San Benito County Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez ruled on March 15 against Preserve Our Rural Communities’ attempt to temporarily stop the rezoning of the Highway 129/Searle Road node.
The property identified on San Benito County’s General Plan as a commercial node was re-zoned by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 15 from Regional Commercial (C-3) back to Rural with a Commercial Thoroughfare (C-1) overlay. The rezoning became effective on Jan. 14.
On Jan. 6, PORC filed a lawsuit to stop the rezoning for the duration of the pandemic claiming health risks prohibited its members from seeking a referendum.
PORC President Andy Hsia-Coron and Treasurer Mary Hsia-Coron did not respond to BenitoLink’s request for comment.
The Highway 129/Searle Road property is one of four commercial nodes along Highway 101 identified in the San Benito 2035 General Plan that have been a source of controversy since the county rezoned them to C-3 from agricultural rangeland, rural, agricultural productive, and neighborhood commercial respectively. PORC successfully referended the decision through Measure K.
The other three nodes are known as Betabel, Rocks Ranch and Livestock 101. PORC won a similar lawsuit against the Betabel node following its rezoning to C-1 in April, but missed the deadline to submit signatures for a referendum.
According to court records, Rodriguez evaluated two factors in his ruling: the likelihood that PORC would prevail on the merits at trial, and the harm both parties would suffer if an injunction was issued or not.
“PORC has failed to show it was reasonably diligent in gathering, or even attempting to gather, signatures during the 30-day period in question,” the court order states. “In fact, PORC submitted evidence that its members did nothing to circulate or gather signatures for a referendum petition protesting Ordinance No. 1016 out of concerns that doing so would violate the Stay at Home Order and out of safety concerns as most PORC members are over the age of 65.”
In the court order, Rodriguez notes that signature gathering was allowed by the California Regional Stay Home Order issued to the San Joaquin Valley Region, including San Benito County, if done by petitioners outdoors, six feet apart and while wearing masks.
“Any claim that the Stay at Home Order inhibited PORC’s ability to gather signatures because PORC’s members were required to socially distance outdoors while doing so is purely speculative because its members never attempted to gather signatures in a manner compliant with the Stay at Home Order,” the court order states.
It goes on to say that PORC’s decision to not attempt to gather signatures was a harm self-inflicted.
“Had PORC attempted to gather signatures in a compliant manner, but found that voters were not interested in engaging with its members in a socially distanced manner outdoors, then PORC perhaps would have an argument that the Stay at Home Order prevented its members from gathering signatures and that failing to issue a preliminary injunction would irreparably harm its efforts to secure a referendum on the ballot.”
The order notes that had an injunction been issued, it would have prevented San Benito County from enacting ordinances for the duration of the pandemic.
“Life goes on, even during a pandemic, and the county must be allowed to govern,” the order states.
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