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August 8, 2022

Betabel developer updates project plans

Some decry ‘bait and switch’ on future of farm stand

New plans submitted to San Benito County show more details for the commercial development proposed near Highway 101 and Betabel Road—including an expanded variety of uses for the farm stand building that is currently under construction.

The McDowell Charity Trust—the owner and developer of the site at 9644 Betabel Road—submitted a conditional use permit (CUP) application for the 23-acre “commercial node” property in March. Plans include a 5,000-square-foot convenience store, 5,700-square-foot gas station, 2,500-square-foot restaurant, 6,800-square-foot farmstand with restrooms, 125-room hotel, 500-seat amphitheater, outdoor movie screen, parking, visitors center, nature trails, raptor rehab center, retention ponds and other supporting infrastructure.

The county and developer are currently in the process of analyzing the CUP application, and the project will be subject to an Environmental Impact Report, according to county staff.

A CUP is typically requested when a developer seeks to use a property for purposes that are not allowed in the land’s zoning designation. Most of the property is zoned C-1, a commercial designation that applies to four “highway node” properties along U.S. 101 in San Benito County.

The board of supervisors voted 4-1 at the March 22 meeting to approve a “reimbursement and indemnification agreement” with McDowell Trust to process the CUP application. The agreement requires the developer to cover $80,000 worth of application fees and costs, as well as a deposit for a consulting firm to conduct the proposal’s EIR.

The project’s proposed farm stand, which is already under construction, has proved to be a contentious subject. Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki voted against the CUP agreement on March 22. Kosmicki and some members of the public have called the updated plans for the farmstand a “bait and switch.”

Without a CUP, the property’s current zoning would restrict the farm stand to only selling seasonal produce grown on the property, according to county staff. The McDowell Trust—led by Victoria and Rider McDowell—initially submitted a building permit application for the farm stand in February 2021.

But a CUP—subject to a rigorous EIR—would allow additional commercial uses for the farm stand. Herman Garcia, spokesperson for the McDowell Trust, said the project includes five acres of farmland where the owner or tenant would grow produce to sell at the farm stand, but that “wouldn’t even come close to enough produce…to sustain” the facility.

“We’ll be bringing in product from other sources, other farms or other distributors” to sell at the farm stand when it is complete, if the CUP is approved, Garcia said. He compared the 23-acre overall proposal to Casa de Fruta on Highway 156 east of Hollister.

A “Betabel Road Project Description” submitted to county planners in October 2021 says the farm stand structure in the future “shall be expanded to include a variety of kiosks including; world’s best homemade candy store, joke shop, world’s best freshly baked pretzels, world’s best potato chips, magic store, world’s best ice cream store, and of course locally grown produce, local wines and locally sourced gift items.”

Farm stand hours would be 8am-10pm seven days per week, and the building would employ up to 16 full-time employees, says the project description.

County Principal Planner Arielle Goodspeed described these proposed uses as “much broader” than the property’s original farm stand concept. “They’re going through the process, and we’re going to be doing an EIR. The (potential) impacts will be looked at and scrutinized,” Goodspeed said.

Kosmicki thinks the McDowells are taking advantage of “loopholes” in county planning guidelines in order to build an expanded project, and making a “mockery” of the county planning processes.

At a previous supervisors meeting in January, Kosmicki predicted the Betabel developer would file a CUP in order to bypass the requirement that the farm stand only sell produce grown on site. He has since said he would support a review of the county’s planning and environmental guidelines to find a way to prevent developers from being able to change plans so readily.

“We need to close that loophole. It’s outrageous that a developer would be allowed to exploit the county so blatantly,” Kosmicki said.

Other supervisors noted that the overall project, including the updated farm stand proposal, is still subject to detailed environmental review before it can be built out and occupied. Supervisor Peter Hernandez at the March 22 meeting pointed out that the McDowells never made a secret of their concept for the node property. Less formal plans previously circulated to the public included most of the uses outlined in the CUP, promoting the project as a rest stop and welcoming and education center for visitors, Hernandez said.

“The idea there was a ‘bait and switch’ is just not true,” Hernandez said March 22. “Either we are supporting commercial development or not. (The McDowells) used the process and the process supported it.”

The McDowells’ Betabel node property has a fraught history of illegal dumping and other unauthorized uses under previous owners. Supervisor Bob Tiffany said it is “pretty amazing” how the McDowells have cleaned up the property, leading to the restoration of wildlife and the Pajaro River habitat that runs through the site.

“This is a positive development for our county that will bring revenue to our county,” Tiffany said.

But the Betabel project has been opposed by area homeowners who once organized into the group known as Preserve Our Rural Communities. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band has also organized efforts to stop or limit the Betabel commercial project because the property sits within the tribe’s sacred ancestral home, known as Juristac.

County staff have said the EIR will address the project’s potential impacts on Native American resources.

Rider McDowell did not respond to questions about the project sent by email. He has previously promised that all profits from the Betabel project will go toward pediatric cancer research.

The McDowells created the McDowell Charity Trust after their son, Errol Cross McDowell, died of pediatric brain cancer in 2018 at the age of 18.

“For over 40 years, millions of highway travelers’ first impression of San Benito County has been a sprawling junkyard of large metal buildings and hundreds of derelict campers, mobile homes, trucks and car parts,” says the October 2021 project description. “The ‘Betabel Project’ endeavors to replace this with a uniquely beautiful roadside experience of whitewashed barns, vintage architecture, and walking trails which better reflect the storied agricultural and native history of one of America’s most picturesque counties.”

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