Ballot drive for November seeks to preserve San Benito County agricultural land

Local residents opposed to “sprawl development” filed paperwork Wednesday morning to begin collecting signatures for an initiative that would put San Benito County voters in charge of agricultural land rezoning for the 29 years.

The initiative will require signatures from 2,060 registered voters to place the question on the November ballot.  

“We have little doubt we can do that,” Aromas and San Benito County resident Andrew Hsia-Coron said.

Hsia-Coron was a leader of the successful 2014 anti-fracking campaign in San Benito County. His group, Preserve Our Rural Communities, collected 3,284 valid signatures to force the March 3 Measure K vote on four commercial nodes along Highway 101 west of Hollister.

A “no” vote on Measure K will prevent the commercial rezoning of the four nodes, but only for a year, Hsia-Coron explained. 

“Our initiative is based on the successful and court-tested approaches used by Napa, Sonoma and Ventura counties,” he said.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho was quick to condemn the initiative that would strip supervisors of their zoning powers. “Wow!” he said when he learned of the Feb. 5 filing.

”That just blows me away,” he said. “One of the primary reasons we have elected officials is to make big, important decisions on complex matters. It affects property rights. It affects levels of service. It’s the most ill-conceived thing I ever heard of in my life.”

“If you don’t like the decisions elected officials make, you recall them or vote them out of office,” Botelho said.

Advocates of the initiative believe that local government has listened to developers at the expense of residents. 

“When the General Plan was adopted in 2015, our supervisors largely ignored the public’s concerns and approved a general plan that encourages sprawl development in north San Benito County,” initiative backers wrote in their draft filing.

“San Benito County voters want more say in local land use decisions,” the 68-page filed statement continues. “Many residents are unhappy with our county’s eagerness to approve sprawl developments at a time when our infrastructure (roads, water, schools, etc.) and services (sheriff and fire) are inadequate.”

Five candidates are seeking to replace Botelho, who is not seeking reelection. Former Free Lance editor Kollin Kosmicki is the only one of the five who supports the voter initiative to preserve agricultural lands and opposes the commercial nodes that Measure K would authorize. He says he’s been out speaking with residents, and they’re “fed up” with the amount of growth. “I see a wave of momentum on the ‘no’ side” on Measure K, he said.

“The public feels they’ve been dismissed by elected officials who are making these decisions,” Kosmicki said. “The public is clearly in favor of slower growth. We have to do what we can to slow down growth around here.”

Even if he becomes a supervisor, he likes the idea of democratizing land-use decisions. 

“It never hurts to go to the public and ask what they think about it,” Kosmicki said. 

Supervisor candidate Frank Barragan hasn’t taken a position on Measure K. 

“I’m not picking sides,” he said when reached Feb. 5.

As for the new proposal to let voters rather than supervisors handle agricultural rezones, Barragan’s not convinced it’s a good way to go. 

“That takes away the landowner’s rights, and I don’t think that’s right,” he said. 

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