In a 3-2 vote, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors opted on March 23 to approve Bristol SB, LLC/Newport Pacific Land Company’s request to move forward with its project application for the Strada Verde Innovation Park. Supervisors Mark Medina and Kollin Kosmicki opposed the request.
Strada Verde’s developer notified the county through a letter dated March 10 that it wishes to proceed with its application through the normal planning process, and asked the county to review and decide on it based on its merits.
The project, proposed in last year’s Measure N initiative, which was rejected by San Benito County voters, included the rezoning of 2,777 acres near the Santa Clara/San Benito County line along Highway 25 from agricultural and rangeland to the Strada Verde Innovation Park Specific Plan. The project was touted as an autonomous vehicle testing facility that also allowed restaurants, hotels, medical offices and religious uses.
Though Measure N failed with voters, that outcome has no effect on the project application submitted to the county in 2019. As a result of the supervisors’ March 23 decision, Strada Verde will go through the traditional planning process, including public hearings before the San Benito County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, after which the project will be approved or denied.
County staff presented the Board of Supervisors with three options at the March 23 meeting: allow the developer to complete its application and go through the traditional process; consider an early denial after the application is completed; or direct staff to establish an early screening process prior to review by the Planning Commission.
With the application still incomplete, Assistant County Counsel Joel Ellinwood said applications don’t have to meet any timelines and that the county won’t know what the project will look like until the applicant submits all necessary documents.
“We have no idea when they’re going to come up with a new proposal,” Ellinwood said. “They said they were going to do a new proposal. We have no idea what it is and so there is nothing to process at this point.”
Supervisor Peter Hernandez said he was concerned about options two and three because it “reeked” of discrimination toward the project.
“I want to make sure that what we are doing is just, and trying to come up with a process that really tells them, ‘You cannot apply,’ you might as well tell them, ‘As far as we’re concerned we don’t want you and we’re going to discriminate against you versus everybody else that wants to apply through the normal process,’” Hernandez said.
Medina said coming up with a process for early review was nothing new, and that he has attempted to establish one because there were past instances when big developers tried to shame the county into approving projects by pointing to all the money they had spent on the process, such as applications and environmental studies.
“I did bring this up in 2018 when we had John Guertin,” Medina said of the former Resource Management Agency director who resigned unexpectedly in 2019. “He didn’t follow through. My fault. I should have been on him more.”
Scott Fuller, Strada Verde spokesman, said at the March 23 meeting that the traditional planning process allows projects to apply community input, something he said was not possible through the initiative process.
“That will allow us to educate the public and take their input and have that input adjust our project,” Fuller said. “We believe this is an excellent project that fills a huge role economically for the county and so we would like to prove ourselves by going through the normal process.”
Fuller added that the developer opted for the initiative process through Measure N in response to local activist group Preserve Our Rural Communities’ (PORC) initiative effort that would have required land use changes to be approved by a popular vote. PORC did not gather the required signatures for that initiative.
Ellinwood said the difference between the traditional application and the initiative was that projects typically evolve through various public hearings. In his explanation of the benefits of the traditional process, he said that based on public safety concerns over the Trical, Inc. chemical distribution plant, there are rumors that the developer would attempt to buy it and relocate it out of San Benito County.
A red flag for opponents of Strada Verde is Trical, located on Highway 25. The county commissioned a hazard report and two subsequent peer reviews on Strada Verde’s proximity to Trical prior to the Nov. 3 election.
As Medina pushed Ellinwood to clarify his understanding of the rumor and where he heard it from, Ellinwood said it was a hypothetical. He later said it was his understanding from conversations with attorneys of both parties.
Supervisor Bea Gonzalez said she too had heard those conversations. County Counsel Barbara Thompson backed Ellinwood, saying the county had not received any official word from the developer regarding Trical.
Fuller told BenitoLink regarding Ellinwood’s buyout comments that “no representative has ever indicated that we plan to move Trical and have never discussed the specifics of the methods that would be used to fully address the environment and health safety concerns of our project.”
He added that the project would not go forward unless all environmental, health and safety issues related to the location are resolved.
Following public comment in which eight residents spoke against the project and one in favor, Supervisor Bob Tiffany warned that he would not vote to approve the project if it did not address the community’s concerns with traffic, employment and safety, despite his strong belief that the project would be beneficial to San Benito County.
“It’s funny, everyone here in our community is celebrating the fact that Amazon is coming to Hollister and yet this project has every bit of a chance to be as important if not more important to the community because, if it came here, it would draw other tech companies into our community,” Tiffany said.
Beyond the potential Strada Verde project, another vehicle research facility known as the Hollister Research Campus is being proposed at the intersection of Highway 156 and San Felipe Road. The Hollister City Council unanimously pre-zoned two properties totalling 229 acres on Oct. 19.
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