Council rejects mayor’s 400-block appeal

In a raucous three-hour debate before an overflow audience punctuated by tears, shouts and legalese, the Hollister City Council voted 3-1 on June 3 to allow a multi-purpose development plan in the center of downtown to move forward.

The council vote upheld a planning commission decision on the 400 block and rejected an unusual appeal by Mayor Ignacio Velazquez.

Velazquez, sequestered outside of the council chambers throughout the debate because of a potential conflict of interest, had filed the appeal “as a private citizen.” His lawyer presented arguments that the city had acted illegally when it approved plans for two buildings on the vacant “400 block” at San Benito and Fourth streets.

The vote played out as expected, with council member Rolan Resendiz, a frequent Velazquez ally, offering the vote against upholding the planners’ decision. Council members Marty Richman, Honor Spencer and Carol Lenoir voted to reject the appeal.

Velazquez said June 4, the morning after the meeting, that he was not surprised about the outcome of the vote, but that he believed he had public support for his position.

“If they were so confident in their decision, they would let it go for a [public] vote,” Velazquez said in an interview. He said he is consulting with his lawyers before he decides what he will do next.

The proposed development will build a headquarters for the Community Foundation of San Benito County, with room for several non-profits, and a large multi-use building of first-floor retail/office space and two floors of apartments.

The foundation president, Gary Byrne, told the council that he had been told by Velazquez that he wanted to use the abandoned lot as a beer garden for the Vault, a banquet hall owned by the mayor next to the development site.

In an interview with the Free Lance, Velazquez disputed Byrne’s account. “This is how they keep trying to misrepresent things,” said Velazquez. “I’ve said this time and again: This should be a community plaza.”

Byrne told the council that he believed Velazquez intended to sue the city to get the project canceled, and vowed to continue to fight back to get the projects on the property that the foundation and De Curto Brothers developers purchased from the city in 2017.

“The mayor is going to sue the city of Hollister,” Byrne told the council. “And the Del Curto Brothers and the Community Foundation are going to pay the bill—but we don’t care because we’re committed to downtown.”

At an April 11 special meeting of the city Planning Commission, the commission had approved a tentative map for Del Curto brothers condominiums, the vacation of Briggs Alley that separates the site for the Community Foundation and the Del Curto project and a density housing bonus, which would allow four extra units be built for low-income and very low-income rates.

The mayor’s lawyers arguments at the June 3 appeal hearing centered on the city’s decision to allow more housing units.

Velazquez’s lawyer, Edward Schexnayder, of Schute, Mihaly and Weinberger, told the council  that the Community Foundation and the Del Curto development mixed-use space were split up into two projects when advantageous to the planning staff, then later combined to one project. Schexnayder said that his law firm sent a letter on Velazquez’s behalf to the planning commission, pointing out the switch, which resulted in the language in the density housing bonus being changed to reflect a single project.

Planning Manager, Abraham Prado, confirmed that the application language was changed sometime between the March and April planning commission meetings, after the staff had received the letter from Velazquez’s lawyers. Prado argued that the Community Foundation offices and Del Curto mixed-use building have always been referred to as phase one and phase two of the project.

Phase one is the construction of building for the Community Foundation of San Benito County and several non-profit agencies, including the online news operation it funds, Benitolink. Phase two is a mixed residential/commercial building owned and developed by the Del Curto Brothers of Hollister, with residential units and six ground-floor commercial sites, both of whom would rely on parking in an adjacent structure.

There were 16 speakers at the council meeting, and all but one favored the project moving forward. A lawyer for the Del Curto Brothers, Kristina Lawson, said she specializes in land-use, environmental and municipal law. She claimed that Velazquez was appealing the project for personal gain. “The city aggregated this site so that it could be developed and planned as one parcel,” Lawson told the council. “The fact that the project was going to proceed in two different phases, that doesn’t make it two different project sites for planning services.”

Several speakers tied to the project or former government officials, like former mayor, Gordon Machado, also spoke in support of the project. They argued the space had been vacant for too long and said the project would be a great addition to Hollister’s downtown corridor.

A few speakers began to get choked up when speaking about the project. When Mayor Pro Tem, Marty Richman responded to the assertion by Velazquez’s lawyers that the project violated state and municipal law, tears filled his eyes.

“You all know me,” Richman said in his remarks, his voice breaking. “I’m thinking about the law and what I fought for, for 23 years in the Army, and I’m telling you it’s very important to me.”

When Resendiz took jabs at his fellow council members, calling their decision “emotional, illogical and irrational,” council members Honor Spencer and Carol Lenoir got visibly upset, attempting to pound the gavel at points during Resendiz’s comments.

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