Andy Hsia-Coron has been a part of three environmental groups with the same mission: slow growth by involving voters. Photo by John Chadwell.

If the environmental group Campaign to Protect San Benito has its way, San Benito County supervisors will be stripped of their authority to determine land use and voters will be in charge of most development decisions in the county.

The group hopes to place its initiative, titled “Let Voters Decide how San Benito County Grows,” on the November ballot. If it passes, it will amend the county’s 2035 General Plan to “protect the quality of life of residents, preserve agricultural, biological and cultural resources, promote infill development,” and reduce urban sprawl.

The group, formed in January, is the latest iteration of Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC) as well as Protect San Benito County (PSBC). The mission statements of all three groups are voluminous and appear to be identical. PORC spearheaded a referendum to stop developments along Hwy 101 to protect agricultural and rural lands, and filed a lawsuit against the rezoning of the Betabel node—a centralized hub outside of a city.

PSBC’s goal was to stop the development of areas identified as nodes in the General Plan. In September 2019, PORC members objected to the county’s rezoning of four commercial nodes at Betabel, SR129/Searle Road, 101 Livestock and Rocks Ranch.

PORC’s attempt to temporarily stop the rezoning of Hwy 129/Searle Road node failed when San Benito County Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez ruled against them in March 2021. Despite PSBC’s efforts to block the Strada Verde Innovation Park project, supervisors voted 3-2 on March 23 to 1) allow the developer to submit an application; and 2) allow the board to remain neutral before the developer submitted a new project. Supervisors Mark Medina and Kollin Kosmicki cast the opposing votes.

BenitoLink spoke with Andy Hsia-Coron, president of the Campaign to Protect San Benito, as he was gathering signatures near Target in Hollister. He said the group’s newest initiative would remove 13 of the 16 commercial nodes from the 2035 General Plan so that voters could approve each one individually. It would also require a vote to approve any expansion of the John Smith Landfill.

“It also says before they [supervisors] can do any rezoning of range, farm or rural land to new developments, they have to let us vote on it,” Hsia-Coron said, adding that he believes the public is “remarkably more informed about development issues in the last few years in this county, given we’ve had so many debates about land. Also, everyone is experiencing the effects of development in the county.”

Hsia-Coron said his rationale for letting voters decide how the land should or should not be developed goes back to 1911 when California changed its constitution to affirm that the “right to legislate is reserved to the people and they delegate that decision to the legislature, city councils and supervisors.”

“Any time they feel those bodies are not making good decisions they have the right to pull back those decisions and directly control them,” he said.

He said the organizations he has been a part of do not pay people to gather signatures. “We get some volunteers, but I would say no more than 10% of our signature [gatherers] come from outside. But people like me bring in the lion’s share of the signatures.”

He said after the county elections office verifies that there are enough valid signatures, the county can either adopt the initiative outright or put it on the ballot.

Hsia-Coron said that even if the initiative passes and the 13 commercial nodes are removed from the General Plan, it doesn’t mean developments will cease. He said if a developer presents a plan that is well thought out and will enhance the quality of life for residents, instead of going before the supervisors, the people would decide if it moves forward.

“I’m sure if it’s a good plan they will have had lots of meetings with people; they probably will have changed their plan to address community concerns, and the people may very well vote for it,” he said. “For now, the brakes will be applied.”

A year after Measure N was defeated, he said he is still against it because the site located between Hwy 101 and SR25 is not “a great place to develop,” as it will create traffic bottlenecks at Betabel Road and encroach on a sensitive floodplain. He said even though he has not seen recent plans and environmental impact studies for the project, he still objects to it.

“I’d be interested in seeing what they’ve got,” he said. “But my guess is it will become the nucleus of a large and new city in the long run.”

If the initiative makes the ballot and passes it would, according to the initiative, stop new commercial neighborhood nodes on lands designated agriculture, rural or rangeland, unless approved by a vote of the people. 

It would also require county supervisors to “revisit the land use designation of the commercial neighborhood nodes located at Fairview Road and Fallon Road, at Highway 25 and Paicines, and at Highway 25 and Fairview Road, and to consider re-designating these nodes to agriculture, rural or rangeland, so long as the Board of Supervisors concurrently changes the development standards, policies, and conditions applicable to other parcels not designated agriculture, rural, or rangeland within the county to ensure that there is no net loss in residential capacity.”

According to an initiative map that reconfigures the General Plan map, three regional commercial nodes along Hwy 101, as well as three thoroughfare nodes along Shore Road between SR25 and Hwy 156, four thoroughfare nodes along Hwy 156 between San Felipe Road and Union Road, one thoroughfare node on Union Road near Cienega Road, and one thoroughfare node in Tres Pinos would be removed and require voter approval to be brought back. Only a commercial neighborhood node that allows small scale commercial activity and mixed use within walking distance to residential neighborhoods at the intersection of Fallon Road and Fairview Road, another at Fairview Road and Airline Hwy, near Ridgemark, and one in Paicines would remain.

According to the 2035 General Plan’s land use element the county “shall focus future development in areas around cities where infrastructure and public services are available, within existing unincorporated communities, and within a limited number of new communities, provided they meet the requirements to preserve the county’s “historic identity and rural community character” and demonstrate a fiscally neutral or positive impact on the county and any special districts that provide services to the project.

“I guess I don’t have a lot of faith that we will police any of these very well, given the fact that the people voted down the nodes,” Hsia-Coron said. “The county came in and said, ‘We’re going to give you a different commercial zoning than we had the first time.’ They’re essentially the same projects. Already, it’s shady because we can do the same thing, just use a different designation.”

In fact, voters rejected the rules concerning what is allowed to be built under C-3 zoning on Hwy 101 and not a specific project or land zone designation.

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John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...