The years-long and costly journey to build a project in San Benito County

Explaining the steps involved in winning approval for a development.
Out of 50 applications 18 major projects will be coming before the board of supervisors within a few months. Photo by John Chadwell.

This article walks the reader through the existing process a citizen or business goes through before construction begins on a building project in the county. By understanding the steps involved in the current system, readers will be able to have a better understanding of what is being proposed by the game-changing Let Voters Decide How San Benito County Grows Initiative voters may be facing on Nov. 8.

Abraham Prado, Resource Management Agency assistant director of planning and building, told the San Benito County Board of Supervisors at its June 14 meeting there are now 18 major developments scheduled to come before them over the next few months. Some have been in the pipeline for years. 

BenitoLink met with Prado to discuss the supervisor approval process. It is a daunting, time-consuming and expensive journey.

Since every project is different, the discussion was based on a hypothetical project with minimal environmental issues and how it would move through the planning process.

Prado said every project goes through the same development process, the main difference being the complexity of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) study and if there needs to be an environmental impact report (EIR).  

The first step in the normal supervisor approval process, he said, would be for the applicant or their team of engineers, architects or lawyers to present the project proposal at a pre-application meeting to the Resource Management Agency (RMA). After the meeting the team would incorporate any county requirements, and after that they would return to the RMA with a formal application. The time between meetings would depend entirely on how fast the applicant’s team can prepare the formal application and bring it back to the county.

After the formal application is submitted, the county has 30 days to review it and respond with a notice of completeness. As the lead agency, Prado said the county would begin working on the draft CEQA study to determine if the project is exempt or what significant impacts it might have that must be mitigated. This would trigger an EIR.

The applicant will incur all costs of the CEQA and a scope of work for an EIR that can range from $150,000 to $300,000, plus any mitigation costs. He said there is a 30-day review period for the CEQA and a 45-day period for agencies to respond to the EIR. There would be public hearings for 10 days to a year for comments after the final EIR is completed.

Prado said the time to prepare an EIR depends on how long it takes to prepare all of the environmental topics and additional criteria that are expected to be evaluated in the EIR. 

“These include, but are not limited to aesthetics, agriculture/forestry resources, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, energy, geology, soils,” he said. “It is not uncommon to take one year or more to complete a draft EIR.”

He said the final EIR is sent back to the various agencies for responses for a minimum of 45 days.

Depending on feedback from government agencies such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the responses from the applicant concerning the final EIR, there would be a 10-day public hearing process that begins with the Planning Commission. Prado said a “notice of preparation” is published in the newspaper and a 300-foot notice, consisting of signage, would be set up at the site of the project. The Planning Commission can approve the EIR but can only recommend the project to the Board of Supervisors. 

Neighbors and anyone who has requested notification of the project are notified by mail of the 45-day public review period of the draft EIR. The minimal distance is 300 feet, Prado said,

“The notice along with the draft EIR can be found online in the lead agency’s website, in the County Administration Office, Recorder’s Office, the San Benito County Free Library and at the Resource Management Agency,” he said. “The notice is also published in a newspaper of general circulation, and it is provided to the email distribution list that the county has on file for persons that are interested in receiving notification.” 

If members of the public have missed all of these notices, plus the large signs posted around where the project will be built, they will be surprised when they finally do hear that a project, such as Amazon, has been approved.

Prado said after the Planning Commission’s recommendations, residents have 10 days to appeal the county’s decision. The appeals would go before the supervisors for consideration in public hearings. If the appeal is found to be warranted the staff must respond to the concerns, then submit recommendations to the supervisors. If someone wants to appeal, there is a fee of $1,192 plus $134 an hour for the staff to process it. Because the fees are calculated to cover the staff’s time they are not refundable should the person win the appeal.

If the EIR is approved, Prado said there would be a separate resolution to approve the project. After the supervisors approve the project the applicant can begin working on the project by submitting grading plans and requesting building permits.

In this scenario, once the supervisors approve the project Prado said there are no further appeals, but there may still be opportunities to contest their decision.

From beginning to end, a project can take a minimum of three years before going to the Board of Supervisors for approval. But it could all be moot in the present climate of slow-growth initiatives and referendums. Even if the supervisors retain their control, a referendum can upend all the work that went before. 

“A referendum can be used to challenge any legislative act, such as a general plan amendment or the adoption of a zoning ordinance,” Supervisor Bob Tiffany told BenitoLink. 

A referendum would go to the state attorney general to decide if it qualifies for the ballot. If it goes on the ballot the voters will decide the fate of the project. 


Related BenitoLink stories:

San Benito County Supervisors delay decision on growth initiative

Strada Verde returns 

Nodes, the part they play in county general plan and how that could change

Elections Office unofficially verifies signatures for growth Initiative 

Majority of SBC Supervisors say proposed ballot initiative will stall revenue 

Bob Tiffany calls for more commercial revenue and opposes slow-growth initiative

County holds scope meeting to inform public on Strada Verde Innovation Park 

Slow growth or no growth would be up to voters under proposed initiative 


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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected].