Soon after the June 28 San Benito County Board of Supervisors' meeting, Chairman Robert Rivas informed county residents about one of the agenda items by posting on the San Benito County Board of Supervisors’ Facebook page that the board had received a report regarding the future of Southside Road. He pointed out that many residents in the area might not be aware of the fact that a number of residential developments have already been, or soon would be, approved for the region around Southside Road.
“Unfortunately, this particular area in our county has not received the comprehensive planning attention necessary to ensure appropriate and sustainable community development related to our quality of life—issues related to local roads and circulation, parks, and school facilities,” he wrote. “Despite initial concerns and opposition from developers, the BOS (board of supervisors) is now in the process of coordinating a study boundary area for Southside Road, which will allow for maximum coordination among all developments in this particular area and help us address regional issues in our county. This is a huge step in the right direction… a victory for local residents, present and future!”
During the meeting, Brent Barnes, resources management agency director, told the supervisors that Geary Coats, of Coats Consulting in Pacific Grove, had been working with the development community and would present information regarding the proposed Southside New Community Study Area, which is scheduled to go before the county Planning Commission May 11.
Coats, in turn, introduced himself as speaking on behalf of Southside Road stakeholders group, which he explained includes developers and property owners. He said the group was going through a unique process, one that he thought the county had not experienced before. He commented that he had worked on a similar project in Monterey County to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for processing and moving forward with annexations and developments within the county.
He said there is a lot of development activity currently underway along Southside Road and instead of everyone working independently to evaluate their own projects, they should be studied collectively so health services, schools, and transportation can be incorporated to see what they look like from a regional perspective, and then implement them either on a local or regional basis.
“Our charge, first of all, was to identify the site boundary, and secondly, not to have further environmental evaluation,” Coats said. “We just finished a General Plan amendment. The county has done an incredibly good job of public input with respect to that general plan and environmental documentation. Our goal now is to use that material as the base and build upon it to create the conformance requirements for these projects.”
His recommendation to the Planning Commission, which Coats said it supports, is to write an MOU that would implement the general plan policies and goals on an individual bases, while addressing regional needs. Out of the project he said will be the development of a workbook that county staff and proponents can use to show future developers and property owners how to go through the process.
“We hope it will make it easier for the staff, as well as the public and property owners who may not be sophisticated in this process,” he said. “The goal is not to take a brand new step, but to consolidate what you’ve already done and put it into a format that we can use.”
Showing a map for the supervisors, Coats explained the boundaries of the study: Southside Road is the western boundary; the city limits are the northern boundary; Highway 25 marks the eastern boundary; and the Lima property line just north of Tres Pinos, marks the southern boundary.
He said as the study moves forward every agency with a possible interest will be interviewed, including the City of Hollister to incorporate its needs from Union Road to the city limits into the groups’ plans. Conversations would also be conducted with the transit district, Local Agency Formation Commission of San Benito County (LAFCO), Sunnyslope, CalFire, and other districts, he said.
“Within our group we are looking at separating two types of status of priority for the projects,” Coats said. “One are projects that have applications on file with the county and are already in the process of preparing an environmental document or reviewing through staff for completeness of application (in yellow on the map). The blue area are projects that expressed interest in developing, but do not have an application, but are in the planning process stage.”
He pointed out on one map the sites of fire stations, police stations and schools. He said the group would be looking at those to see what impact the regional project will have.
“Will there be a need for an additional fire station or school site?” he asked. “We’ve already met with the Southside School District and we’re meeting with the Hollister School District. We know that the projects, as they are presented, will generate a number of homes that will cause the need for additional school services.”
Coats asked rhetorically how those school services will be met, and answered, possibly by acquiring land to expand Southside Road.
“If that’s the case, these people would work with one of the property owners who has land next to the school, and each one of them would be contributing the need for land to give to the school to develop, so it’s a regional solution internally with our own,” he said.
Coats said one of the property owners has said they were willing to “give the land up,” for which they would be paid the development rights they gave up. He said there may be a need to build further north, into the Hollister School District, and the same process would take place. He said a fund would be created among landowners in the group to pay for the land for a future school site.
“This is the ability to work collectively as we go through the process,” he said.
Coats then pointed out that the county’s planned regional park marks the project’s western boundary. He said that collectively, on a regional basis, there will be a need to dedicate areas for a parkway system. And, he said, there will be a need to assure non-vehicular access to the parkway so people within the communities being developed could walk or ride bikes to the park, so it is becomes a neighborhood use and a regional benefit.
Other parks will be developed within the project, he added.
“We don’t want to do pocket parks because of the cost of maintenance, and how you preserve those,” Coats said. “At the same time, you need to have local, neighborhood parks where people can take kids during the day, and they can be safe and be closer to their homes.”
He said the hoped for outcome will be to come up with a matrix compliance check list.
“We’ve taken each element within your general plan and we’re going to be working with your staff to coordinate the document,” he said.
A schedule will be developed to incorporate more public meetings to get their comments and concerns. Coats said all but two of the property owners within the project's boundaries have been contacted. He said the responses from those contacted have been positive and that they want to be involved in the project.
After the presentation was completed, Supervisor Margie Barrios told Barnes that as good as the plan may sound, it is only as good as the county’s commitment in directing staff to make sure the plan, as outlined, is actually being followed. Barnes deferred to Coats, who said a notebook had been prepared, and would be expanded over time, for the staff.
“We’ll be doing the grunt work on all of this, but the review of it to assure it’s in compliance will be done by your staff,” Coats said. “Ultimately, there will be a full book that each member will have as a final document. Based on staff’s recommendations we will be coming back to you periodically to tell you where we are in the process.”
Barnes said he wanted the board to understand they were being given a roadmap and stated that if he were the consultant he would have done it exactly as Coats had done.
“It’s not a binding document; it’s a guidance document,” Barnes said. “The notebook and this matrix are going to be our working documents as projects come forward. This is not granting approval of any particular project. Each project is going to proceed individually, at their own pace through the development and review process.”
Barrios wanted to know of the MOU would be the binding document. Barnes said an MOU is not a contract, but, as he understood it, each developer and landowner would sign it and agree to abide by its provisions, adding that things can change on individual projects over the next five years. He said they may have to go back and rethink the MOU at that point.
Barrios wanted assurance that the MOU would bring a global perspective to the overall project, but not slow down any individual projects. Barnes said he believed it accomplished both goals. He described it as the “best of both worlds” and “not something we could have done as staff,” and said it was a “really cool idea.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he was concerned about individual projects and how they would continue to move forward. He complimented Coats and his work, calling it, “great progress” and stating that “we have a good, comprehensive approach.”
He added, “When all the developers are done it’s going to be a nice community. I just want to applaud the effort by property owners and staff, and, hopefully, we’ll have a successful outcome.”
In an Instant Message from Supervisor Rivas in answer to Benitolink's question pertaining to how the study is being funded, he replied: "The consultant is working directly for three owners/developers in the area and presumably has arranged some cost-sharing agreement with the other major players. Since it is entirely a private affair, county staff has not asked about their financial details regarding the study. One thing is for sure the county is not paying for the work."