Two weeks after the San Benito County Board of Supervisors continued the decision to place a Commercial Thoroughfare (C-1) zoning on the Betabel node off Highway 101, supervisors approved the change with a 4-1 vote at its April 7 remote meeting. Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz was the only “no” vote.
Supervisors continued the item from their March 24 meeting to allow county staff and residents to get more familiar with Zoom—the online video teleconference system the county and other government bodies are using to conduct public meetings—in an effort to increase community input.
The Betabel node is one of four properties designated for commercial development in the county’s General Plan, a legal document that gives jurisdictions guidance on future development. While the county had approved a Regional Commercial (C-3) zoning on Sept. 24 for the four nodes, county voters repealed Ordinance 991 in the March 3 Primary election by voting no on Measure K. Despite the repeal, the Betabel property was still zoned C-3 without regulations. Supervisors then voted to turn those 29 acres back to Agricultural Rangeland (AR) zoning as part of the process on March 24. The property must be zoned as such before a development application can be submitted.
At the April 7 meeting, supervisors designated C-1 status to parts of four parcels of the Betabel node closest to Highway 101. The other 85 acres of the property remain zoned as Agricultural Rangeland-Flood Plain.
C-1 zoning allows development for restaurants, motels and hotels, commercial entertainment and amusement establishments, roadside stands, retail businesses and various automobile service businesses. It also limits building to 40% of the 29 acres with a maximum height of 35 feet.
Any project submitted by the applicant, the Thomas John McDowell and Victoria McDowell Charitable Remainder Unitrust, will be subject to site and design review by the San Benito County Planning Commission to address potential water, biological and visual impacts.
Eight people from San Benito and Monterey counties spoke against the C-1 rezoning, citing concerns over the cultural value of the site to Native Americans, environmental issues such as water supply, a negative effect on San Juan Bautista businesses, and the inability of residents to mount an initiative campaign opposing the supervisors’ decision because of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order.
“Betabel is a floodplain and a really important part of the Pajaro River system and we we have talked to hydrologists that say any development along the floodplains would increase the likelihood of flooding in Watsonville and the community of Pajaro, which is downstream,” said Mary Hsia-Coron said, secretary of Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC). The group spearheaded the No on K campaign and is currently working to place two land-use measures, one at the county level and one for the city of Hollister, on the November ballot.
“Basically any development at Betabel is not advisable,” Hsia-Coron said.
Supervisor De La Cruz said he could not support the C-1 rezoning because residents would not be able to collect petition signatures for a referendum due to the coronavirus pandemic. He also said the process was “kind of” circumventing Measure K.
Attempting to appease those concerns and echoing the seven residents that voiced their support for the rezoning, Supervisor Jim Gillio said before any construction for a project begins, the permit and review process allows county staff and residents to vet all possible impacts including flooding areas.
“Any potential project, once the application is submitted, will go through extensive public review including a Planning Commission where any cultural resources will be documented and perhaps the project can’t proceed forward because there are too sensitive cultural issues or traffic issues, or water issues, or environmental issues,” Gillio said.
Assistant County Counsel Joel Ellingwood said that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires developments to obtain tribal consultation.
“That would require both consultation and likely extensive cultural resource survey of the site to determine whether or not there are any sacred sites, burial sites or any sites of that nature that would have to be avoided or prevented from having any development adversely affect,” Ellingwood said.
Resident Mia Casey also spoke in favor of the rezoning and potential project based on the Triple Bottom Line Theory, a sustainability model where companies consider a balance of profits, people and the planet. She said the the property owners have checked all the boxes by cleaning the river, prepared the property for organic farming, plan to promote county products and activities, and have the profits of the project support pediatric cancer research.
“This is a sustainable business model and a good example of the kinds of economic growth we need and I urge you not to delay any longer and approved the C-1 zoning today,” Casey said.
Before speaking on how he believed PORC misled residents on Measure K with scare tactics, Supervisor Anthony Botelho pointed out that the county received a petition signed by 400 residents in support of the zoning change, which he said had been a three-week process.
“In the campaign effort, [it] was misleading. They made a lot of people think they were voting on something they weren’t voting on,” Botelho said. “Measure K was never about development of any of the nodes on 101 or anywhere else in the county.”
Supervisors also approved a reimbursement agreement with the owners of the Betabel node for $37,000 related to planning, consulting and legal costs incurred by the county through Nov. 30, according to the agenda packet.