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November 26, 2022

Ballot drive seeks to preserve county’s farmland

Proponents submit notice of initiative petition to election officials

A group of local residents is once again attempting to get San Benito County voters more involved in local land use decisions, citing ongoing growth challenges and a history of excessive influence by developers.

On Jan. 31, proponents submitted a notice to circulate a petition for a future ballot initiative titled “Let Voters Decide How San Benito County Grows” to County Clerk Joe Paul Gonzalez’s office.

The initiative, if successful on a future ballot, would require voter approval for the future rezoning of agricultural, rural, rangeland and other open space properties.

“This initiative gives San Benito County voters greater control over land use decisions in order to better protect our agricultural, biological and cultural resources, promote infill development and reduce sprawl development,” the notice states. “We wish to follow the example of citizens in Ventura, Napa and Sonoma counties who adopted similar initiatives over 20 years ago and successfully protected their valuable resources and quality of life.”

The notice is signed by local residents James Leap, Ann Marie Sayers and Margaret Morales Rebecchi.

The initiative is also supported by the environmental group Protect San Benito, formerly known as Preserve Our Rural Communities. The group attempted to circulate a petition for a similar initiative in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was starting, but proponents found it difficult to collect signatures due to concerns over the spread of the virus.

Andy Hsia-Coron, a supporter and organizer for the Let Voters Decide initiative, said there has been “tremendous pressure” for county officials to approve residential and commercial developments on open space land in recent years.

“The consequences are the infrastructure isn’t kept up, there is tremendous traffic and people feel like, in spite of the fact they’ve raised concerns… the supervisors seem to just keep on pushing on and opening the door for these things to happen,” said Hsia-Coron, who was among the residents who delivered the notice to the county office.

He added that not only would the initiative give voters more of a voice, it could also influence developers to be more transparent and detailed in their efforts to build projects on land that is currently farmland or open space.

Hsia-Coron said he expects the initiative to gain broad voter support. He noted that the voters made their voice clear by defeating the Measure N Strada Verde initiative in 2020 with 60% voting against it. That measure would have created the Strada Verde Specific Plan on a 2,777-acre agricultural property in the area of Highways 25 and 101 near the Santa Clara County line.

“We’ve talked to people the last couple years, and there is a very strong sentiment that planning has not gone well in this county and developers have an inordinate voice in what goes on here,” Hsia-Coron said.

The notice filed with Gonzalez’s office adds, “County Supervisors have long ignored voters’ wishes regarding land use. For example, when the 2035 General Plan was drafted, public comments favoring infill development and reduced sprawl development were largely ignored. When voters passed a referendum in March 2020 to stop development along scenic Highway 101, supervisors allowed developers to proceed with a C-1 rezone. After voters defeated, in November 2020, an initiative to develop 2,777 acres of agricultural farm land at Strada Verde, the supervisors gave the developer, in 2021, another chance to gain project approval.”

After the county counsel’s office provides the 31-page initiative with a title and summary, the proponents are required to publish it in the local newspaper. After that, proponents can begin collecting signatures to place the initiative on a future ballot. The initiative requires signatures from a minimum of 10% of the county’s electorate, per California elections law.

After the signatures have been verified and the initiative is certified, the county board of supervisors can vote to place it on a future ballot. The process could take several months before the initiative is scheduled for an election.

Hsia-Coron noted that the initiative would still require county officials to conduct public hearings and other oversight when a developer requests a rezoning of any agricultural, rural or rangeland property. But the ultimate decision on such requests would go to the voters.

He added that the local initiative is based on those approved over the last 20-30 years by voters in Napa, Sonoma and Ventura counties. As a result, those counties have been successful in preserving open space and farmland.

Supporters of the Let Voters Decide How San Benito County Grows initiative gathered outside the county clerk’s office Jan. 31 before submitting a notice of intent to circulate a petition. Photo: Juan Reyes
Michael Moore
Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.

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