On the surface, an ambiguous looking resolution on the March 20 agenda of the board of supervisors’ meeting didn't look like much. It called for the reimbursement of costs to be paid by Bristol SB LLC related to preliminary work done by county staff and outside consultants related to the review of something called the Floriana Ranch Project LLC. In fact, it is only the first step in a process that could a have a monumental impact on the county.
A common statement often made at supervisor and city council meetings about the number of homes springing up in the city and around the county is that nothing can be done to stop them or at least slow them down—something Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez has repeatedly tried to do for the past year or so—because some developments have been in the pipeline for decades.
Floriana Ranch LLC is one of those developments that has been on the fringes of development for decades in one form or another, and it might linger even longer or die on the vine if some supervisors have their way.
However, if the Newport Pacific Land Company, a Southern California-based developer of master-planned communities, which manages Bristol SB LLC, a Nevada-registered company, as well as the local landowner, Dan Floriani, have their way, a community of many thousands of homes could eventually be built along Highway 25, on the Bolsa flood plain, near the border with Santa Clara County.
This is the same area that Arizona developer DMB Associates tried unsuccessfully to build a 4,500-acre community called El Rancho San Benito LLC. The nearby O'Connell Ranch was also involved in the project. Part of that project involved DMB having to build costly interchanges on Highway 25, or even possibly a new highway through the project, according to a 2005 Silicon Valley Business Journal article.
Originally, the community would have consisted of 6,800 units, but DMB pulled out of the project in 2009. At the time, there was discussion about the possible use of the railway parallel to Highway 25. Palo Alto-based San Benito Railroad LLC attempted to buy 12.5 miles of track from Union Pacific Railroad with the idea of using it partially to support the development, but the sale was denied by government authorities without prejudice, leaving the opportunity to purchase the line open at a future date.
The track was vital to developers because it could provide passengers rail service between the new city planned for the Floriana Ranch, Hollister and through the development. Potentially, Gilroy-bound passengers could connect with the Caltrain regional commuter line. This gives more credence to Hollister City Council and COG’s renewed efforts to study the feasibility of building a depot and rail yard in the city.
Supervisor Mark Medina asked whether it would be wiser to look at the project before approving the agreement for reimbursement because he was concerned how much staff time it would take, stating the county is having a hard time taking care of its own business with a limited staff. John Guertin, director of the Resource Management Agency (RMA), said the reimbursement agreement is a new procedure for the county and it was precisely what Medina was asking of the county.
“We’re working with the applicants up front, before they submit a full application and identifying potential issues that are going to come up and whether or not it’s a viable project,” he said. “This is a mechanism to recoup our costs for doing that work. In the past, we would do that kind of work for applicants and then if they didn’t apply that was time wasted and no reimbursement.”
Medina had an issue with part of the agreement that seemed to put off reimbursement until after permits were issued, and he wanted to “segregate the beginning stages of the project” from the rest of it in order to better guarantee reimbursements. Guertin said the county would more than likely come back with a new reimbursement agreement if the developer begins to move forward with the project.
Barbara Thompson, county counsel, told Medina the county can terminate the agreement with 30 days’ notice should the developer start moving forward. Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz said he did not want to move forward with the agreement because he did not feel comfortable with it because of an issue involving the a nearby chemical plant (TriCal Inc., which makes fumigation products) and the need for a buffer zone. He suggested it go back to the Planning Commission.
“In the future, I don’t want 1,000 residents coming to the board of supervisors complaining about the potential danger from the chemical plant,” he said. “You need to go back and figure out how you’re going to address that buffer zone.”
Thompson suggested separating out the agreement from the application to make sure the board understands the merits of the project versus the reimbursement portion. Guertin reminded the board that the reimbursement agreement had nothing to do with the overall project.
“This is reimbursement of staff time to process the application,” he said. “This is an application from an applicant and we have to review it with them. We have to take it through the process and take it to a hearing. Everything you’re talking about is the process we have to go through to recoup our costs, which they want to do. If we don’t move forward with the reimbursement agreement, my staff and I still have to do that work. It’s through that process that we address the General Plan issues and we go to the Planning Commission about how it does or does not meet the General Plan requirements.”
De La Cruz said if the board moved forward with the reimbursement agreement the first item of discussion should be about how the buffer zone issue would be treated. Guertin told him there are a number of major hurdles with the project, including the buffer zone. Others include a viable water source and a waste water treatment plant.
“This is going to be a multi-year process that we go through on a project of this size,” he said.
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer commented that many people criticized Santana Ranch, and reminded everyone it went through a 30-year process.
“This is 10,000 units,” he said. “How long is this going to take? All we’re talking about is recouping the monies that the county has to spend in starting the process for this applicant. Whether we like or don’t like the project is irrelevant to this discussion. I’m ok with going forward with this today.”
Medina said he agreed with Muenzer, to a point. He said if someone were to read the entire agreement it includes permits and reiterated that he wanted the agreement to only cover reimbursements and nothing more. Guertin said the intent was to have a broader agreement that could be amended if needed, but said it could be changed to only cover the pre-application phase, if that was what the board wanted.
“Historically, when we go to these development agreements we opt into problems and that’s why I want to keep it sweet and short with no grey areas,” Medina said.
De La Cruz said he realized the project may take 20 years, but said the supervisors are facing negative feedback from the public because of prior board approvals in the past.
“We know this is just the starting process, but we know very well once you open the gates it’s hard to say no to a project when it comes before the supervisors,” he said. “That’s why I need to start questioning these things from the get-go.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho brought up an early suggestion from Muenzer that the board needed to discuss growth management more thoroughly.
“I’ve never been enthused about residential growth out on the Bolsa,” he said. “I was not for that community study area then and I think it’s still premature to consider it anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean a person who owns property should not be able to submit an application for a project.”
He said one of the major complaints since he has been on the board is that the Planning Department does not receive enough monies for services rendered to applicants. He said the reimbursement agreement is more than fair if the focus was more on the pre-application process.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney representing the Floriana Ranch family, said she wanted to make it clear that the reimbursement agreement was just to get the process started.
“An application has been filed and there’s a legal right to have an application processed,” she said. “That’s the process we’ve just barely begun. This agreement exclusively allows staff to charge us for their time or the time to retain experts to begin. There’s no EIR underway. There’s no full application that’s been submitted. And the right in the agreement will allow the county to come back and say it needs a lot more money to do the EIR or whatever. At that point, if we elect not to proceed, it stops there, but you are in charge every point in the process.”
John Patterson, one of the partners at Newport Pacific Land Company, told BenitoLink by phone that it was very early in the process as the company moved forward with technical reports and continued to study the market. He said the company is attempting to develop the project in line with the county’s updated General Plan.
“We’re trying to look for opportunities on the property not just as a residential master-plan, but also job opportunities because San Benito County needs jobs,” Patterson said. “There’s a lot of research being done right now trying to understand the feasibility of a more job-based project. It will be a mix of residential and supporting services.”
Peterson said that the DMB project was slated to have as many as 10,000 units, but that was because it involved the O’Connell and Floriana ranches, plus an additional 600 acres adjacent to the project. The new project only involves the Floriana family, so there would be far fewer units on some 2,800 acres.
Patterson said a private waste water facility would have to be built to support the community. He also said the community would include some retail businesses designed to service the residents, such as restaurants, social gathering spots and daycare facilities. He said the community would most likely take advantage of any rail services that might evolve.
“We could provide a smaller station, if that were required,” he said, adding that it was too early to project when or if the project would move forward.
Supervisor Medina made the motion to re-write the agreement to only include the pre-planning stage and bring it back to the board on April 3 for a vote. The motion passed unanimously.
Other related stories: Commuter Trains to Hollister. Really?
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