Government / Politics

Searching for the faults in our downtown

City to negotiate $425,000 contract for firm to conduct the first phase of an earthquake fault study in downtown. Second phase has unknown costs, but could be much more.
2016-09-14 S Agenda Packet_0007.jpg

With earthquake faults running through Hollister's historic business district, local officials say there is a need to know where those faults are to determine what impact they might have on development. With that in mind, the Hollister City Council held a special meeting on Sept. 14 to discuss the first phase of surface fault investigations that could cost $425,000. 

After the presentation from the Walnut Creek-based consulting firm, Lettis Consulting International (LCI), and comments from local business owners, the council directed city staff to negotiate the contract.

According to the city agenda packet that was presented to the council prior to the meeting, the purpose of the fault study is "to protect people and structures from damage related to surface fault rupture along the trace of a potentially active fault. Surface fault investigations are required on a property located within an earthquake fault zone that has been mapped by the California Department of Conservation."

Mary Paxton, program manager of Hollister’s Development Services Department, briefed the council, reminding them that after they had adopted a resolution on March 7 that authorized city staff to release a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Phase 2 study, LCI was chosen to conduct the study. She said the study would be broken into two phases. The first phase (2A) would cost $425,025. The second phase (2B), according to Paxton, will be considerably more because it would involve digging trenches or boring holes.

The purpose of the first phase will be to develop a profile of the geology of the Phase 2 project area to determine the depth of the most recent geologic period (Holocene). It will identify any variations in the geologic layer that could be attributable to faulting and help pinpoint the most strategic locations to conduct surface fault trenching during the second phase.

Paxton said there may be potential for some properties to be cleared — meaning their are no fault issues that have to be addressed — during the first phase. Staff has been meeting with property owners to explain the purpose of the investigation and gauge support for pro-rata payment for the study and investigations on private property. The staff is also learning more about the effect of the requirements for the fault studies on economic development.

John Baldwin, LCI representative and project manager for the investigation, told the council that the city is bounded by an eastern and western strand of the Calaveras Fault, which will impose restrictions to building downtown. He showed the council a map of downtown as he explained that City Hall, where they were, lies between the two branches of the fault that runs through downtown.

“We’re trying to identify where the fault is and where an active fault is or is not present, so development can happen downtown,” he said. “State guidelines are very strict on that. The intent of the AP Act (Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act)  is to prohibit the location of developments of structures of human occupancy across an active fault.”

“For the AP Act, you have to do a site-specific investigation to demonstrate that the structures for human occupancy will not be placed again upon an active fault,” Baldwin said. “To accomplish this, the investigation should accurately identify the active fault traces and recommend building setbacks. If you find a fault, you have to step your building back a certain distance away from where that active fault is.

Baldwin said investigations are typically done through trenching or drilling.

“Here, in downtown, there’s not a whole lot of real estate that’s not developed,” he said, “so it gets very expensive to do a significant trenching because of the utilities, disrupting and re-paving the roads, and it becomes very costly for property owners who are trying to develop their lots.”

Baldwin explained that the typical investigation for a property ranges between $50,000 and $100,000. In some cases, that may be more expensive, especially if there is a need to do significant excavations and if utilities are encountered. Then they will have to be replaced, back-filled or the materials have to be taken offsite. He said, for instance, the 2009 surface fault investigation for the reconstruction of Fire Station 1 on an 11,760 square-foot lot at the corner of Fifth and Sally Street in downtown Hollister, cost $115,000.

“If you’re lucky, some property owners may be able to use existing data that has already been collected from another property that demonstrates that building is not over and active fault,” he said. “We’re being asked to look at 13 acres, which includes 50 separate buildings or parcels.”

According to Baldwin, if an active surface fault is found, a non-buildable area would be established. Typically, the non-buildable area is 50 feet wide, extending from the mapped trace of the active fault. The non-buildable area may be wider, depending on local geologic conditions, and if the hazard is near a structure, such as a school or hospital, the remainder of the property outside of the non-buildable area is considered to be “cleared” for development.

The non-buildable areas can be incorporated into a new development such as open space, a street, parking lot, garage, plaza, park and similar uses that do not include structures for human occupancy. Examples of “non-buildable” areas in Hollister are the driveway entry and parking area at the Adams Square commercial center on Tres Pinos Road, the open area west of the Kmart building and Southridge Drive in the Tiffany Ranch subdivision.

On the other hand, he said, if no active surface fault is found, the property would be considered to be “cleared” for development with no risk of surface fault rupture. Once the report is accepted by the peer review geologist, it must be filed with the state. No further investigation is required after the report is filed with the state geologist in Sacramento.

Baldwin gave an extensive rundown of what the company hoped to find from its investigation in order to develop a map that would determine whether they can use a bore hole or trenches to develop geologic models. These would be used to figure out exactly where the fault is and its nature as it changes on its path through downtown and up through Vista Park Hill.

Ray Espinosa, resident and owner of the building at 380 Fourth St., which also includes the Cozy Cup Café, asked if the trenches or bore holes would make any difference if an earthquake similar in size of that in 1989 were to happen. He said more than $750,000 in earthquake measures were spent on the Cozy Cup Café in 1982.

“When that earthquake hit, the J.C. Penney’s building fell over and in the Cozy Cup they lost one cup,” he said. “The building next to us pretty much came down. That fault runs right underneath us. I don’t see any advantage to this. I remember a few years ago the City of Hollister went broke on studies.”

When Tony Lobue, who owns properties in the area, asked if he would be able build on top of a fault, Baldwin said he would have to develop a 15-foot setback map where he could build.

 “It’s not always 50 feet, it’s sometimes less where you can’t put a building,” Baldwin said. “You can’t build within a certain number of feet from that active fault. You can build right up to the setback.”

Councilman Karson Klauer told Lobue he would have to do the study no matter what, even if it was to find out he couldn’t build on a particular site. Baldwin said Lobue would still be able to operate if he already has a business, but he’d have to check with city guidelines.

Another possible option, according to Baldwin, Lobue could possibly something else, such as sell it as a parking lot. Councilman Raymond Friend interjected that, as he understood it, if Lobue wanted to develop a site now, he would have to do the study and it would cost him $100,000, just to find out he might not be able to build.

“What we’re trying to do is spread that cost out to where it doesn’t cost you that,” Friend said, “because you’re going to have to do other things or sit on the property.”

Bill Avera, city manager, said one of the ways the city might be able to mitigate Lobue’s situation should it happen that he could not build, was to do a property swap.

“If your property has to become a parking lot, it’ll be a parking lot,” Avera said, “and we’ll take one of our parking lots and we could probably trade with you.”

Avera said the most important thing is to determine where the fault is, because nothing can be done until that happens.

Hollister resident Marty Richman said he was concerned how the council was presenting the study to the public. He suggested that the city should have contacted property owners beforehand and advised them if they were contemplating building on their property, they’re going to have to do some sort of study, whether it’s for a new building or improvements to an existing structure that is 50 percent of the building’s value.

“For those who never intend to build or refurbish, you don’t even need to be here (at the meeting) because you have no intention of any future gain,” he said. “That’s the first thing that should have been done. Obviously, we have this great presentation, which is nice from a technical point of view, but from a political point of view it’s all backwards.”

Marie Peterson asked what would happen if a building downtown burned down. She wondered if a study would still have to be done, considering the building had probably been sitting on a faultline for 50 to 60 years. Paxton said the best example was the former San Benito Hotel on Fourth Street.

“It sat there for quite a few years, until it was cleared last year,” Paxton said. “There was a trench right behind the property done in 1991. Because the phase one cleared, (the owner) is proceeding to develop the property.”

Peterson asked if she would be able to rebuild her building if it burned down. Paxton said she could if Peterson could prove there is no fault there. Avera said if it burned down, she would be required to make sure there is no fault.

Fernando Gonzalez, who owns property in the fault area, commended the council and staff for their work on the study proposal.

“There are a lot of properties that are empty lots and are going to remain empty because no one is going to buy them with the unknown,” he said. “The price may be cheap, but you don’t really know what it’s going to cost to develop that property until we have these studies.”

He said the area would remain an “economic blight” until the empty lots could be cleared for economic development.

“Developers, whether they’re local or from outside, will not be interested in these lots until they are cleared,” Gonzalez said. “My questions are on the funding in terms of aggressively looking for outside sources because there are different nonprofits whose goal is economic well-being. To try do identify those and to try to find some money to help pay for this, I, as a property owner, am willing to share the cost with other property owners to determine and clear this area.”

He cautioned, though, that even if someone owns a business in the area, and they believe they’re never going to do anything to change it, something could happen and they would have to sell it, only to find they can’t get market value because of the unknowns.

Councilwoman Mickie Luna asked Paxton if all the property owners had been notified about the special meeting. Paxton said she tried to meet face-to-face with as many property owners as possible. She said, however, that some do not live in California. She also said the agenda packet for the meeting was either hand-delivered or mailed to every property owner. Luna said if given another opportunity, it might be possible to hear from more people concerning Phase 2. She also asked how long the first phase would take to complete. Paxton said the city wasn’t following the same process as the 1991 Phase 1 study because other studies had been conducted at various locations in the city since then.

“We hear from people from time to time, ‘why isn’t that lot being developed?' and my concern is, let's develop it, but there’s the process,” Luna said.

“As Fernando pointed out,” Paxton said, “there are seven vacant or underdeveloped lots in this area, and in the course of meeting with some of the property owners, it came to our attention that some of them—maybe not today—but within the next two or three years, would be interested in making improvements. I don’t think they would be motivated to do anything if they’re encumbered by the requirement to pay for their own surface fault investigation.”

Klauer asked to be reminded what the cost was for Phase 2A of the investigation. Paxton said that it was $425,025.

“So, that may get us a couple properties cleared, but likely not?” he asked.

Baldwin told him there was a potential that one or more properties would be cleared. Klauer asked if Phase 2A would essentially indicate how much Phase 2B would cost. Baldwin said it probably would.

Friend said that because Hollister is not Hollywood, that $425,025 only gets the city to the point that everyone knows a study needs to be done.

“We have no idea what this is going to cost us,” he said, “but we know they want $425,000 to get to the point to tell us what it’s going to cost, and we still don’t know who’s going to pay for it. I don’t think the city should pay for all of it. Some of it, yes, it is part of the economic development. But you’re asking us for a blank check. We don’t have $425,000 just to do a study to tell us what we need to spend.”

Avera answered: “You’re right. It’s a lot of money to find out what we really don’t know. If we are fortunate that if we embark on 2A and we execute a contract, you want to have a better understanding about the benefit area that might be established as part of this program as we get started.”

The council and the city, Avera said, should feel fairly comfortable that the money, although it may not come back in the next five to 20 years, eventually would come back.

“The more important thing is that if we can get one, two or three properties cleared that’s almost worth it, right there,” he continued. “Then we’ll have a better understanding about what 2B will be. It may be far less than what we’re thinking. That’s probably wishful thinking, but if you’ll allow us to start the process and come up with a repayment method for the downtown properties, we’ll be in a much better place in a few months than we are right now with the development of downtown.”

Friend asked if three buildings were cleared during 2A would those property owners pay the cost. Avera said what he thinks should be done is to establish the “benefit area,” so all property owners pay an equal or fair share of the entire cost.  

“Whatever the amount (people and city pay) is, everybody needs to be invested in it to reduce the amount of exposure to the current property owners and limit the amount of investment they’re going to do before they put a shovel in the ground,” Avera said. “I don’t know what that’s worth to everybody, but if it’s the council’s direction that we want to go down this path, which, hopefully, they do, we’ll talk to some smart people to find out how to make sure that we have a good financing plan that’s set in place before we move forward.”

Paxton commented on financing aspect, saying, “Those community development block grants for funding that they call technical assistance, is $100,000. That may seem like a drop in the bucket, but every little bit helps.”

She added that she hopes the council will direct the staff to apply in partnership with one of the nonprofits in the community, such as the Downtown Hollister Association, Chamber of Commerce, or Business Council.

“The Packard Foundation has some categories for grants and one of them is for conservation and science,” Paxton said. “A strand within that is for climate change. If you recall, when we revised our general plan in 2005, we shrunk our planning area and instead of having a commercial downtown, we created a mixed-use downtown and we increased the density. If we can remove a barrier to the development of our downtown that can help with reducing driving and, hopefully, providing more jobs, I’d like to suggest that we try to have a conversation with the Packard Foundation. It was also just suggested that we try and partner with a local non-profit and perhaps this can be packaged together. We can’t get there if we don’t know what our costs are. This helps us pin down what the cost is and also shop for money.”

Friend quipped, “Oh, we know what the cost is.”

After that, Luna made a motion that the council would direct the staff to negotiate a contract with LCI and develop a funding plan for the benefit area. The council (Mayor Ignacio Velazquez and Vice Mayor Victor Cruz were absent) voted in favor of the resolution.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]