San Benito County faces lawsuits related to controversial land use projects

County also takes steps to recoup costs from landslides on Southside Road in 2018.

It’s a new year and a new San Benito County Board of Supervisors, but the county continues to face familiar lawsuits in 2021 related to rezoned land along Highway 101 and a proposed autonomous vehicle facility known as Strada Verde. Also on its legal agenda, the county is attempting to recoup costs related to May 2018 landslides that occurred on Southside Road.

Preserve Our Rural Communities vs. County of San Benito

Since May 2019 when the San Benito County Planning Commission approved the rezoning of four properties along Highway 101 for commercial use, local activist group Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC) has voiced its opposition to the projects. The group spearheaded a referendum effort that resulted in Measure K, which was defeated in the 2020 primary election. 

PORC took to the courts when the county rezoned one of the properties, known as nodes, to a different commercial zone, but lost the case.

PORC currently has three open lawsuits against the county, according to court documents. The latest was filed on Jan. 6 seeking to delay the rezoning of the Highway 129/Searle Road property until it is safe to bring a referendum against supervisors’ Dec. 15 decision because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A hearing for this case was scheduled for Jan. 28, but was continued for two weeks because of video call difficulties.

PORC was successful in a similar lawsuit when the Board of Supervisors rezoned the Betabel node on April 7. 

On Jan. 28, San Benito County Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez also continued the hearing for two weeks for another PORC lawsuit filed in September challenging the county’s adoption of a change to the 2015 environmental impact report used to rezone the Betabel node. PORC claims rather than using the 2015 EIR, the county should have prepared a new one. The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the supervisors’ April 7 decision and any others decisions made based on the 2015 EIR. 

Frank Barragan vs. County of San Benito

Another controversial land use proposal that went before county voters in 2020 was the Strada Verde Innovation Park. While the project, an autonomous vehicle testing site near Highway 25, had the county’s support, but 59.5% residents opposed it in the Nov. 3 general election by defeating Measure N. Project developers are still weighing their options on what to do next.

With the proposal came criticism and lawsuits against the county. There are two open lawsuits from resident Frank Barragan alleging the county has violated a public records request as it has not produced all the material he requested regarding Strada Verde. 

Barragan, who voiced his opposition to the Strada Verde project and is chair of a group called Concerned Citizens of San Benito County, won a lawsuit against the county for the Measure N ballot question wording

County of San Benito vs. Sunnyslope County Water District

A January 2019 report which was requested and paid for by San Benito County, points to the pond activity at the Sunnyslope County Water District Wastewater Treatment Plant as a likely cause of several 2018 landslides which blocked Southside Road. In an effort to recoup  cleanup costs, the county filed a lawsuit against the water district, as well as residents Lynn and Susan Hilden, last June. The lawsuit includes the Hildens because the county claims they contributed to the landslide by grading part of their property, which surrounds the wastewater plant. 

According to the lawsuit, the landslides resulted in the months-long closure of Southside Road forcing residents to drive “tens of miles” out of their way because of the closure. It says costs include cleaning up the landslide, stabilizing the hill, repairing Southside Road, soil and moisture testing and other efforts to “minimize further damage and future harm.”

The lawsuit also says the water district rejected the county’s claim on Nov. 30, 2018, for damages incurred by the landslides. The amount sought by the county is not stated in the lawsuit. 


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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is BenitoLink Co-Editor and Content Manager. He joined BenitoLink as reporter intern and was soon brought on staff as a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. He is 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 was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily. He is a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow.