The Strada Verde initiative was once again the cause of a dispute between the San Benito County Board of Supervisors and EMC Planning Group, Inc. at the board’s Aug. 18 meeting, as the land use planning firm submitted a report that the county called biased. Both parties agreed to work together to resolve inconsistencies before publishing the report, which analyzes the Strada Verde project’s various impacts, including fiscal, economic development, land use, and its compliance with the county’s general plan, per Elections Code 9111.
The Strada Verde Innovation Park, proposed near Highways 25 and 101 along the Pajaro River, would encompass 2,777 acres, including open land with a 2.4-mile trail; a business center with a hotel, retail shops and restaurants; and an automotive technology and research center with automobile testing tracks.
“There’s all these different elements that are being brought into the equation that really are outside of the support of the supervisors anyways, so I don’t understand why this is even moving forward with all the details that we’re getting into,” Supervisor Peter Hernandez said. “I feel like EMC failed us intentionally or there is something happening behind the scenes trying to kill this project and I don’t understand why.”
At the Aug. 18 meeting, Assistant County Counsel Joel Ellinwood said the report was being presented to the board because of an Aug. 20 deadline. San Benito County Counsel Barbara Thompson said the county received the latest report draft on Aug. 13. She also said legal counsel and EMC had gone back and forth on addressing concerns from the county.
Ellinwood and Thompson questioned aspects of the report, including whether the developer, Newport Pacific Land Company, LLC, had the by-right to begin construction on some specific land uses; its reference to residential development; potential challenges to road access to the project through Highway 101; and the assertion that the first 700,000 square feet of development will not be a net gain to San Benito County.
Thompson said this last issue discounts the economic benefit of the project because it assumes that it will occur somewhere else.
Michael Groves with EMC Planning, who said the initial report was submitted 27 days before the meeting, and Doug Svensson with Applied Development Economics (ADE) defended their report, saying it analyzed everything required by the Election Code 9111, even if it did not pertain to the project, such as residential development. Groves also said that as with this month’s hazard report, EMC’s job was not to solve any issues they encountered but to point out potential challenges to the county so they could address them as they see fit.
He said the report also raises the positive sides of the project.
“If you don’t like the negatives, there is nothing I can do about that. That’s my job,” Groves said. “I have no stake in the matter. Our job is to prepare a balanced report for the voters.”
In response to the concerns raised by the county, Groves also said access to the project from Highway 101 may become an issue because it might not be wide enough and the developer might have to acquire additional land.
On the revenue side, while the county argued any revenue from the project would be a net gain to the community, Svensson said the report looks not only at the acreage being developed, but at the market opportunity, which includes the labor force and market for technology careers over the next 15 years. He said given their analysis of the general plan, which sunsets in 2035, two commercial developments in the county could support 700,000 square feet of their 820,000 square feet market demand projection, which is why ADE argues that the same size development in the Strada Verde project would not be a net gain.
He said the three-page market analysis looked at what’s needed to bring “a better balance” to the county’s labor force and the job base.
“To us, you’re going to get this development. We think it’s right,” Svensson said. “The time is now. Over the next 15 years San Benito is going to get some of this whether or not you have Strada Verde. With the right economic development program this can happen.”
He added that the county is looking at net gain from a fiscal standpoint, while the study is looking at it from the market’s point of view.
Though the meeting focused on items of disagreement, all parties agreed that the initiative was trying to avoid dealing with the Trical Inc. buffer zone recommended in the hazard report. They also agreed about the economic impact the project would have on the county.
Ellinwood said the Strada Verde initiative tries to avoid the buffer zone analysis included in the county’s general plan known as the Health and Safety Policy 6.9, by writing their own finding that states the provisions of the initiative “are in the public interest and are consistent with the general plan, as amended by this initiative.”
“This is the real conflict or potential conflict that, in my opinion, can result in litigation over this project,” Ellinwood said, adding if the public votes in support of the project, “It is the author’s intent to say that [policy] 6.9 no longer applies to this project.”
Groves noted the initiative didn’t write it as an amendment, but as a finding.
“If you guys know what that means, basically they are making a finding for the people of San Benito County that it’s healthy and safe, which is crazy in my mind,” Groves said.
Health and Safety Policy 6.9 was the focal point of the hazard study done by EMC Planning presented to the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 4. The report recommended a 3.5-mile buffer zone from agricultural fumigant distributor Trical Inc. for the proposed autonomous vehicle testing facility.
According to the report’s fiscal analysis, the Strada Verde project would provide $10.7 million in annual revenue to the county at full buildout from sales tax, property tax, transient occupancy and business taxes. The cost to the county is estimated at $2.8 million annually for fire protection, law enforcement and other governmental services.
Additionally, while the county would get $1.3 million annually from the project’s $10.7 million in property taxes, the rest would be distributed among other local agencies such as schools, the hospital district and the San Juan Cemetery District. The project could also generate $6.5 million per year in Measure G funds.
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