week,” he said. “They seem to be making very good progress, but there’s a lot more to discuss. We’re looking for a presentation from them to the Planning Commission in January, and we’ll bring you an information item specifically on that, probably for the Jan. 24 meeting.”

Barnes said he wanted to address affordable housing in particular because he said it was a policy issue. He wanted to know if the county should charge the full set of impact fees on affordable housing projects.

“Should the county waive or reduce some of those fees and make it up somewhere else, or just write it off as part of the budgeting process?” he asked and discussed what he called a hypothetical project that had been proposed to the county. “It’s a very low-income, affordable housing project, yet we were intending to charge almost $100,000 in impact fees.”

He explained to the board, however, that other fees may still be due on affordable units.

“State fees are mandated by state law and we collect them, but your board has the authority not to collect them, but we still have to pass them through to the state, whether we collect them or not,” he said. “If the building permit is issued for one of these houses, we would pay the state about $31 for the privilege of issuing that building permit.”

Barnes said another group of fees goes directly to school districts and the board does not have the authority to waive them. The board could make a policy decision to not collect them, but the county would still have to pay them to the district.

“We would recommend that the applicant, if they were seeking to have school impact fees reduced, petition the school district and make their case,” he said. “Then the county staff could either support them in writing or make an appearance at the hearing.”

The third group of fees are for processing done in various county offices that pays for staff time in doing the work. The fourth and largest group are the county impact fees.

“This is where you have full authority to reduce or waive, on a fee-by-fee basis, or across the board for any project you feel might have a benefit to the county, such as creating, in this case, six units of very low income housing,” he said. “You can say that’s a great benefit to the county. To get that project done and make it viable we’re going to waive the fees and make it up someplace else.”

He said he wasn’t looking for the board to make an immediate decision on the project, but wanted to put it before them as a policy item to think about as part of the affordable housing fee ordinance discussion to take place next spring.

Supervisor Margie Barrios commented that impact fees such as Barnes described is one of the reasons the county has very little affordable housing.

“The cost is enormous,” she said. “People who build affordable housing, such as farmers who want to build affordable housing for their workers, are not doing this for profit and yet we’re charging like we would any developer that’s going to turn around, sell that property and make some money. That’s not the case for certain housing. It’s a different business altogether. All of us on this board are aware that (affordable) housing is not out there.”

Barrios said that the board should start thinking of ways to encourage more construction of affordable housing units. Barnes commented that he is aware of what he described, as an abundance of “poor housing” that people are living in that often don’t even include bathrooms.

“Whatever the county can do to increase the quality and quantity of very low income housing is an admirable goal,” Barnes said.

Barrios continued that even though she won’t be on the board next year after retiring, she encouraged the remaining members to make an effort to get more affordable housing in the county. She said that because of the lack of housing, many farm workers could not find a place to live and did not come to the county to work. She claimed that crops were lost because of a lack of those workers.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he has talked to growers and agreed with Barrios that there is not enough local housing for farm workers. He said some farmers are simply trying to keep their key workers in some sort of housing on property they own.

“Getting through the permitting process the way our ordinances are structured, they’re (farmers) not allowed to build those structures out there anymore,” Botelho said. “This is employment housing for local farms and ranches that need to stay viable. If you don’t have the work force, you’re done.”

Botelho said housing being built for commuters needs to pay the full amount of impact fees, whereas if it’s being built for someone’s employees some of the fees could be discounted. He added that the permitting system needs to be streamlined, particularly for workforce housing.

Barnes answered Botelho’s concerns, saying “The ag exempt provisions of the code specifically do not allow human-occupied dwellings to be exempt from fees. That would be simple change to take that out. If we were to do something like that it should be a little more thoughtful, rather than just striking out that line.”

Barnes also told the board that he would soon be offering a request for qualifications for general planning assistance to help the staff and that the county would hire specialized talent to work on the zoning subdivision code.

Barrios recommended that staff take a look at the ag exemption wording to consider changing it to allow habitation and reduce or eliminate impact fees. Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz cautioned the board on ag exemptions, saying he was not comfortable with them. Botelho told De La Cruz he was missing Barrios’ point.

“There’s a lot of ranchers and farmers who don’t have any housing and they’re just looking to be able to go through the process and do something to provide that housing out in unincorporated areas,” Botelho said.

Supervisor Robert Rivas said the county needs to follow the law and he knows the lack of affordable housing is a problem.

“There have been a number of articles recently at the state level about the lack of affordable housing being such a problem throughout the state,” he said. “There’s anticipation of some legislative relief to provide some exemptions to attract more affordable units to the state, which is something that we’ve got to direct our administrative staff to be behind.”

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he supported the idea of staff working on the ag exemption wording, but warned, “There’s a lot of buildings that go up under ‘ag exempt,’ then all of a sudden they’re saying living quarters can be part of that. Before I can vote on anything, it needs to be well thought out, because I know this county tends to take advantages of ag exempt. It happens all the time.”

Barnes said only half-jokingly, “I’ve been here 18 months and I’ve seen it all. We get applications for fully insulated cattle barns with ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act)-accessible bathrooms.”

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]