A Recology dump truck drops off a load of garbage at the John Smith Road Landfill.

After months of intense community debate over a proposed expansion of the John Smith Road Landfill, the saga has ended with the landfill operator withdrawing from the approval process.

Waste Connections Inc., the San Jose-based operator, through its local subsidiary Waste Solutions of San Benito County LLC, formally retracted its appeal of the San Benito County Planning Commission’s decision to reject the project’s environmental impact report.

“Waste Solutions Group of San Benito County, LLC hereby withdraws its appeal of the County of San Benito Planning Commission’s decision to deny a conditional use permit and to recommend that the Board of Supervisors deny a General Plan Amendment for the above-referenced project,” read the totality of the letter dated March 21.

Waste Connections Vice President Paul Nelson told the Free Lance on April 9 that “this was a business decision” when asked why the appeal was retracted and said there were no plans to appeal in the future.

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors was set to hear the appeal at a March 26 meeting, after the planning commission formally rejected the initial appeal. The planning commission recommended the board of supervisors not certify the environmental impact report for a proposed massive expansion of the landfill, nor re-designate the landfill property for public use.

The single-sentence March 21 letter was an abbreviated ending to an issue that mobilized numerous San Benito County residents to oppose the proposed landfill expansion.

Dump discussions

The expansion was proposed in 2021 by Waste Connections and would upgrade the existing 90-acre John Smith Road Landfill by 388 acres. Additionally, the height of the landfill would increase to 949 feet, dwarfing the surrounding hills.

The landfill, located at 2650 John Smith Road, is in an unincorporated area of San Benito County. Out-of-area hauls make up about 80% of the daily tonnage. Tipping, or dump fees, for out-of-county customers—who consist largely of contractors and other commercial users—are almost $20 less per ton than what is charged to San Benito County residents. Currently, county residents pay about $58 per ton; out-of-county residents pay between $20-$40.

The expansion would “increase the landfill’s capacity, expand the total waste footprint, increase the maximum elevation of the final landfill, increase the maximum permitted daily tonnage from 1,000 tons per day (tpd) to the proposed 2,300 (tpd) or lower tonnage approved by the county, and identify the haul route for commercial trucks,’’ according to a county staff report. 

In September 2023, Waste Connections presented its final EIR to the planning commission, which included the landfill’s impact on local groundwater pollution, noise levels and the impact of increased truck traffic on local roads.

Initially slated for review by the planning commision in a regular meeting, the public outcry over the proposed landfill expansion led the commission to act with deliberation. Three public information sessions were held in late October 2023 to discuss the EIR.

Dozens of residents spoke out against the expansion, including local environmental group Don’t Dump On San Benito.

At the final discussion session on Oct. 30, the commission voted to halt the approval process until January 2024 so that it could study the EIR further. At the time, commission chair Robert Gibson said that they needed to “understand the impacts and what we would be getting in exchange for the impacts.”

Three months later, the planning commission voted to reject the EIR during a Jan. 31 meeting. Additionally, the commission recommended that the county board of supervisors also reject the EIR and a conditional use permit for the landfill in the event of an appeal. Waste Connections subsequently submitted that appeal on Feb. 9. 

While initially set for a March 26 hearing, Waste Connections abandoned the appeal before a decision could be made.

Annette Perez, an organizer with Don’t Dump On San Benito said on April 9 that the group was cautiously optimistic at the moment.

“We are just so thankful to our community for coming to the meetings; speaking their minds; writing the letters; writing their emails. We just feel like the whole community did not want to be a trash can for those five other counties,” Perez said.

Perez also said that the landfill operator did not significantly explore an alternative, smaller expansion option outlined in the project plans. 

Nelson said Waste Connections did plan on presenting this alternative, but that the planning commission’s rejection of the EIR stopped that from happening.

“We were preparing a scaled-down expansion to respond to comments from stakeholders, including the community, and planned to present this scaled-down expansion at a continued planning commission public hearing,” Nelson said. “However, the Planning Commission’s denial of the project prevented our presenting this scaled-down expansion to them. Shortly thereafter we made the decision to pull the appeal.”

Perez feels that the planning commission made a significant effort to field residents’ concerns and consider the impacts of the landfill’s expansion.

“The planning commission really heard our voices and let us speak our minds,” Perez said.

San Benito County is at crossroads with the issue of residential development and population growth. Many residents voice concerns about the county infrastructure’s capacity to take on a larger population density. The recent March 5 primary election saw three slow-growth candidates secure county supervisor seats. 

Nelson declined to say whether this political reality affected the denial of the project.

“We have no basis to speculate about future changes in the county’s political climate,” Nelson said. “We can say that, without a local landfill under local control, county residents will pay substantially higher fees for solid waste disposal. Not to mention, permanent future transfer vehicle traffic will occur to ship the county’s solid waste to another county at a price determined by this other county. In addition, substantially higher fees for disposal will undoubtedly lead to increases in local illegal dumping.” 

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  1. Good for the residence of San Benito. Unfortunately within 13 year they will be dumping their waste in someone elses community and may be at the mercy of someone elses rates to accept their waste, plus the cost to transport it and building and operate a transfer station. A disposal site is a crucial utility needed for expansion and San Benito county has growth plans which may face impacts associated with limited disposal capacity. I anticipate the cost to handle county waste upon closure assuming it was today would be about $110-$130 a ton compared to the current rate which is in the $50’s to handle, transport and pay disposal fees at another facility assuming it goes to Marina, if the haul is further that transport cost would obvious increase. With the cost of services increasing by 2037 this cost could easily be approaching $200 / ton to get rid of waste in San Benito.

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  2. As a member of the planning commission, I certainly recognize that we absolutely need a plan for what happens when the landfill reaches capacity, which will definitely happen in the foreseeable future. I voted against this, though (and against certification of the EIR,) due to the negative impacts, in my opinion, outweighing the potential positives, which were essentially only monetary. I’m not one of those who would say that NO amount of money would outweigh the negative impacts, but I don’t think that the amount of money that we would have received under this arrangement would have outweighed those negative impacts. That said, the need for a plan remains, and it’s “important but not urgent” in the famous quadrant of exigency. Yes, we need to know what we want to do. Yes, we only have a limited time to address this. Yes, it’s important. No, we don’t need to take action *today*. We DO need to keep poking this and revisiting it periodically.

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