Mayor goes solo v. 400-block

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez sent a letter “as a private citizen” to the Hollister Planning Commission raising new, personal objections to plans to develop the 400 block of San Benito Street.

The mayor—forced to recuse himself from all discussion and action on the controversial project because his business is next door, and thwarted by the state attorney general in a bid to take the issue to a referendum—warned city planners that the 400 block plan violates several city codes and state environmental rules.

The commission on Feb. 28 rescheduled a hearing about the 400 block until its March 28 meeting.

Velazquez had threatened in September 2017 to sue the city to block the sale of the city-owned redevelopment site, located next to The Vault, a banquet hall owned by Velazquez. Instead, he helped gather signatures and pressed for a 2018 referendum, which last summer was declared invalid by Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

The Feb. 28 letter was sent on the mayor’s behalf by Velazquez’s attorneys, and stated that the project is in violation of several municipal codes and state environmental processes. The letter came from the office of Shute Muhaly and Weinberger LLP in San Francisco.

Plans for a mixed-use residential/commercial building and community foundation office on the 400 block of San Benito street have been in the works for over two years, but continue to stir controversy as parts of the plan move through the city’s approval process.

The city sold the property in 2017 to the Community Foundation for San Benito County and the Del Curto Brothers Development for a lower than an appraised value.

Velazquez now believes the plan violates the city’s zoning ordinances because of the number of units that would be allowed in the mixed-use structure and because proper California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) procedures weren’t completed.

He said the newest developments are just more examples of problems the project has had all along. Velazquez told the Free Lance, “It’s one thing after another—that has been my whole point about this project; something just not right.”

His lawyers are handling the correspondence between the planning commission, but Velazquez maintains he has the right to speak out and voice concern about the project as a private citizen.

“Of course as an individual I have a right to speak,” said Velazquez. “I do not have the right to vote on it or have discussions in City Hall, but I do have the right to speak on it.”

The Del Curto Brothers developers are set to appear at the March 28 commission meeting to discuss their plans to build 22 housing units on the site. At the meeting they will ask for a density housing bonus to allow more units be built in a space that would typically allow only 18. The commission will also decide whether to the units will be condominiums as planned.

The Hollister Planning Commission unanimously approved the site and architectural application for a “philanthropic building” and mixed-use space at the site at a September meeting.

Hollister Planning Manager Abraham Prado said the density housing bonus can be given if the developer plans to build affordable or special needs housing as a part of the project. That is how the developer will deliver on the 22 units that were previously opposed by the council.

With regard to Velazquez’s contention that the project did not have a full environmental review, Prado told the Free Lance that because the project is classified as “infill,” it’s considered CEQA-exempt.

In February the City Council approved plans for the developments use of the Briggs parking structure. As with all votes pertaining to the 400 block, Velazquez abstained.

The Community Foundation for San Benito County and the Del Curto Brothers Group were approved for a joint development of the site in 2017. The community foundation intends to build a philanthropic building for a new headquarters and for offices of county non-profit organizations. The Del Curto Brothers Group is set to build a three-story commercial and mixed-use structure next door.

Planning Department Director Bryan Swanson said it was not common for the planning commission to receive the kind of letter Velazquez sent to the commision, but added, “Any citizen can submit any letter that they choose.”

Swanson and Prado said the Planning Commission will be responding to the contents of the letter at the March meeting.

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