Government / Politics

Supervisors Deny Williamson Act Compatibility To Isha Foundation – Updated

Yoga group still has two alternatives to building their center

San Benito County Board of Supervisors denied a request Tuesday to build a yoga center on 62 acres in the hills above San Juan Bautista. The Isha Foundation applied for a compatible use permit under the Williamson Act, which protects agricultural land from being developed for non-agricultural uses. The vote was 4 to 1, with Supervisor Robert Rivas being the lone "Yes" vote.

"I didn't see a yoga and spiritual center as being an agricultural compatible use," said Supervisor Anthony Botelho, who represents District 2, where the center is proposed. "This vote is by no means in opposition or support of what they're trying to do with their property. It is strictly my interpretation of what the Williamson Act allows." 

The Williams Act enables local governments to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. In return, landowners receive property tax assessments which are much lower than normal because they are based upon farming and open space uses as opposed to full market value. The contract on the Isha property is set to expire in 2018.

Critics of the decision say supervisors are ignoring an opportunity to tap in to the booming "wellness travel" movement that could bring tourists and economic development to a county with a nagging unemployment rate and boarded up downtown businesses. They also noted that supervisors have allowed other non-agricultural Williamson Act exemptions including oil and gas drilling and wedding centers. 

"This project would have been a huge benefit for San Juan Bautista and San Benito County," Rivas said. "It's a lost opportunity for a county that has been vocal about the need for more recreational opportunities and tourism."

Rivas said he spoke with residents who live nearby the proposed project and they were disappointed the county rejected the plan. "People told me they called officials in Tennessee, where the Foundation has another yoga center, and that mayor said they are a great organization and a great group of people." The Huffington Post recently named the Isha Foundation's yoga centers as "top wellness destinations" bringing welcomed tourism dollars to cities where they are located. 

"We are very grateful to all the neighbors who joined the meeting to support and speak for the project, most of whom had investigated about Isha Foundation on their own and received positive responses from Mayor and Vice Mayor of McMinnville," said Vani Bahl, an architect and Isha Foundation member. "It was also very encouraging to hear from them that they support our permaculture and organic way of developing this property into an environmentally sustainable ecosystem." Bahl also said that several neighbors and residents from San Juan Bautista signed support, emailed and called supervisors urging them to see the merits of the project and approve this project. 

"It was a surprise for us as some of such uses have been approved before- oil and gas wells; mining and quarrying of rock, sand and gravel; agricultural processing facilities for vegetables; wineries; telecommunication cellular towers and facility; hunting facility; meat processing facility; small home businesses; secondary residential unit for ranch manager or caretaker; and use of existing buildings and grounds for an event center for weddings and parties. Each of these are determined case by case.Yes, it would have been great if we saw the approval yesterday. But a denial is not going to deter us," she added.  

The a 150' by 150' Yoga and Meditation Center is proposed to sit on five acres of the group's 62 acre property on the edge of San Juan Bautista, within the City's sphere of influence, but currently subject to the county's codes and ordinances. Several people addressed the Supervisors during the public hearing, some expressing their concerns and opposition and others speaking in support of the application.

The finding of Compatible Use would have allowed the Foundation to begin the process of applying for building permits. Once the Williamson Act contract expires in 2018, the group will have the option of going through the normal application process with the Building and Planning Department. If they want to proceed immediately, the Isha Foundation has the option of cancelling the Williamson Act contract, which would involve paying 12% of the assessed property value and having to meet certain conditions. 

According to its website, the India-based Isha Foundation is "an entirely volunteer-run international, nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating human potential." It is led by a Sadhguru, a yogi and spiritual leader. The Foundation is headquartered at Isha Yoga Center in southern India and also runs the Isha Institute of Inner-sciences in McMinnville, Tennessee as well as 200 yoga centers around the world.  "Seekers are offered a rare opportunity to pursue their inner journey under the guidance of a self-realized yogi. At the core of the foundation’s activities is a customized system of yoga called Isha Yoga – yoga in its full depth and dimension. Isha’s signature program, Inner Engineering, is scientifically structured to present simple but powerful processes from the yogic tradition, to transcend the limitations of who you are and bring you to higher levels of consciousness. Inner Engineering gives you the tools to create your life the way you want it."

Previous Articles on the Isha Foundation:

Isha Informational Meeting Well Attended

AG Preserve Committee Recommends Compatible Use 

Isha Foundation Plants 1000 Trees in San Juan Bautista

BenitoLink Staff