While President-elect Donald Trump excels at using social media to arouse his followers and incite his critics, Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez is no slouch when it comes to raising the ire of Hollister residents when he posts his personal opinions on Facebook criticizing fellow council members or others.
On Dec. 5, three council votes (Velazquez abstained) approved multiple ordinances to amend the General Plan to affect 81 acres made up of four parcels in the county. A complex mix of resolutions would convert properties from high-density residential to medium-density, address pre-zoning and rezoning, and adopt an environmental impact report, as well as a mitigation monitoring and reporting program.
Less than 24 hours later, Velazquez’s posted on the “What’s Happening in Hollister” Facebook page: “Once again at our council meeting last night, Council members Mickie Luna, Karson Klauer and Ray Friend voted in favor of amending the General Plan to allow another development of 500 homes, which will be located at the bottom of Park Hill between the cemetery and Ranchers Feed.”
Response was immediate as residents voiced wide-ranging opinions, some in support of Velazquez’ position, others against. More than 250 people “liked” his post and David Deshong even launched Facebook pages to recall Friend, Klauer and Luna. Apparently, newly-seated Councilman Roy Sims got a pass, most likely because he voted against the ordinances and Velazquez did not mention him in the posting. Additionally, someone else started a Facebook page, “HollisterAgainstNewHomes,” which, as of Dec. 8, had 347 members, while 259 had posted comments on What’s Happening in Hollister.
Latiana Charlotte wrote: “I don’t understand the logic behind building all these homes, but not opening new businesses, schools, job opportunities, etc. Where are our people going to work? What are our children going to do for fun? This is unbelievable.”
Alex Medina expounded, “This town is lead (sic) by incompetent morons.”
San Benito High School Superintendent John Perales weighed in, posting: “As growth is approved, please consider the impact on our school system. We are running out of space and the Council should consider having these folks contribute to the construction of new schools if they are going to be allowed to build. All over California, builders are being asked to help build schools – is this a consideration here? We will run out of space!”
Craig Parsons took the time to read the document and wrote: “So I have suspected all along that there was more to this than the Hollister Mayor-Ignacio Velazquez was letting on. The amendment decreases the amount of residents from high density to medium density zoning which would in fact reduce the number of people slated to live in this area of town.”
Bodey Destefanis asked: “With a small police department and fire departments our schools are loaded and more homes what is our council thinking lol Klauer is in real estate of course he wants more homes built here I tell you the board is if you scatch (sic) my back I will scratch yours lol.”
When Stacy Tush Jenkins objected to more homes in an email to Friend, she posted his response on Facebook: “Stacy you are wrong we did not approve any new homes in fact all we did was approve a general plan amendment that reduces the number of home could be built on this site. (I)f you are going just listen to the mayor shame on you.”
Velazquez posted his response to Friend’s reply to Jenkins: “These are the steps that are taken to get a project approved, why else would you be amending the general plan. Before long the comments will be that they have no choice but to approved (sic) the project because it has been entitled. We shouldn’t be having any conversations about new developments we should be focused on solving our current issues.”
Velazquez explained his stance to BenitoLink, saying—as a private citizen rather than in his role as mayor—that he could accept developments that have been approved in the past, but he objects to the approval of new developments when everyone knows the issues with roads, schools and infrastructure.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” he told BenitoLink. “We need to redo the General Plan and have a good understanding of where we’re trying to go as a community, and have community input so we can make good decisions. We have to stop with this attitude of ‘build homes and everything will be OK.’ It will not be OK until we fix the problems we have and understand where they’re coming from.”
The mayor said he has been adamant for the past year to slow down residential growth instead of making excuses for development and continually approving projects. He explained that, depending on annexation agreements between the city and county, the Denova Homes project could still be only a couple years away from breaking ground to begin construction.
Velazquez said that he felt the other council members’ approval of various projects is based a “lack of understanding that more homes will stimulate the economy and vitality of the community.”
“It just won’t and we have to step back and understand that every house we’re currently building puts us in the financial hole,” he said. “More shoppers will not take us out of the hole. It’s just too deep. We need to have a clear understanding of where we’re trying to go. When we understand that, then I’m for development. Until we do, I’m absolutely against approving anything. I’ve said it many times and now I’m to the point where I’m starting to scream it out because we keep making exceptions.”
At the Dec. 5 meeting, his first as a councilman, Sims questioned the logic of designating part of the development as open land next to railroad tracks and why it was to be zoned residential as opposed to mixed-use. He said the residential zoning designation would take away any potential commercial development along the railroad tracks. He also addressed the advisability of taking agricultural land to develop homes without some sort of vision for transportation. He was told that the project met the requirements of the General Plan and was better suited than other uses.
“If the city is going to open that portion as ‘open land’ that we can have bike trails, I don’t want to get rid of that,” Sims said. “If in the future we decide as a community that a railroad system for transportation is desirable, this seems to be the only property within our grasp to make that happen. Can we go with this plan and hold that particular area zoned mixed-use?”
City officials said that if the land is annexed into the city, it was up to the council how it would be zoned and Sims was advised that about a mile and a half north of the site, the General Plan does take into consideration future rail uses and a transit hub for possible commuter facilities.
Friend said he was aware of a major electrical transmission substation in the northeast corner and commented that he wouldn’t want to buy a home there.
“I’m surprised they allow houses that close to a substation,” he said.
Luna asked if any consideration was being given to affordable housing. She was told that the developer was having conversations with CHISPA to possibly build 60 multi-family units. Klauer asked for assurance that the multi-family units would be built. He also wanted to limit the amount of open space along a hillside that the city would be responsible for in order to avoid future issues.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Michael Evans, director of forward planning for Denova Homes, said the project had been three years in the making. He said the topography and earthquake faults were presenting challenges to the project and that within the plans is open space for a park and trail that would include workout areas.
“We’re excited and we’re working with CHISPA on the affordable side of it,” he said.
When the conversation came back to the council, Sims admitted he was not up to speed, having just joined the council, but said he is not a fan of fixing something that should have been looked at more closely, meaning he had questions about the amendment to the General Plan for the project.
No one spoke against the plan and the vote went forward without further discussion.
Klauer told BenitoLink on Dec. 8 that he didn’t know what Velazquez was trying to accomplish and thought it counterproductive to go on Facebook with his complaints against the council. He disagreed with the mayor on what actually took place at council chambers.
“Accuracy is helpful in these situations,” he said. “It was a step in the project, but not the first step. I think around 2015 we voted on this project. I don’t remember if he voted for it or not, but he was definitely part of it. There was support for it because it passed.”
Klauer confirmed that no one spoke against the project at the Dec. 5 meeting. He said he had been at a Planning Commission meeting in November and only one person spoke about their concerns regarding the railroad. He said he has never received any phone calls or emails about the project.
“If people are really interested, they need to come to the meetings,” he said.
Friend also responded to BenitoLink on Dec. 8, stating that Velazquez’ Facebook post might have more to do with marijuana than homes.
“The only reason the mayor said anything, and the way he said it without really telling the truth, was because he was upset because we didn’t go his way with the marijuana bill,” he said. “He was dictating on how that was done. It was not accepted by the steering committee that he appointed. Him and I could not agree on it and he forced it through. I finally got enough people with common sense to say ‘we’re not going to do it the way the mayor is dictating.’ Why he is listening to only one group of people I do not know.”
Friend also said what residents apparently keep forgetting when they complain about the roads and the lack of a plan is that the city came up with Measure P to do just that—and they voted it down in June.
“What does the public expect us to do?” he said. “There’s only x-number of dollars in the budget and if they can find a way for us to do the roads with the budget we have I wish that person would step forward and show us how to do it.”
Friend did agree with Velazquez’ comment that every new home built puts the city deeper into the hole, but only because of the tax-sharing agreement with the county.
“We only get 25 percent of building permit fees, and when the taxes come in we’re already in the hole,” Friend said. “We cannot provide city services the way the tax-sharing agreement is structured.”
He said the city received a report from a consultant Dec. 5 determining how the tax-sharing revenues should be divided between the city and county. He had not seen the report yet, but said the division has to be better than the current 25-75 split.
“The county has no incentive to even talk to us,” Friend said. “The only leverage we have is to say ‘no, we’re not going to allow them to annex into the city.’ It’s already been to the Board of Supervisors and they did just like they did with the $4 million from the dump. They just decided to keep it. Other than begging them, we can’t get them to do anything.”