Sometimes the line between city official and citizen can be a bit blurry where Ignacio Velazquez is concerned. But it really doesn’t seem to matter to him when it comes to the future growth of Hollister, because as its mayor, and as a citizen, he will tell anyone who is willing to take the time to listen to his views on growth. Velazquez held his most recent town hall meeting, first on Facebook, where some 400 people chimed in with their opinions, and then at The Vault downtown, where 15 or so showed up to talk to him face-to-face.
“Growth is very important for this community, but doing it right is the most important part and I think we’re doing it wrong,” he began and then asked what the group’s concerns were. The first concern voiced by more than one person was about Highway 25, and if anything would ever be done about the growing congestion.
Roberta Daniel, president of the Cielo Vista Homeowners' Association, said she and her husband, Brian, moved to Cielo Vista (corner of Fairview Road and Airline Highway) 12 years ago to get out of Hollister and into the county to escape the sprawl of the city. She said the nearby open land, formerly a 53-acre organic farm, is slated to be developed with 217 homes.
“Our view, which is mountains and a farm, is going to be houses with a 20-foot setback to our fence line,” she said. “We’re very upset about that as a community.”
Brian Daniel added, “We bought those lots knowing that the ones behind us would be developed someday as one-acre lots. That’s what it is zoned for. Now they want to put four or five houses on an acre.”
“They submitted a plan to the county a year ago,” Roberta Daniel continued, “and the county planning commissioners reviewed the plans and said it really wasn’t in keeping with the country lifestyle and they asked for a lot of concessions from the builder.”
She said the builder has made some concessions, including increasing some lot sizes and changing the road entering the development to Airline Highway from a proposed entrance through Cielo Vista to Fairview Road. She said, though, even more homes were been added to the plan.
“All those people will have to travel through town to get over to Highway 25,” Brian Daniel said.
Roberta said that she and her husband were not opposed to growth and they don’t want it to appear that they were in favor of denying the builder the right to develop the property, but they don’t want the zoning to be changed so it will not reflect the country atmosphere of the Cielo Vista neighborhood. She seemed to hope that the city would turn down the developer’s request to annex the land.
Hollister resident Mark Medina, who is set to campaign for the supervisor seat being vacated by the retiring Margie Barrios, said he’s seen it all before.
“I’ve watched the developers walk all over us,” he said.
Big developers, he said, are building in the city and county regardless of the lack of infrastructure or schools or roads.
“Fairview is not really the city’s issue, but it really has to be somebody’s issue because it’s the only other way out back there for a lot of these people, especially since east of Fairview growth and they keep annexing all this stuff in,” he said.
One woman said she isn’t looking forward to a new development about to start near her home on Maple Street and Chappell Road.
“We don’t have the streets, we don’t have the sewers, we don’t have the police or the schools,” she said. “If there are 50 more medium-density houses across the street from me, the traffic is going to be horrendous.”
Another woman said she moved to Hollister two years ago from Campbell and the commute to San Jose has increasingly worsened and the off-ramp from Highway 101 to 25 has gotten more dangerous. She said she has seen more and more traffic accidents and fatalities in the two years since moving to Hollister. The first woman said her drive from Hollister to where she works in Watsonville has also become more dangerous.
Velazquez said everyone talks about these types of concerns on Facebook, but few show up at city council or supervisor meetings where they might have an impact.
“So, when it comes up to a vote, it (annexation) goes through every time,” he said. “I’m not saying anything about the council members, but I express time after time to back up a second because we’ve seen this before. We’ve got to smooth it out so we can plan better. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in trouble.”
The mayor said, despite what many in the area think, there is no issue where sewage and water are concerned. He said the real issue is, who or what do the citizens want Hollister to become. He said the problems the city faces today are because of what happened years ago.
“We went through a boom and they (city and county) spent a lot of money on promises to the workforce,” he said. “Eventually, you don’t have enough money to cover all the promises, but a government has to keep the promises, which created a lack of maintenance on our roads and our infrastructure.”
Velazquez said there have been some improvements thanks to the Measure E sales tax that boosted the city’s sales tax rate to 8.5 percent, which he said generates about $4.5 million a year. He said the city is now in positive territory thanks to the tax. His hope is to pay down all debt so the city can start improvements of infrastructure and quality-of-life projects, such as an aquatic center or new library.
“We’re making progress, but I’m starting to see a turn that concerns me,” he said. “I wanted to dedicate that money to fixing this water line (down San Benito Street) that keeps breaking. That’s a $45 million project. I wanted to fix all the roads, which is a $40- to $60-million project. Those are the goals we need to focus on, but when we lose our focus we start chasing shiny objects, like more houses means more money. That’s sort of true, except it costs you more money down the line. But if you plan correctly it could enhance your community.”
Velazquez told the group about a recent meeting he attended concerning 180 homes for seniors that would be built along Valley View Road next to Fire Station #2. He told the developer he would fully support the project because senior homes are different from single-family homes in that they generate tax income in support of schools with no impact on the number of students. He said seniors are, for the most part, winding down in their careers so they don’t commute every day, so they don’t impact traffic as much. And seniors spend more money on quality-of-life venues. He said if the school districts use those dollars from seniors wisely they can build new schools.
But things took a turn when the developer told the city he needed to change the project from a senior project to a single-family project and he “promised” that seniors would still move into the new homes.
“When that flipped, that meant all that potential went out the window,” Velazquez said. “I guarantee you, 90 percent of those homes will be filled with families. That was the night I got really frustrated with the city council and asked why are you going to make the same mistakes as were made in the past? I’ve been voting 'no' on a lot of these projects.”
Roberta Daniel interjected, “At least one of the city council members (Karson Klauer) is a Realtor. That’s kind of a conflict of interest, isn’t it?”
Velazquez said he didn’t want to talk about any council member, but Daniel continued, “If I was a Realtor and there were 90 more houses being built that’s 90 more opportunities for me to sell something. I doubt that person is ever going to vote no to a housing project. It doesn’t make sense to him.”
“You guys are voters and you decide the future, that’s my whole point here tonight,” Velazquez answered, and then cautioned, “I’ve never seen a community that has exploded in growth and come back and say ‘wasn’t that the best idea ever.’ Once it happens, it’s over. We have to plan in a way that makes more sense and understand what the numbers are. Do we want to grow by a 100 units a year, 200, 500, or 1,000?”
He explained the need to understand how various types of homes will affect the overall community, and questioned why development continues outside the city when all the infrastructure is within the city.
Daniel asked how the city can manage growth and how much is needed to attract restaurants and activities. Kevin Stopper pointed out that Hollister is isolated and there needs to be care in how it grows. Velazquez said the fallacy is that businesses can’t thrive in Hollister. He said shopping is different now with people going online and retailers that know where people who shop at their locations come from.
“They know you’re from Hollister,” he said, “so you tell me why they should build a store here. I had a meeting with the mayor of Gilroy and he was bragging about how 70 percent sales are from out of town. My point to you is, if a large percentage of our community starts buying here, as soon as the first store comes in others will follow.”
One woman pointed out that while gas and groceries were easily accessible in Hollister, the selection of what women can buy is, “slim to none.”
Velazquez reminded her that grocery sales do not bring sales tax to the city. He said if people more closely examined how they shop they could find a lot to buy in town. If residents reinvest in the community, he said, the numbers start to change, even with the smallest sales tax compared to Gilroy, which he said is going to increase to 9.5 percent, and Salinas, which is already 9 percent.
“Everywhere else is higher than us, yet we’re not understanding that those dollars spent here make a huge impact,” he said. “Once we see that impact you have to ask do we need the aggressive growth, or can we scale back and keep reinvesting into our community.”
Hollister and San Benito County are prime tourist destinations, Velazquez said, because tourists come, spend their money and leave. He asked whether Hollister should be a tourism community or a bedroom community to Silicon Valley.
“This is why we talk about an aquatic park and baseball fields,” he said. “With baseball fields, you have a tournament and you’re bringing in hundreds of families. They’re going to stay at the hotels, they’re going to eat at the restaurants and then they’re going to go home. That attracts another hotel to come in, another restaurant, more shopping, it feeds on itself.”
The mistake being made, Velazquez said, is to build thousands of homes as quickly as possible. He said the city, county and school districts need to work together, which is not always the case. In particular, every school is overcrowded, in part, because any money they get is used to maintain facilities rather than be saved toward building new schools.
“This is not a problem because of the new homes going up,” he said. “This is an existing deficiency problem that’s only going to get a lot worse. A new school has to be built right now. Who’s going to pay for it to be built? Forget about the developer down the road; right now we’re in the hole. We’ve got to pay for it and you’re going to see that on the ballot in November.”
The problem, Velazquez contended, only gets worse because more than 3,000 homes have already been approved to be built. By state calculations, each home represents 0.4 students, so more schools need to be built. He said an elementary school is comprised of nearly 800 students, which equals 2,000 homes. The impact fees would add up to about $15 million, he said, whereas a new elementary school would cost about $50 million.
“What you end up with is a $35 million problem,” he said of the difference, “and we’re not even talking about high schools, which cost about $150 million. We have these numbers that we have to understand so we can plan better. If we keep saying that is not our problem our schools will continue to be overcrowded and they will start to fail, which means our property values will fail, and our community will fail.”
Velazquez said he needs help getting the message out to everyone that cooperation between the city, county and the school district is so important. He emphasized the message isn’t to hate the idea of new homes, but to plan better and invest in the community, which includes passing the proposed half-cent sales tax expected to be on the ballot this year.
He explained that 50 percent of the tax will go toward improving Highway 25, while 20 percent will go toward new roads within the community, and 30 percent for maintaining and repairing current roads.If the tax passes, Velazquez said he can guarantee every city road will be repaired, but cautioned that the 50 percent going to Highway 25 will not pay for four lanes.
“To fix the 25 from San Felipe Road to the 101 is $300 million,” he said. “It’s $160 million from San Felipe to the county line. After the county line, who pays for it? That’s Santa Clara County. Why would they pay for it? The only reason they would pitch in is because they have their own problem with 152 that they want to link with the 25, which is a $1 billion project.”
Velazquez concluded the hour-and-a-half meeting by encouraging the group to talk to others.
“We have the perfect opportunity to do all of this right now,” he said. “We have to decide how fast we want to grow.”