In response to a lawsuit claiming that the ballot language for Measure N, the Strada Verde Initiative, is biased in favor of the project, San Benito County Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez made minor wording changes at a Sept. 2 hearing. The question will remain mostly unchanged but include the words “zoning” and “agricultural land.”
The Strada Verde Innovation Park, proposed near Highways 25 and 101 along the Pajaro River, would encompass 2,777 acres, including open land with a 2.4-mile trail; a business center with a hotel, retail shops and restaurants; and an automotive technology and research center with automobile testing tracks. According to the County Auditor’s fiscal report, the project would create about $10.6 million annually in property tax revenue and an additional $2 million in unsecured tax revenue.
The lawsuit, filed by resident Frank Barragan, who ran for the District 2 seat on the Board of Supervisors in the March primary election, alleged the question was hiding the fact that the Strada Verde project would rezone over 2,000 acres of agricultural land by focusing instead on the acres that would be preserved. He also alleged the question identified uses for the rezoned area that “would be most appealing to voters and omitting others.”
Barragan, who is also chair of a group called Concerned Citizens of San Benito County, suggested in the lawsuit six language changes to make the question more balanced, such as removing the title of the project because the term “innovation” was misleading; removing “and preservation of 561.7 acres exclusively for agriculture”; and inserting “schools, churches, restaurants, bars, museums,” to the types of uses allowed in the rezoning.
In the Sept. 2 hearing, Rodriguez said he agreed with Barragan’s overall claim, but said the issue with the question was that it did not provide voters with a complete picture.
“What the reader, just by reading the question, doesn’t know or can’t infer from the language is what the starting point is,” Rodriguez said. “You know what the end result is going to be, which is a change to the county General Plan which would allow for certain buildings.”
With the minor changes, Rodriguez said voters can have a better understanding of what the zoning is now and what the zoning would be if they approved it.
“I think preservation in that context makes a little bit more sense and I think it is generally accurate that it is a preservation of agricultural land,” Rodriguez said. “It also provides the reader of the question to understand what the starting point is and where the finish line is, if you will.”
The question will read in full: “Shall an initiative be adopted enacting the ‘Strada Verde Innovation Park Specific Plan,’ and making County General Plan and Zoning Code amendments, for approximately 2,777 acres of agricultural land in northwest San Benito County, allowing various uses (including Research/Development, Automotive Testing/Tracks, Distribution, Offices, Business/Professional Services Commercial, Light Industrial, Hospitality, Retail, and Public/Private Services) and requiring the creation of a 209.5 acre Pajaro River Park and preservation of 561.7 acres exclusively for agriculture?”
Aside from claiming that the question was not biased, the county argued the lawsuit was submitted past a 10-day statute of limitations that began on July 21, when the question was adopted by the Board of Supervisors. The county further argued that if the timeframe began when the question was submitted to the Elections Office, then the deadline to challenge it was Aug. 7.
Before the hearing, members of the Coalition to Protect San Benito County, which includes Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC), Green Foothills, Monterey and Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, and Indian Canyon, gathered outside the court with “No on N” signs in support of Barragan’s lawsuit.
PORC secretary Mary Hsia-Coron said that although they are a different group than the one who filed the lawsuit, they were on hand to support it.
“We appreciate Judge Omar Rodriguez making the ballot question more neutral and not so biased,” Hsia-Coron said.
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