In a packed meeting chamber, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors heard from supporters and opponents of the rezoning of four commercial nodes during a public hearing on Sept. 10. Supervisors unanimously agreed to take action on the rezoning as part of the 2035 county General Plan on Sept. 24.
The rezoning of four proposed nodes—Betabel, SR129/Searle Road, 101 Livestock and Rocks Ranch—to regional commercial (C-3) is an effort by San Benito County to increase revenue through businesses such as gas stations and hotels that will attract motorists traveling on Highway 101.
Sixteen people voiced their opposition to the rezoning because of concerns over traffic, water supply and loss of agricultural landscape. Many speakers were members of Preserve Our Rural Communities, a nonprofit organization opposed to the zoning changes. PORC members rallied outside just before the meeting with signs urging slow growth and protection of water and land.
This came six days after the county Planning Commission approved amendments to reduce the area for rezoning at the Betabel and SR129/Searle Road nodes by a total of 33 acres.
Opponents also argued that the county needed to conduct an updated environmental impact report mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) prior to rezoning. The last EIR was done in 2015.
“What I’m asking once again is for the Board of Supervisors to follow the legal mandates of the state,” resident Natasha Wist said. “Whenever there is a major zoning change like this from agricultural to commercial, an updated CEQA is required.”
In his presentation to supervisors, EMC Planning Group President Michael Groves said if a development is proposed that is bigger than an acre or if it includes mixed uses, then developers are required to present a master development plan along with a CEQA review.
Local Ohlone leader Ann-Marie Sayers spoke on the impact rezoning and potential development would have on indigenous lands. She said she worked with Caltrans for the widening of Highway 101 near the Rocks Ranch node because it’s a sacred area.
“To destroy sacred areas for commercial, I’m sorry, it’s not acceptable,” Sayers said.
Ben Bingaman, owner of the proposed Rocks Ranch commercial node, said his property is more than five square miles, with the proposed node located over a mile away from indigenous sacred sites. He also addressed a comment from San Juan Bautista resident Jackie Morris about the developments only creating service industry jobs.
Bingaman said that he works with underserved youth and that those jobs are an opportunity for the county to lower its 20% youth unemployment rate. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, San Benito County’s unemployment rate is 5.1% as of July. The unemployment rate for residents between the ages of 16 and 19 in California is 15.2%, according to the California Labor Market Review.
“Maybe those are service jobs. Maybe that is a fast food job,” Bingaman said. “Every day we sit there and talk to them about making the right choices. We say ‘make the right choices,’ but very rarely do we have the opportunity to say ‘we are going to ask you to make the right choice, but also give you an opportunity to make the right choice because you can have a job.’”
Regarding a water park that was proposed for his property, Bingaman said the project was never presented to him and he had no knowledge of it.
Jim Warren, owner of the proposed 101 Livestock commercial node, tried to reassure residents that if money were his only interest, he would have developed years ago, as his property is already zoned for commercial.
“We chose not to do that because we wanted it to look nice,” Warren said. “And if we leave and drive down the road we want to look at 101 Livestock and say, ‘That’s something we helped build.’ We don’t want to look over there and have it look like something that we didn’t want to have anything to do with.”
Warren also said he was not interested in building on his own, and opted to wait on other properties to become a system that can benefit San Benito County.
Supervisor Anthony Botelho called the requirements to develop the commercial nodes “constraining,” in an effort to protect the county’s rural character.
“The goal that I’ve always had as a supervisor has been to protect our rural, agricultural, historical community,” Botelho said. “And this ordinance does exactly that.”
He said while the proposed Betabel node is zoned for mixed use, and previously had a junkyard and illegal cannabis grow contaminating the nearby creek, the owner wants to do something special while preserving the environmental balance of the property.
An opportunity such as the county has with SR129/Searle Road would have been built 30 years ago anywhere else in the state, Botelho said. As for the Rocks Ranch node, he asked why the county can’t use that area for revenue the way Monterey County is doing with the Big Red Barn Fleamarket that is near the ranch.
“If we do not figure out ways to move forward, we’re not sustainable right now,” Botelho said. “We are just flat not sustainable and this board has worked hard for years to try to figure out how to provide better service and fair equity to our county employees. Each of these nodes helps with that incrementally.”
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