Judge Patrick Palacios tentatively ruled April 24 to dismiss two lawsuits against the Betabel Road project along Highway 101 in San Benito County.
Peter Prows, attorney for the Betabel property owners Rider and Victoria McDowell, said they filed a motion to dismiss the case based on the 30-day statute of limitations, which he said began when San Benito County filed the approval of the project on October 14, 2022. The county Planning Commission had certified the environmental impact report and project’s conditional use permit on a 4-1 vote two days prior.
The San Benito County Board of Supervisors rejected appeals of the Planning Commission’s decision Nov. 8, 2022, also on a 4-1 vote. At that meeting, Assistant County Counsel Joel Ellinwood said opponents of the project had 30 days to file a lawsuit to challenge the EIR.
Protect San Benito and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band both filed cases on Dec. 9, arguing “the project’s EIR fails to adequately identify, evaluate, and/or require mitigation for all significant direct and cumulative environmental impacts the project will cause.”
Despite the tentative ruling, Andy Hsia-Coron said he is confident the judge will find that Protect San Benito County (led by Hsia-Coron) and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, filed on time.
“We are confident we are within the timeframe and believe the case should go forward,” Hsia-Coron said.
Valentin Lopez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band chairperson, said he believed the judge is incorrect in his understanding of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) timelines.
“A lot of oral arguments were heard yesterday,” Lopez said. “It was a pretty complicated, detailed discussion. The ruling should be corrected and that’s what we are hoping for.”
Rider McDowell, who is countering the lawsuit, said that on April 24 the project won the Environmental Analysis Document Outstanding Award category given by the California Association of Environmental Professionals.
“Winning this prestigious award last night shows how baseless PORC’S allegations were, and how desperate they’ve become,” McDowell said.
According to the Oct. 12 staff report, the project would develop approximately 26 acres of the 112-acre property area along Highway 101 and create approximately 108,425 square feet (2.5 acres) of commercial and building space consisting of a gas station with a convenience store, a restaurant, amusement buildings with exhibits, a motel and banquet hall with outdoor pool and outdoor movie screen, and an outdoor event center.
The staff report adds that the design of the project “would be reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s American roadside.”
Members of Protect San Benito County, previously Protect Our Rural Communities or PORC, led by Hsia-Coron, as well as Lopez, have opposed the project, citing environmental concerns and that it would impact historical, sacred tribal cultural resources.
McDowell has countered those concerns, saying the project is an improvement to the property’s previous use.
According to the project’s website, over $200,000 has been spent to clear the property of decades of waste and debris and that the project would sit on the site of what was once an old junkyard.
The county has a contract with Thomas Law Group for up to $60,000 for legal work related to the Betabel Commercial Development conditional use permit.
The project has faced opposition throughout the process as PORC was successful in removing development criteria to four Hwy 101 nodes, including the Betabel, through Measure K in 2020. Later that year, San Benito County Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez ruled the property owners could change the zoning.
Hsia-Coron was also the driving force behind the failed Measure Q in 2022, which would have required any zone changes from agricultural, rural and rangeland to commercial or residential be approved by voters.
A hearing for the Attorney General’s request to intervene on behalf of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is scheduled for May 3. Both parties said it would be a non-issue if the judge dismisses the case.
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