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After three hours of debate and discussion — and nearly eight years after the revision process started — the San Benito County Planning Commission on July 1 voted 4-1 to forward the 2035 General Plan to the Board of Supervisors for consideration and possible approval on July 21. Commissioner Pat Loe, who expressed concerns about how the planning document addresses traffic concerns — particularly on Highway 25 — was the lone dissenting vote.

The commission’s action, coming at the end of a three-hour public hearing, recommends that county supervisors approve the General Plan, which would replace the existing plan that was adopted in 1992. The plan, county consultant Michael Groves of EMC Planning Group told the commission, addresses issues such as balanced growth, ag preservation, increasing economic opportunities and expanding infrastructure. The vote certified the General Plan’s environmental impact report, adopts a mitigation monitoring program, and suggests that the board follow suit and approve the plan. It envisions 13,000 homes being added in the county over the next two decades, which would push the local population to approximately 95,000 by 2035 — and increase of 36,000 residents.

The document does not include the county housing element, which was last approved in 2010. It is due for review within the next year, after the General Plan has been adopted.

The approval process has hit road bumps in recent years, with the county switching consulting firms twice before EMC was hired. Community advisory groups added input and the document was circulated for public comment from March 23-May 7.

After public input and commission discussion, the meeting was adjourned so Groves, county planner Byron Turner and a county attorney could craft a policy that would drop the Highway 101/156 interchange from planned “commercial  regional nodes,” or areas along 101 where development would be encouraged by the General Plan. Since the portion of the highway through western San Benito County is designated as a scenic highway, Commissioner Dan DeVries — who represents the San Juan Bautista area on the commission — said the county should “take advantage of the thousands and thousands of motorists who travel through our county. We’re missing out on highway commercial tax dollars. On the other hand, we are an agricultural, rural, beautiful county. We don’t want to look like Gilroy,” he said, adding that he wasn’t “slamming” the town but rather pointing out how it allowed commercial development right the the edges of 101. “I don’t think any of us want that.”

DeVries suggested that the commercial nodes along 101 exclude the 101/156 interchange, eliminating the possibility of commercial development at the main western entrance to the county, near San Juan Bautista. Other areas suggested for development along the highway corridor include the Betabel Road area, the Highway 129/101 interchange, the area north of Cole Road near Livestock 101, and San Juan Road near the Red Barn. His approved motion also said that any new development in these commercial nodes would be subject to design review by the Planning Commission and developers would be encouraged to contribute to an “easement fund to keep the beautiful areas beautiful.”

During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s public hearing, Mary Hsia-Coron of Aromas suggested the commission delay a recommendation of adoption of the General Plan until pending climate change bills are approved in California. She also said that the commission “should really think about water” supplies before considering approving new, “spread out” communities that would impact ag land.

Her husband, Andy, who along with Mary was a key member of the Yes on Measure J anti-fracking initiative last year, said the drought has made water more of an issue in development decisions and “even some of the hardest heads out there are starting to realize that something is going on regarding climate change. You can’t create a healthy economy without thinking very long and hard about the quality of your environment.”

Scott Fuller of the San Juan Oaks Golf Club said the golf course, which has plans in place for a master-planned community, wants to “reserve our right” to remove its land from a new community study area mentioned in the General Plan, as that portion of the document addresses impacts from potential projects that are not as far along in the planning process as the planned development near the golf course.

Planning Commissioner Ray Pierce spoke up during the public comment period to say that “prime ag land here is sacred” and that the commission would not allow it “to be used for much of anything other than prime ag use unless there are mitigating issues that say something has to be changed.” He said that the General Plan, which is designed to help shape development decisions in the county for the next 20 years, “is really not a Bible; it’s really a guidebook that’s updated. This is a dynamic process and we’re changing things all the time.”

He also acknowledged that the drought will cast a shadow over all planning decisions.

“Water is always in our face,” Pierce said. “This drought didn’t just change things; we’ve concerned about water all the time.”

Commissioner Loe said that was “really concerned about what this document says about traffic. I really need straightforward, hard answers on this tonight or I won’t be able to go forward backing any of this. She and Groves then went back and forth, with Loe saying that Caltrans officials told her the transportation agency was “not accepting” a study done by a traffic consultant from Gilroy with Groves countering, “they don’t have a choice to accept it or not. They can comment — they don’t have a choice to say they accept it. I wouldn’t bat an eye about it.”

Loe also said she was concerned about the “new communities” aspect of the General Plan, which calls for pockets of development rather than building from cities outward. “I see it as a waste of land,” she said, saying “it sends a false message to the development community” that the county wants developments in pockets. Loe also expressed concerns about the drought’s impact on local development.

Prior to the commission’s vote to forward the General Plan to the Board of Supervisors for consideration, Turner — the county planning director — said that if he were to start the General Plan revision process over “I’d do it completely different.” He cited the revolving door of consultants on the project, “massive policy shifts” from the board, a “massively tweaked hillside ordinance” and “massive economic factors. He also said he would utilize the Planning Commission more in the General Plan development process.

To read more about the General Plan, click here to visit the county’s website on the development plan.