Housing / Land Use

County seeks joint-use agreement with high school for regional park

County supervisors favor joint-use agreement with high school to move forward on regional park

Even as the Board of Supervisors made it known at its May 24 meeting that it favored a regional park over any efforts to reopen San Justo Reservoir for recreational purposes,  Sara Fortanos, county analyst, updated the five supervisors about a possible joint-use agreement between the county and San Benito High School.

Fortanos said the environmental impact report (EIR) for the regional park project had been submitted by county counsel and that the public was being advised on the county’s parks webpage that the public comment period was open. A notice will also be published in the newspaper concerning the public comment period.

The proposed Regional Park will be roughly 31 acres and is situated south of San Benito High School, and includes a 20-mile river parkway. According to county records, a Notice of Availability (NOA) for the River Park Regional Park Way was released May 18 to the public.

According to the announcement: “The public comment period will be open for 45 days and all residents of San Benito County are encouraged to provide their comments on the adequacy and completeness of the analyses and proposed mitigation measures described in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The project is dependent on partnerships with the San Benito County High School and the City of Hollister. Electronic copies have been personally delivered to the partners. The Board may be aware of the challenges surrounding the proposed project including: Land Ownership 346 Land Ownership Nash Road Closure Partner Commitment Staff is confident that the release of this EIR will further our partners' confidence in the County's commitment to develop a park project that the neighbors and the entire community may benefit.”

“I’m hoping the board will support staff’s recommendation,” Fortanos said. “We’re looking to reaffirm, if one doesn’t already exist, an ad hoc committee for the Regional Park and River Park project. Parks and Recreation will be appointing this August a two-member committee to focus on the project. We’re looking for their support and a general outreach to make sure during this comment period that we’re receiving thoughtful outreach to the public.”

Fortanos said there were several items within the report that the regional park is contingent on, specifically the relationships with the high school and the city of Hollister. She reminded the board that the city council was unwilling to negotiate a closure of Nash Road where it bisects the San Benito HIgh School campus until a park access road was built.

“I think what you have before you with this notice of availability finally coming out, in addition to knowing that San Benito County and the high school have been working towards a joint-use agreement, just furthers the county’s commitment to the project,” Fontanos said.

As part of the presentation to the board, she said she had provided the board with a list of expenses incurred so far, including the cost of the EIR and the acquisition of land. She said the intention was to have a long-term agreement with the high school of 20 to 30 years.

“Rather than try to go through the long process of buying the land from them (high school district), to do a joint-use agreement of the area,” she said, “and help each other prioritize what types of recreation the county and community members have, in addition to the school’s, and meshing that together at the Regional Park.”

Presently, half the proposed park is located within city limits and half in the unincorporated area, and work is being done to make sure all of the park will be unincorporated. County staff is also working with the Sunnyslope Water District to provide water lines.

Fontanos said she was hopeful that the board would be supportive of the staff’s efforts, or provide other direction if it would rather buy the land rather than have a joint-use agreement.

“With the expenses in mind, we’re hoping to bring onboard an engineer,” she said. “We need drawings to start the process of building the road. That’s the next step we’ll be moving toward.”

Supervisor Robert Rivas asked Fontanos what the expected timeline would be for building the road. She said the design drawings might take at least a year. Funding has been set aside for the drawings and that the actual construction will be outsourced, and that it would possibly be two years for design and construction to be completed.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho wondered if there should be a written agreement in place prior to the design phase. Fontanos responded that the staff was already working on the joint-use agreement and the RFP process would begin soon. She assured him that no money would be spent until there was at least some sort of conceptual agreement in place with the high school.

“What’s been holding us up is all we had was a kind of blue highlight on a map,” she said. “We are working toward a middle ground to come together. Knowing that this EIR notice has gone out kind of solidifies, for them, the commitment that we have for the project. We’re hoping that there will be a resolution from the school board before we start spending for that.”

Botelho insisted he would like to see something more formal.

“We’ve had a lot of work done already with the parks’ plan and we really don’t have any partners,” he said. “We own property and if worse comes to worse, we make a park with the property that we own.”

Rivas said he was pleased about the possibility of a joint-use agreement. He said he thought it was in the best interest of everyone rather than acquiring land.

“I think a county of our size should be looking at more joint-use agreements with other entities,” he added.

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz said he wanted to speak as a member of the Veterans’ Commission. He said that he once thought the concept of joint-use agreements sounded great, but in those instances where a park or facility was created, organizations controlled them and they were not open to the public “…without going through an act of Congress.”

“I don’t want to see this park have those kinds of relationships, those kind of membership titles,” he said. “Pretty soon the high school says it’s going to use it from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and pretty soon Saturday, too. Then the public is not able to use the park.”

De La Cruz said from his experience he’s seen groups that feel that since they have put so much money and effort into a park they have a say who can use it.

“I don’t want to see that happening to this park,” he said.

Supervisor Margie Barrios agreed with De La Cruz, stating that joint-use agreements are often vague, but she felt that the board has learned from past agreements and that it can develop one that works for everyone.

“This joint-use agreement will only be between the high school and the county,” she said, “so you’re not going to have these other organizations as part of it. I like the idea because when I was on the school board we had a lot of joint-use agreements with the City of Hollister to build baseball fields and that sort of thing. It worked quite well.”

While Barrios said students would have first dibs on the park during school hours, Botelho said part of the park should be open to the public all day, with the high school portion restricted to students for security reasons. He said a park in San Juan Bautista was built under a joint-use agreement with the school and that it had worked out well.

“If we could do something along those lines I think it would be fine,” he said.

Rivas reiterated that he views the agreement as an opportunity to provide public access to the park.

“When I think of the high school and all the fields they have, they’re closed to the public,” he said. “If I want to go play soccer with my friends, I can’t jump a 20-foot high fence. I think this is an opportunity to establish joint use with the high school to make this park accessible to everybody. I think Vets Field has been an issue and we can avoid that with a place like this.”

Fortanos said county staff has asked the high school to focus on a “specification of schedule,” to assure the park will be open year-round, and what hours would be appropriate for the school, as well as availability to the general public.

“We want them to list what their priorities are for recreation, given the school’s needs,” she said, “so we can match them up to ours. Like Supervisor Botelho mentioned, we want some sort of agreement as we continue to move forward and spend money.”

Botelho asked Fortanos about the concept of an ad hoc committee. He said he thought the idea for a regional park had begun with the Parks and Recreation Commission and that it would be in charge of the project. She said she had tried to set up an ad hoc committee at the last Parks and Recreation meeting, but there had not been a quorum, so there was no ad hoc committee.

Barrios suggested the regional park ad hoc committee should be part of the facility ad hoc committee. Rivas agreed it would be a good idea and none of the other supervisors voiced an opinion, so Fortanos took that as a consensus and commented that staff would then concentrate on a conceptual agreement as it continued to work on an RFP agreement for engineering services.

According to county records, so far $670,906.67 has been spent by the county, all of which was covered by fees. The remaining balance of the project is approximately $1,964,096, not considering any additional park impact fee revenue. For example, at its April 26 meeting, the County Parks Commission recommended 15 percent of the FY 15/16 park impact fee revenue to be put toward the Regional Park Project (CIP 35).

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]