Transportation

Developer seeks voter approval for autonomous car facility

With enough petition signatures, the Strada Verde project would go on the ballot before it’s reviewed by planners and supervisors.

On May 26, developer Newport Pacific Land Company LLC took the unusual step of filing an initiative in a bid to gain voter approval for an autonomous vehicle testing facility called the Strada Verde Innovation Park. A petition signature drive supporting the initiative will be launched and, if successful, the measure will appear on the November ballot.

The initiative was filed in counterpoint to another campaign, the Preserve Our Agricultural and Rural Lands Initiative, which would require voter approval for any zoning changes of agricultural or rural properties. Strada Verde (previously referred to as Strata Verde) is taking a similar approach by going straight to the public for approval.

Strada Verde spokesman Scott Fuller, a developer and member of the San Benito County Business Council, said the project would still have to go through the normal steps of approval by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, as well as the requisite traffic and environmental studies. It first went before supervisors in March 2019.

The proposed autonomous vehicle facility would be located in north San Benito County between Highways 101 and 25 on the Floriani Ranch property. The northern border would be the Pajaro River and Bolsa Floodplain. The facility would use 2,777 acres of land previously used for agriculture.  

The current plan calls for an automotive proving ground, an industrial technology park, a hotel, and an automotive “experience center” which together will cover 73% of the property. A 209-acre public park would serve as a buffer between the project and a three-mile stretch of the Pajaro River, and 550 acres on the floodplain are being set aside for agricultural use.

Main access to the facility would be off the Betabel exit on Highway 101, with a right turn only entrance and exit being considered on an extension of Frazier Lake Road where it meets Highway 25.

Fuller said the project will take 10 years to complete and cost about $2 billion. It anticipates creating 18,000 construction jobs while the facility is being built, which would taper down at the end to a small maintenance crew.

According to the initiative, the project is expected to bring in $12 million per year in tax revenue, along with an initial $18 million in traffic mitigation fees.

Strada Verde would be primarily an automotive proving ground, with a variety of test tracks for use in designing autonomous vehicles, which Fuller said will support the work of over 150 research companies in Silicon Valley. Strada Verde would include a three-mile-long straight track, a performance track where cars would be tested under various simulated road conditions and traffic, and a durability course where car systems would be evaluated for stress and endurance.  

In a 2019 publicity release, the proposed driver experience center is described as similar to the Porsche Experience Center in Georgia. At that facility, consumers are able to drive high-performance cars on closed tracks at up to 198 mph with the guidance of professional driving coaches.  

Fuller said that there will be no public events such as races or rallies at the site.

“This is not a competitive race track and there no racing is proposed,” he said. “The Porsche Experience is very different than a race, which brings huge amounts of traffic. This is two or three drivers on a closed test track with no spectators.”

If built, part of the property would be taken up by a technology park that would house research, development and educational facilities devoted to various aspects of the automobile industry. While confidentiality agreements bar Fuller from providing the names of prospective tenants, he said the companies interested in space represented the “major players in the field.” These would include vehicle manufacturers, research institutes, component suppliers and automated vehicle technology companies. The 2019 prospectus of the project mentions there are more than 25 potential tenants. 

The technology park would also include an e-commerce facility, a data center, shared auto maintenance, fleet maintenance and general office space. A “town center” will be built around a hotel, with restaurants and retail shops. Fuller said there are no plans to build housing of any kind beyond the hotel.

Developers claim that Strada Verde will create 5,500 full-time jobs, including mechanics and technicians, test drivers, automated driving operators, test engineers, IT engineers, track maintenance staff and driving safety specialties, as well as jobs in janitorial service, hospitality, security, finance and business development.  

Of those 5,500 jobs, 4,000 are projected to be on-site. Fuller said some jobs will be held by Silicon Valley technicians and engineers who would reverse commute on Highway 101 into San Benito County, minimizing traffic impact.

Beyond modifying cars for testing, Fuller said cars would not be built on-site. Other than cars that may be available for purchase at the experience center, there will be no cars for sale.

The property for the Strada Verde project has been considered for housing development several times in the last few years. In 2015, Arizona developer DMB Associates proposed a 6,800 unit housing project, El Rancho San Benito, but withdrew its plans after reviewing the costs of building interchanges on Highway 25 to provide access to the homes.

Current owners Bristol SB LLC, a Nevada-registered company managed by Newport Pacific Land Company, proposed a similar housing project on the same site in 2018, eventually withdrawing it in favor of the autonomous vehicle project.

According to its website, Newport Pacific is responsible for six housing projects in California and Nevada. The Strada Verde Innovation Park is the developer’s only commercial project.

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.