Editor’s note: This article was updated Oct. 13 to include candidate Edwin Sabathia’s responses.

San Juan Bautista voters in the Nov. 8 will have five candidates to choose from as they elect three new City Council members to fill three open seats: Jose Aranda, incumbent Leslie Jordan, Steve Morris, Jackie Morris-Lopez, and E. J. Sabathia. The three top vote-getters will serve four-year terms on the council.

BenitoLink sent all five candidates an identical set of questions. Answers from Jordan, Morris-Lopez and Sabathia are below. Aranda did not respond to multiple requests. Morris declined to participate. 

 

Leslie Jordan has lived in San Juan Bautista since 2013 and has served as mayor of San Juan Bautista for the last two years. She was first elected to the City Council in 2018 and served as vice mayor in 2019. She is the lead instructor for the Water/Wastewater Resource Management program at Gavilan College. She said that she “fell in love with the community and the city 30 years ago and so I chose San Juan Bautista as my forever home.”

BenitoLink: There are several buildings in town that are either empty and in disrepair, such as the Cutting Horse building and the reconstructed Old Brewery, or have serious restoration issues, such as Casa Rosa. What can the city do to help make buildings like these productive again?

Jordan: The city has been working closely with the previous owner and the current owner of the Casa Rosa, along with a historical preservation firm, to ensure the Casa Rosa maintains its historical appearance both inside and out. The city has reached out to the owners of both the Cutting Horse and the Old Brewery, and due to personal family concerns, neither project is moving forward. I think it would be amazing if the Cutting Horse would open its doors again, but after speaking with family members, it is not the right time. The owners of the Old Brewery need to either sell it or figure something out quickly, or it will fall into the same disrepair as prior to its “renovation.”

 

The San Benito Health Foundation has discussed the development of a clinic and at least 60 housing units across from the Valero gas station at the western entrance to town, as well as a sizable planned community south of Hwy 156. Do you think developments like these would be supported by the residents of San Juan?

Having been in conversations with the president & CEO of the San Benito Health Foundation, it is my belief that the Health Foundation will be a tremendous partner for the city of San Juan Bautista. It will bring much-needed resources to our community, especially to our senior community and low-income and underserved residents. I hope that the residents will support this project as I do.

 

Studies are underway which could result in the creation of a “new San Juan” south of the city, with substantial housing and commercial developments. However, surveys indicate that the residents of San Juan want minimal growth, with the most recent workgroup suggesting 88 housing units over the next five years. Do you support minimal new housing or are you in favor of expanding the city more than that?

We should refrain from using terminology such as “new San Juan,” which becomes divisive and contentious. We are one San Juan Buatista. Having said that, I am not in favor of sprawl. I support smart housing growth that will meet the Regional Housing Needs Assessment requirements of San Juan Bautista with facades that mirror the character and intent of San Juan Bautista. I support commercial growth as long as the prospective owner/builder is a good steward of the environment and community, that they respect the needs and wants of San Juan Bautista, and adhere to our building and planning codes and ordinances.

 

If, in the long run, building homes is a money-loser for cities, and if key revenue streams for this city are sales and hotel taxes, what is your plan for ensuring economic stability for the city? How would you balance new housing with the lack of locally based services, such as full-time fire and police and schools that are understaffed?

As long as the state mandates housing under the threat of losing state funding/grants, San Juan Bautista should/will work toward meeting those needs. I am not for housing for the sake of housing. Any and all new housing should have an affordability component also.

I am currently on a committee that is comprised of members from San Juan Bautista, the city of Hollister and San Benito County, and we are working closely with Hollister Fire Department to ensure that the needs of all three jurisdictions and new developments, i.e. San Juan Oaks, will be met today and in the future.

The San Juan Bautista Safety Adhoc Committee, of which I am a member, is working with the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department to obtain another dedicated deputy for the city. It is the work of that committee and the sheriff that the city was able to obtain its first dedicated deputy in quite some time.

Since being on the council, I have had an excellent relationship with the school district and that will continue with the new superintendent. Although the city of San Juan Bautista has no direct input on the staffing of any of the three agencies mentioned above, I will continue working closely with them to ensure the safety and welfare needs of my community are met.

 

Do you believe the city needs to attract more diverse businesses and industries—beyond those related to tourism—to create steadier revenue and more local employment? If so, how should that be done, and what businesses would be appropriate?

I believe the city needs to work more closely with the current building owners and that our current business owners need to be good stewards of our community. Then and only then can we work on bringing in new businesses that will work in concert with our community and city. 

 

Jackie Morris-Lopez, 65, is a physician assistant in primary care and family medicine and has been practicing for over 22 years. She is a native of San Juan Bautista and is married with two children. She has never held elected office but is currently one of the town’s planning commissioners. She decided to run because “the town and county are at a crossroads of how we want our future in terms of future growth and development. This will have huge impacts on our tiny town of San Juan Bautista and I would like to be able to represent the community as a whole.”

BenitoLink: There are several buildings in town that are either empty and in disrepair, such as the Cutting Horse building and the reconstructed Old Brewery, or have serious restoration issues, such as Casa Rosa. What can the city do to help make buildings like these productive again?

Morris-Lopez: The city manager has created and the City Council approved a new position of an assistant city manager/economic development director as of last year. It would be the city council as a body to direct this manager/director to engage with the property owners on what are the issues with inspections to determine any structural issues, building code issues. Report back with that info and come up with a preliminary action plan. There is also a Historical Society that can be of assistance to the effort as well. It is important to offer any and all assistance to the property owners but at some point the city may consider punitive measures dependent on the length of time and disrepair of the properties. There are municipal codes and ordinances that address some of these issues.

 

The San Benito Health Foundation has discussed the development of a clinic and at least 60 housing units across from the Valero gas station at the western entrance to the town, as well as a sizable planned community south of Hwy 156. Do you think developments like these would be supported by the residents of San Juan?

As a current planning commissioner there has not been a formal project plan submitted by the San Benito Health Foundation so can’t speak to the details as none have been provided. I am aware of the the nonprofit purchasing the property some time ago. I guess I have questions as a taxpayer regarding the funding source and stipulations of that funding. I also have questions as to what will happen to their current clinic in Hollister—will it remain or will operations shift to their new clinic? I did receive a few calls and text messages from some constituents after the BenitoLink interview with the director of the health foundation of great concern and opposition. They also stated we already have a clinic in town—Hazel Hawkins Hospital in the Windmill Shopping Center.

 

Studies are underway which could result in the creation of a “new San Juan” south of the city, with substantial housing and commercial developments. However, surveys indicate that the residents of San Juan want minimal growth, with the most recent workgroup suggesting 88 housing units over the next five years. Do you support minimal new housing or are you in favor of expanding the city more than that?

I’m in support of what the majority of community members want and that has always been limited growth. It is the reason people have chosen to stay here or move here for that quality of a small rural town that you can retreat to and call “home” from the rest of the world.

 

If, in the long run, building homes is a money-loser for cities, and if key revenue streams for this city are sales and hotel taxes, what is your plan for ensuring economic stability for the city? How would you balance new housing with the lack of locally based services, such as full-time fire and police and schools that are understaffed?

Once again it involves engagement of current businesses and directing the hired economic development director to perform that job of supporting the businesses and attracting future businesses that benefit the town. I would support a new hotel in town as we can advertise our town’s rich history and nearby attractions such as Pinnacles National Park, our wine trail, Fremont Peak and close proximity to Monterey and Santa Cruz areas. As for the second half of your question—housing developers must pay higher impact fees to the community for future costs and needs of infrastructure. The city needs to ask for what is needed and not wait for what is offered by the housing developers.

 

Do you believe the city needs to attract more diverse businesses and industries—beyond those related to tourism—to create steadier revenue and more local employment? If so, how should that be done, and what businesses would be appropriate?

It would be great to diversify our businesses other than tourism. But I believe the town is truly defined as a destination of an old, sleepy Mission town—so why not embrace and enhance that. We have vacant properties downtown, as you pointed out, that can provide a few more eateries. We can also bring back a few of the town festivals or craft shows that were lost during the pandemic. I would also engage the community as a whole as what type of new businesses they want to see come to their town. And lastly, a future Sphere of Influence and Urban Growth Boundary is in the process of its final stage of development and I believe that would guide the “where” and “what” as far as new business types we would want as a city.

 

Edwin “EJ” Sabathia is a mechanical engineer and has lived in San Juan Bautista since 2018 with his wife, Michelle. He was raised in the Evergreen district of San Jose and said he came to San Juan Bautista because of its small, tight-knit community. He and his wife plan to raise a family in town. Sabathia has not held elected office before and said that after attending many of the town’s City Council and Planning Commission meetings, he has “seen and heard the community’s frustration with achieving their collective goals.” He has volunteered for town committees and helped design city hall IT upgrades, enabling hybrid meetings. Sabathia said he is interested in lending his time and skills to enrich the lives of current and future residents and “desires to preserve San Juan’s past and to help prepare for its future.”

BenitoLink: There are several buildings in town that are either empty and in disrepair, such as the Cutting Horse building and the reconstructed Old Brewery, or have serious restoration issues, such as Casa Rosa. What can the city do to help make buildings like these productive again?

Sabathia: The Cutting Horse & Casa Rosa are excellent examples of opportunities to revitalize SJB’s economic stability. In talking with longtime residents, I envy their memories of the stores, businesses and restaurants that used to fill the historic downtown.

  • The processes for approval & oversight must be made clear for restoration and upkeep.
  • The city should implement a vacancy tax for property owners who allow their storefronts downtown to remain closed.
  • The city must hold property owners responsible for buildings in disrepair, or not up to code. New business owners who occupy storefronts shouldn’t be made to bear this responsibility.
  • The city must have a plan for increasing the foot traffic downtown. I suggest conducting a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) as a means of formulating a plan to market San Juan and determine a strategy for revitalizing the local economy.

 

The San Benito Health Foundation has discussed the development of a clinic and at least 60 housing units across from the Valero gas station at the western entrance to the town, as well as a sizable planned community south of Hwy 156. Do you think developments like these would be supported by the residents of San Juan?

There is a lot to unpack here, but my answers are as follows:

  • Growth in San Juan has been unbalanced, leaning heavily toward large single-family homes.
  • Future growth needs to be focused on/prioritized on boosting San Juan’s economy, addressing infrastructure concerns & medium to high-density affordable housing.
  • 60 units are likely too much for the plot of land across from the Valero, but I believe there is some number below 60 that could fit the bill for medium to high-density affordable housing
  • If the health foundation is allowed to build in that area, infrastructure improvements must be part of the package.
  • A large community South of Hwy 156 seems like a tall ask. That is beyond the scope of what most residents, including myself, imagine as a healthy future for San Juan.

 

Studies are underway which could result in the creation of a “new San Juan” south of the city, with substantial housing and commercial developments. However, surveys indicate that the residents of San Juan want minimal growth, with the most recent workgroup suggesting 88 housing units over the next five years. Do you support minimal new housing or are you in favor of expanding the city more than that?

My view on housing growth is that the city should grow by the minimum to meet the state’s housing demands over the next five years. San Juan should plan early, determine how to meet these demands on our terms & get the most for San Juan in any dealings that happen. Whatever is promised has to be delivered first, not after a project is completed.

 

If, in the long run, building homes is a money-loser for cities, and if key revenue streams for this city are sales and hotel taxes, what is your plan for ensuring economic stability for the city? How would you balance new housing with the lack of locally based services, such as full-time fire and police and schools that are understaffed?

This question answers itself, in my opinion. The city’s economic stability is tied to efforts that have a high return. Attracting new businesses, especially those that offer higher paying career opportunities, is where the focus should be. With these types of businesses come funds to improve fire/police/school services.

 

Do you believe the city needs to attract more diverse businesses and industries—beyond those related to tourism—to create a steadier revenue and more local employment? If so, how should that be done and what businesses would be appropriate?

I believe the city should attract more diverse businesses and industries, but not exclude or ignore the needs of the struggling tourism economy. Creating a business park could be a first step in attracting new types of industry. Examples of business/industry ideas are:

  • Additional Restaurants
  • IT/Computer Services
  • Pharmacy
  • Fitness Studio/Gym
  • Tutoring

 

 

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