Government / Politics

San Benito County faces lawsuits on hwy nodes, retiree health plans

SBC and Hollister are also in litigation with developers over annexation fees.

San Benito County faces several lawsuits going into the new year, ranging from commercial nodes along Highway 101 to retired employee health plans.

Preserve Our Rural Communities v. County of San Benito

After the San Benito County Board of Supervisors approved the rezoning of four commercial nodes along Highway 101—Betabel, SR129/Searle Road, Rocks Ranch and Livestock 101—on Sept. 24, Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC), a group of local activists that spearheaded a referendum effort, also filed a lawsuit against the county on Oct. 23. The lawsuit includes a petition for writ of mandate, or a demand, for the county to “set aside its approvals of the project” and award of costs and attorney fees. 

PORC President Andy Hsia-Coron told BenitoLink, “PORC is suing San Benito County because the environmental evaluation of the rezoning of Highway 101 sites to create the Regional Commercial District was completely inadequate.” He said, “This rezone fundamentally alters this environmentally sensitive scenic rural corridor by allowing intense commercial uses including but not limited to hotels, amusement parks, gas stations, retail stores and residential development.”

The lawsuit claims the county failed to disclose or evaluate environmental impacts from foreseeable commercial development projects planned for the node areas, and that an updated Environmental Impact Report should have been prepared before rezoning the four nodes. The county relied on the EIR prepared for the 2015 General Plan update.

The county has contended throughout the process that a new EIR is required when the property owner submits an application for a project, not for the rezoning process. 

A case management hearing is scheduled in San Benito County Superior Court on Feb. 25 at 8:30 a.m. Judge Omar Rodriguez is expected to preside over the hearing. 

Rose, et al. v. County of San Benito 

Since 2017, San Benito County has been involved in a lawsuit with former county employees Normandy Rose and Margaret Riopel, who allege the county is required to provide them “100% paid retiree medical premiums and benefits, no less than those received at their time of retirement,” according to court documents.  

On Oct. 13, the plaintiffs’ lawyer Adam Rust requested a jury trial, while Steve Cikes representing the county argued a jury trial was unnecessary since the case could be resolved by resolutions and legislative records. 

According to court documents, Judge Rodriguez motioned for a jury trial a week later. At the hearing, Rodriguez denied the deposition of supervisors Jaime De La Cruz and Anthony Botelho, despite Rust’s argument that it was beneficial to do so because the supervisors were familiar with the facts and circumstances. Rodriguez, however, said it was unnecessary because the plaintiffs had not presented any evidence that Botelho and De La Cruz held information that is not available through other sources.

According to a 2014 resolution included in the court documents, employees hired on or before Dec. 31, 2009 receive $119 per month in Public Employees Medical and Hospital Care Act benefits from San Benito County. They also receive contribution to medical premiums, which range from $431 to $1,196 based on the number of dependents enrolled.

The resolution also states the county’s contributions depend on memos of understanding with represented or unrepresented employees. 

According to county counsel Barbara Thompson, the county has spent about $334,138 of the $535,000 approved by the Board of Supervisors in lawyer fees on this case since hiring Renne Public Law Group, formerly Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai LLP, in December 2017 for $150,000. 

Deputy County Administrative Officer Edgar Nolasco said while the county can not comment on ongoing litigation, the case was “important to the County fiscally because it will determine to what extent the County’s future OPEB [Other post-employment benefits] obligations can be determined.”

The jury trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 24 at 9 a.m. with Judge Lee Philip Felice presiding, according to court documents. 

Award Homes and BMC Promise Way

San Benito County, along with the city of Hollister, has been in litigation with Award Homes and BMC Promise Way, LLC since 2015 regarding the 1999 and 2011 master tax agreements between the county and city requiring developers to pay an annexation fee. 

The cases are in the California 6th District Court of Appeals. Award Homes lost the initial lawsuit and appealed in San Benito Superior Court in 2017.

BMC Promise Way, LLC has until Jan. 15 to submit its opening brief. If BMC fails to do so, the court may dismiss the appeal, according to court documents.

 

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.