Five public meetings were held in San Juan Bautista to discuss upcoming changes to the city’s defined sphere of influence and to help identify areas outside the current city boundaries as appropriate for future developments or to be preserved as green space.
The meetings were sponsored by the city of San Juan Bautista and chaired by two consultants hired for the project, Dan Burden of Blue Zones LLC, a public engagement company, and Michael J. Groves of the EMC Planning Group, a provider of land use and environmental planning.
The first three sessions, on May 3, covered economic development, the future of growth, and “living, working and playing.” They were followed on May 4 by a fourth session, on open space preservation, and a “community charrette,” described as an “interactive mapping exercise to identify opportunities, challenges, and flag concerns.”
The first four sessions were held in the City Council chambers, with around 20 to 30 people attending each one, according to Burden.
Public participation was limited by the scheduling of four meetings over two days. In addition, none of the meetings or the charrette were available via Zoom or Facebook, even though the City Council regularly transmits its meetings online from those chambers.
Though Burden conceded that Zoom “has wonderful qualities to it,” he said the limiting of participation was desirable: “We were trying to condense everything into these sessions where we could listen to everybody and from that create a public event—this seemed like the right venue.”
The charette, the centerpiece of the outreach effort, was held at the San Juan School auditorium on May 5 at 6 p.m. and was attended by approximately 60 people, including City Manager Don Reynolds, Assistant City Manager Brian Fouch, City Council member John Freeman, former city council member Dan DeVries, San Juan Bautista Historical Society president Wanda Guibert, County Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki, Mission San Juan Bautista archeologist Jewel Gentry, Historic Resources Board Chairperson David Medeiros, and several local business owners including Patricia and Dante Bains and Kristina Hastings.
After brief presentations by Burden and Groves explaining the purpose of the evening meeting, attendees were split into five groups. Each group was given a large aerial photograph of the city with its boundaries drawn around it and, during two 20-minute sessions, was instructed to mark their map to indicate areas to be preserved and areas for possible development.
After both sessions, one member of the group presented their map to the rest of the participants and explained the reasoning behind their decisions. At the end of the event, the five maps were collected by the consultants, who said they would be considered during the process of creating the city’s growth policies.
Property owner Jim Dassel, one of the map presenters, said that he thought the sessions were productive and that the participants were being listened to by the consultants.
“This has been a learning experience,” he said. “I think that everyone here is genuine and trying their best to address complex matters. There are a lot of people here who are concerned with preserving agricultural and historical areas, but there is a cost to that. It is one thing to say that we should continue to grow hay here and that it is a pretty picture, but someone has to pay for that.”
Groves said the consulting groups came into the discussions with nothing predetermined.
“We have done this in communities where things were mostly already decided,” he said, “I can tell you the sphere of influence line as drawn by LAFCO [the Local Agency Formation Commission] is very, very big, and the one that is in the new general plan is smaller than that, so the only assumption is that they are going to want to draw a smaller area than LAFCO’s.”
Groves also said that an urban growth boundary around the city was on the table for discussion in future meetings and that the community seemed to support it.
Asked if the final plan would respect the wishes of the community in a hypothetical case where all five maps indicated an area that was to exclude housing, Groves said, “I will use my professional judgment in a case where three maps say one thing, and the other two say something else, but if all five maps say no housing, then the public is the decision-maker.”
Burden said that the public input was important to the final outcome.
“People do not make mistakes in the planning of their own community,” he said. “If all five groups marking the maps say they do not want housing in a particular spot, we better be listening to that.”
According to Reynolds, there will be more engagement meetings throughout the summer, with the goal of producing a final report in September.
We need your help. Support local, nonprofit news! BenitoLink is a nonprofit news website that reports on San Benito County. Our team is committed to this community and providing essential, accurate information to our fellow residents. It is expensive to produce local news and community support is what keeps the news flowing. Please consider supporting BenitoLink, San Benito County’s public service, nonprofit news.