In 2013, San Benito County put on a hard hat and got to work on the future.
There were major construction projects such as the new county courthouse and new Women’s Center. There was the rebirth of a motorcycle rally, and the creation of an Olive Festival and wine and beer stroll. Pinnacles National Monument graduated to the prestige of national park status. And there was a whole lot of talk among leadership ranks – which experienced an extraordinary shakeup in 2013 – about a bevy of multimillion-dollar projects and ideas for the future.
The year, as a whole, was a comeback for the community as it continues on a recovery path in the recession’s wake. The following are 25 of the biggest stories from 2013:
Pinnacles gets promoted
To start the year in January, President Obama signed a bill to upgrade Pinnacles National Monument into a national park. The bill elevated the 26,000-acre monument to make it the 59th national park in the U.S. It is the first national park created by Congress since 2004 and was championed by Congressman Sam Farr, D-Carmel. Local and park leaders followed up with a dedication in February, while a minor controversy sparked over an idea to rename Airline Highway as Pinnacles National Park Highway. Due to discontent from property owners along the route, county supervisors backed off the idea.
General plan’s finish line
The planning process has been long and windy for the new county general plan – a blueprint that guides future growth that reached $1.25 million in costs by mid-year – and 2013 was no different. While supervisors fired a general plan consultant, the document’s environmental review set off debate and led to further disagreement over special study areas – zones for major housing developments – and a provision calling for an 80 percent reduction in cattle herds by 2035, the end of the plan’s term.
San Juan’s feeling salty
In January, it became public that the state’s regional water board ordered San Juan Bautista to pay $116,000 in fines that have collected over the past three years for continuously exceeding a salt discharge cap in the water system. San Juan Bautista paid the fine before a deadline toward the end of December – though the regional water quality control board allowed the city to use $66,500 of the amount toward infrastructure upgrades that are necessary to curtail salt levels.
Oil exploration heats up
The issue of oil and gas drilling came to the San Benito County Board of Supervisors in the early part of 2013 after a group of Aromas residents became concerned about potential hydraulic fracturing in their community on the western side of the county, on property owned by Graniterock. An oil company initially sparked concern in the summer of 2012 when it conducted surveying in the western portion of the region. Community members in opposition formed a group called Aromas CARES. After some heated debate among residents and officials, supervisors in May adopted new rules and a scaled-back cleanup bond amount of $15,000 for up to 36 oil wells.
Four times the fame
After Ashley Adams and her husband gave birth to their quadruplets in August 2012, CNN featured the family and additional challenges faced when the mother learned – during her high-risk pregnancy – that she had thyroid cancer. In addition to fraternal twins Wyatt and Rylie, the identical twins Braelynn and Samantha shared the same amniotic sac, which can cause additional risks. While the former Hollister resident Adams and the babies are doing well more than a year later – they live in Aurora, Colo., where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Army – they had a surprise visitor who brought a television crew. Dr. Travis Stork from the TV show “The Doctors” arrived at Adams’ doorstep Oct. 20 to kick off two days of filming for the segment that aired in November.
Hollister’s own ‘Idol’
Jesaiah Baer, a San Benito High School junior, whose audition in Long Beach for “American Idol” garnered her some time on the air Jan. 30, was eliminated before the Vegas round of auditions. Baer’s audition was one of the more memorable ones of the early weeks of the show. While Baer’s syncopation and jazzy rendition of Kimbra’s “Settle Down” earned her rave reviews from the celebrity judges, it was the fire alarm that went off in the middle of her audition on the Queen Mary in Long Beach and her reluctance to the leave the stage that earned her more airtime. She was memorable enough that the judges invited her to the next round of the competition in Hollywood.
Housing market makes gains
The housing developer Del Webb made a return to San Benito County in February when the company agreed to develop housing units on property at San Juan Oaks Golf Club. The company began a feasibility study to build on 500 acres at San Juan Oaks. If built, the community would consist of 1,000 homes and cater to active adults, ages 55 or older. The company had proposed a larger development plan in 2006 to build 4,400 units in a seven-year build-out, but the plan was abandoned when voters disapproved building the development. Overall, it looks as though developers such as Del Webb are once again interested in San Benito County as housing has improved nationwide. The year has seen a gain in median home-sale prices in the county as well as a decline of foreclosure filings since the market took a hit several years back.
Fire consolidation deemed success
In April, in an effort to save money, city and county officials voted to consolidate city and county fire departments. The City of Hollister and Calfire agreed to bring back a permanent fire station in the north county and a plan to provide services in south county within a year. The deal, which will cost the county $1.1 million annually, has largely been viewed as a success since it began. The contract was implemented at the end of June. The county’s move to the city contract ended a nearly 60-year relationship with Calfire as the provider of fire services.
Home for a hometown troop
This past April, volunteers and members of the Homes for Our Troops organization identified a plot of land in Hollister to build the severely disabled Iraq veteran a specialized home to meet his physical needs after he lost both of his legs in an improvised explosive device explosion in August 2011. In May, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the site of the home in eastern Hollister. In September, volunteers from the community helped lay sod and plant trees for the nearly completed home. Last week, Sgt. Brian Jergens, his wife Jennifer and their new-born child Jackson officially moved into the home after he received a key to it.
Ex-deputy returns to face charges
In June, former San Benito County Sheriff’s Office deputy Jason Lei was arrested upon his return to the U.S. from the Philippines over allegations he embezzled from the deputies union. The former union treasurer left the country in 2010 as the Hollister Police Department investigated the accusations. In October, Lei was sentenced to 240 days in county jail and three years probation for embezzling nearly $13,000 from the sheriff’s office deputies union while serving as treasurer. He had pleaded no contest in August and accepted a plea deal. He faces deportation from the country when his jail sentence and probation are up because he is not a U.S. citizen.
Solar lawsuit resolved
The San Jose-based Sixth District Court of Appeal in June ruled in favor of solar energy company PV2 Energy and against environmental groups that had opposed building a 339-megawatt solar farm in southeastern San Benito County. The solar project originated in 2009 by solar company Solargen, but after the company went under, PV2 Energy and Duke Energy Renewables formed a joint venture to take on the project. San Benito County and Solargen were originally sued by Save Panoche valley and the Santa Clara Audubon Society in 2010 after the county approved the project. The project was slated to start construction at the end of 2013, but because of state and federal environmental regulations, construction has been delayed until the end of 2014.
Biker rally returns
In 2013, council members approved the revival for the annual motorcycle rally. It was the first rally since 2008, when the city canceled the event due to skyrocketing security costs. In 2013, with a slimmed-down security budget and a hired manager, the event brought in $140,000 for the city and gave a boost to the local economy.
City’s first charter school
In August, the Hollister Prep School charter school began its inaugural year at R.O. Hardin Elementary School. The district approved the charter petition and was required to provide space to the charter school after Proposition 39 was passed by voters in 2012 requiring local school districts to allow access to facilities for charter schools that are “reasonably equivalent” to other classrooms. In November 2012, the Hollister School District board had approved Gilroy-based Navigator Schools’ petition to start the charter school. The Morgan Hill Unified School District is weighing a similar petition from Navigator Schools.
Alejo and Cannella stay busy
It has been a busy year for both Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, and Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. Both representatives, whose districts include San Benito County, saw major initiatives signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. In September, Brown signed into law a minimum wage hike introduced by Alejo in the state assembly – a bill that would hike California’s minimum wage to one of the highest in the nation by 2016. Also in September, the governor signed a bipartisan bill sponsored by Alejo, and cosponsored by Cannella in the Senate, to allow any immigrant to apply for a driver’s license, regardless of immigration status. In October, the governor also signed a bill by Cannella that would criminalize the use of revenge porn, the posting of pornographic images online with the intent to harass or annoy somebody.
New leadership takes hold
In 2013, many top officials in the city and county came and went. Mayor Ignacio Velazquez won the election for the bid to be Hollister’s first at-large mayor. Within city ranks after Velazquez came on board, Hollister has experienced significant turnover in several positions, with the departure of the former city manager, former city attorney and former top finance official. Additionally, Hollister has a new police chief in David Westrick. Over at the county, the most glaring change was hiring a new county administrative officer, Ray Espinosa, after some debate while he was acting CAO over his lacking college credentials.
Ambitious county park plan
The plan for a county regional park – put together based on input gathered from the community since 2012 – comes with a $37 million to $40 million price tag that would include all the amenities desired by residents and members of an advisory committee.The master plan of the river parkway focus area, a portion of the 20-mile proposed river parkway from the Fourth Street Bridge to Hospital Road, includes the regional park. After hosting public meetings and working with an advisory committee of 21 people, the master plan for the regional park calls for 17 primary features such as a climbing wall, a public swimming pool, a BMX track and nature trails.
Wine, olives celebrated
In October, there were two inaugural events in the county. The Hollister Downtown Association partnered with an array of businesses to host the first Downtown Wine & Beer Stroll. Many volunteer organizers from businesses and other groups hosted the inaugural San Benito Olive Festival the following weekend at Paicines Ranch.
Water rates take a hike
Starting next year, Hollister residents will see significant increases to their water bills over the next five years after officials gave approval to the Hollister Urban Area Water Project. The new rate hikes in the Hollister and Sunnyslope water districts will pay for $30 million in capital costs and millions more – the county water district is throwing in $10 million in upfront cash – in ongoing maintenance on a series of projects. Those projects have goals of removing contaminants, lowering salt content and appeasing state regulators who have threatened major fines against the city for failing to meet quality standards. For about eight years, officials with area governments have been devising the Hollister Urban Area Water Project. It includes several infrastructure upgrades – including a new West Hills Treatment Plant to target improvements on the city’s west side – meant to bring the community in line with state and federal standards, primarily those related to disinfection byproducts and carcinogens as laid out in federal legislation, the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Holiday meals in limbo
Following the announcement in November that this would be the final year of the tradition – board members Larry Brown and Jason Noble cited that the group members were aging and wanting to spend holidays with family – other existing board members are stepping forward and committing to the effort beyond 2013. Longtime Holte volunteer Ruben Lopez notified the Free Lance that he and other board members, including Edwardo Servin and Kirk Tognazzini, planned to help organize the dinners in 2014. Lopez said the League of United Latin American Citizens also expressed interest in helping and that its officials were concerned about the possible end to the annual dinners. The late Marley Holte and his wife started the dinners in the mid-1980s when they decided one year to put together a meal for others instead of buying each other Christmas gifts. Holte continued running the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals at Sacred Heart’s gym – they have drawn hundreds of people annually and reached a peak of 1,000 one year – until his passing in 2006.
Fire destroys businesses
On Dec. 8, firefighters on the early Sunday morning battled the blaze at Neighborhood Pizza, Larry’s Liquors and the Dollar Tree, while they prevented it from spreading farther to nearby stores such as the Goodwill, Spudnut bakery, the Wash House Laundromat or Round Table Pizza. Authorities and insurance representatives are continuing to investigate the cause of the blaze. Neighborhood Pizza’s co-owner has expressed hope that the business may be able to reopen in the early months of 2014.
Women’s Center opens doors
Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital opened the first floor of its new Women’s Center in December and also delivered its first baby. Construction of the 42,000-square-foot Women’s Center at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital is mostly funded by Measure L, which gained 77 percent of voter approval in 2005. Fundraising continues to help finance equipment and other amenities for the Center. The second floor of the Center, slated for a spring 2014 opening, will house women’s diagnostic imaging services. “Like” the Hospital’s Facebook page to keep up-to-date on the latest information at Hazel Hawkins and the new Women’s Center.
School bonds on horizon
In November, the San Benito High School Board of Trustees and the Hollister School District both considered the possibility of placing new bond measures on the ballot for the 2014 elections. Both bonds would charge $30 per $100,000 home value on households to help fund new facility upgrades for schools in the city and county. It is the maximum amount the districts can charge by law. If approved next year, the measures would raise $39 million for renovations for each district. The school boards will make decisions on the bond issue by March of next year. If the bonds are approved by voters, actual construction will not begin for another three to four years.
Earthbound Farm sold
In December, the San Juan Bautista-based organic vegetable company was sold to WhiteWave Foods Co., based out of Denver. WhiteWave acquired the company for $600 million in cash from co-founders Drew and Myra Goodman, who started the company in Carmel Valley in 1984. They moved to San Juan Bautista from Watsonville in 1996. Earthbound Farm is San Benito County’s largest employer, with a workforce of 1,200 employees.
Courthouse ready to open doors
Started in the spring of 2012, the new San Benito County Courthouse is almost completed and will begin operations in late January or early February. The $33-million dollar facility was the subject of controversy in the fall when the state, which financed the facility, would not commit to approving funds for additional security personnel for the 42,000-square-foot facility. In December, the board of supervisors agreed to direct staff to work with state officials to secure funding for security personnel for $400,000 a year.
Business, era say goodbye
After 65 years in business, Penny Wise Drug Co. in downtown Hollister announced in December that is set to close for good in the coming weeks. Penny Wise is known for its throwback personal service, quirky gifts and convenient supply of staple goods. The iconic downtown Hollister shop owned by the Rosati family is the latest in a string of long-standing family businesses to announce a closure in recent years. Others have included such businesses as Muenzer’s Cyclery and Sports Center, in business for 102 years before closing early this year, and Maddux Jewelry, which operated for 66 years before closing three years ago. Penny Wise has been owned and operated by members of the Rosati family since 1948.
In 2013, San Benito County put on a hard hat and got to work on the future.