San Benito County is changing. And while it might feel like it’s sudden to some residents as they watch construction machinery and safety rails along Hwy 156 between Hollister and San Juan Bautista taking over agricultural land, it’s been over 20 years in the making.
Two other transportation projects moving forward are the Hwy 25 widening, between San Felipe Road and the county line, which will eventually go to the Hwy 101/25 intersection and the new trade corridor, which is connecting Hwy 152 to Hwy 25 somewhere in the area of Shore Rd.
Reviewing the many complaints published on social media about the commute in and out of San Benito County, the overall feeling is the projects can’t be completed soon enough.
For example, residents post comments such as, “Widen Hwy 25 already!!!!!!! This is ridiculous!!!! Hollister City Council. Get off your Lazy ass and do something for once!! You put stupid circles and reduce lanes on city streets but yet it takes an hour to get to Gilroy in the morning!!”
But it’s the state, not the county or its cities, that is the lead agency in the project. Yet these projects incur a loss of ag land by local farmers and the community as a whole.
According to the State Department of Conservation, between 1984 and 2016, San Benito County lost 21,674 acres of prime farmland or farmland of statewide importance, a 39% decrease from its 1984 total of 55,614 acres.
According to the USDA, Prime farmland is land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and that is available for these uses.
Caltrans “takes a lot of property from landowners and takes their livelihoods,” said Richard Bianchi, a board member of the San Benito County Farm Bureau, regarding the portions of land being split by state projects. Farmers, he said “can’t rent their ground because it will not be feasible to be farmed.”
According to draft and final environmental impact reports for the three highway projects, between 903 and 998 acres of agricultural land would be bought by the state. Of those, between 711 and 734 acres are considered “prime agricultural land.”
In addition, more than 242 acres are part of the Williamson Act, which are properties involved in contract with the state to restrict its use to agricultural or related open space use.
In 2020, about 569,600 acres out of the 893,440 total acres in the county, or 63.8%, were under the Williamson Act, according to the latest data available on the county’s website.
Former San Benito County supervisor Anthony Botelho said he tried to have Caltrans consider a route closer to the existing Hwy 156, but the county had little say in the matter.
The Board of Supervisors “didn’t really have a vote on the design of the highway so there was really no decision for us,” he said.
Botelho served as a supervisor for 16 years starting in 2005.
The Hwy 156 Improvement Project consists of a four-lane expressway immediately south of the existing alignment. This 5.2-mile project begins in San Juan Bautista at The Alameda and continues just east of the Hwy 156 Business Route (Fourth Street) in Hollister.
According to the environmental impact report, not enough farmland was acquired by the state for the project to warrant the Williamson Act contracts to be canceled.
The adopted Hwy 25 route proposes an alignment that is located west of the existing alignment from San Felipe Road to 0.6 mile north of the proposed Grant Line Road intersection. Just north of the Grant Line intersection, Hwy 25 would cross the existing highway and remain east of it to the end of the route.
The existing Hwy 25 route would serve as a frontage road which would connect to the new highway near the Grant Line and Bolsa Road intersections. The project also includes an overpass on the Hwy 156/25 interchange. Caltrans is currently constructing a temporary turbo roundabout at the Hwy 25/156 interchange to address the high incidence of collisions. It was estimated to cost $10.7 million but Caltrans was recently awarded $13.7 million for it.
At the time of the 2016 draft environmental impact report, the Hwy 25 widening was estimated to cost $230 million. In 2018, San Benito County voters approved Measure G, an additional 1% sales tax, which was expected to raise $485 million. Of those dollars, $242 million was earmarked for the Hwy 25 project; $216 million would go for local roads and $27 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety and mobility.
Among the farmers impacted by the Hwy 156 expansion is Tony Alameda with Top Flavor Farms, and despite losing about 80 acres to the project, he said he hopes the state accomplishes its goal of moving people and produce along the highway in an efficient and safe manner.
“I hope they are as economical as possible in taking natural resources that have been provided in this area, phenomenal ground, weather, growing conditions,” Alameda said. “I hate it being paved over but you can’t stop that progress.”
Top Flavor produces leafy greens such as cilantro, kale and parsley.
At a recent meeting of the Council of San Benito County Governments (COG), the county’s regional transportation agency, San Juan Bautista City Councilmember and COG Director Scott Freels expressed frustration over the agency being charged an additional $4 million for the project.
“Most of San Juan didn’t want this to happen to begin with because it was going to steal so much ag land,” Freels told a Caltrans representative. “Yeah, it’s an inconvenience right now taking over an hour to get to Hollister but that stop light is what created most of it.”
According to the environmental impact report, the city had passed three resolutions opposing the project before COG and the San Benito County Board of Supervisors identified their preferred route, which was the one adopted by Caltrans. The project is scheduled to be completed in fall 2024.
Hwy 25 is likely to be the next major project in the county. Caltrans has had its eye on it since at least 2001, according to the 2016 environmental report conducted for the route adoption.
“It’s easier to take advantage of farmers than other constituents,” the Farm Bureau’s Bianchi said. “It’s hard to get Caltrans to acknowledge some of that stuff. They say the route is “locked-in” and nobody wants to hear what property owners have to say.”
Agriculture is the largest industry in San Benito County, producing $341 million in gross sales, according to the 2021 crop report, the latest available.
Botelho, said the San Juan Valley is “pretty unique” in that it has good soil, but said the community, including farmers, understands there is a need for an adequate transportation system. However, he said Caltrans’ primary focus is safety.
“Yes, we’re going to have roads, we’re going to have progress, we need adequate transportation systems, but we should also try our best to minimize those types of impacts that infrastructure has on natural resources such as prime farmland,” he said.
Botelho owns a property near Hwy 156 that is not impacted by the project and a 100-acre apple orchard between San Felipe Road and Hwy 152, which may be impacted by the High Speed Railroad project.
For Botelho, Caltrans is not finding a balance between infrastructure and preserving ag land.
“They take vehicle safety above resource preservation,” he said.
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