During a closed session of the May 13 Hollister City Council meeting, council members voted 4-0 to hire Lauren Layne of law firm Baker, Manock & Jensen to assist the city with an upcoming appeal by the mayor for the 400 block development. The appeal will go before the council on May 20.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez filed the appeal because he disagrees with the city’s decision to move forward with the Del Curto Brothers Group’s and Community Foundation for San Benito County’s proposed developments of mixed-use buildings that include retail, 22 condominiums and a new philanthropic center for the foundation and local nonprofits. Over the past three years, Velazquez has sought to block the developments through a referendum and by attempting to drum up community support on social media. The California Attorney General’s office eventually published an opinion against the referendum. (See PDF below).
It’s not certain which way the mayor’s appeal will go, even though three council members—Marty Richman, Carol Lenoir and Honor Spencer—have shown their support for the developments. Velazquez told BenitoLink on May 16 that his lawyer will be at the May 20 meeting to argue for more transparency, that the city has broken California Environmental Quality Act rules regarding density, and that the two projects are a single property.
City Manager Bill Avera said all Planning Commission decisions are subject to appeals within 15 days and that Velazquez’s attorneys filed the appeal within the appropriate time frame.
“The council will basically hear the same item that the Planning Commission heard at their meeting and they will either overturn the Planning Commission’s approval or uphold it,” Avera said. “Where it goes from there, I have no idea.”
Velazquez told Benitolink that if the appeal is denied, he will meet with his attorneys to determine how to move forward.
Avera said the city hired Layne with Baker, Manock & Jensen not to argue for the project, but to review documents and procedures to make sure the process portion of the appeal is correct. He said the cost to the city could be several thousand dollars. He wasn’t sure what the total would be because Layne is working at a rate of $315 per hour. If the council denies the appeal and Velazquez decides to sue, he will not be suing the city, Avera said.
“It’s not the city’s project,” he said. “The applicants are ultimately responsible for defending the project.”
At the April 11 Planning Commission meeting, after Program Manager Mary Paxton explained events leading up to the proposed 400 block development, Velazquez said she—though he did not refer to her by name—was “telling stories,” and that her comments should “never have happened.”
But on May 16, his recollections seemed to line up with what Paxton had said. She spoke about the city selling the property where Walgreens is now located in order to purchase the 400 block. Then she said the agenda item (see PDF below) that Velazquez said included a reference to a plaza was pulled because the city staff had negotiated a compensation agreement with the taxing entities, including Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital, San Benito County, Gavilan College and San Benito High School.
While Velazquez now seems to agree with Paxton’s version of events, he said he is suspicious of the motivation behind the change from a plaza to a development.
He was once supportive of an art center, and even a hotel and a theater because, as he said on May 16, “they would bring hundreds of people downtown,” but he insists that condos and the foundation’s philanthropic center won’t. He said 22 condos and a few stores will not bring enough people downtown to make a difference and described the philanthropic center as a building that will rent out rooms to nonprofits and not hold events of any significance.
In its opinion, the Attorney General’s office considered the decision to sell the 400 block was administrative, not legislative. The opinion said that “to allow the referendum or initiative to be invoked to annul or delay the executive or administrative conduct would destroy the efficient administration of the business affairs of a city or municipality.” (See PDF below).
Victor Gomez, president of Pinnacle Strategy and a former Hollister councilman when Velazquez was also mayor in 2014, said there was broad discussion about what the council wanted for the 400 block.
“Lots of ideas were tossed around and the idea of a plaza did come up, but eventually was not supported by a majority of the council, so it didn’t advance for action to support that concept,” Gomez told Benitolink. “There was never a majority on the council to support a public plaza considering the amount of tax revenue the school district would have lost in property taxes. Also, the mayor sets and approves agendas, so if it was removed, it would be on the mayor.”
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