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September 18, 2021

Betabel project breaks ground

Produce stand part of first phase

A plan to create a roadside attraction on the Betabel property along Highway 101 in San Juan Bautista took a step closer to reality on June 1.

Community members joined elected officials in celebrating the groundbreaking of the Betabel Project’s first phase.

The proposal for the 29-acre Betabel property, owned by the McDowell Charity Trust and adjacent to the Betabel RV Park, is inspired by a 1950s-era California roadside stop, with a wooden barn housing a produce stand, a service station with gas and diesel and a vintage motel. A visitors’ center would be built in the shape of a watering can, meant to introduce travelers to San Benito County and promote its destinations.

About 20 percent of the land will be developed, with the rest as agricultural land, according to the Betabel Project website.

The first phase will include construction of the produce stand, expected to take about seven months, according to architect Henry Ruhnke. A timeline on the rest of the project is currently unknown.

“It’s a big vision, it’s an exciting vision,” he said. “It’s going to be a landmark, something the community can be proud of. This is a huge milestone.”

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

The McDowells have pledged all profits from the Betabel Project to go toward pediatric cancer research.

Rider McDowell said as the family would pass by the Betabel property on Highway 101 on their way to Errol’s weekly chemotherapy and immunotherapy appointments at UCSF, Errol would point out the property and say the family should purchase it and use it to raise money for cancer research.

“This is a bittersweet scene,” Rider McDowell said during the June 1 groundbreaking. “This was his inspiration.”

The project has faced opposition from a citizens group known as Preserve Our Rural Communities, whose lawsuit filed in 2020 against the county board of supervisors regarding the property was dismissed by a judge later that year.

Preserve Our Rural Communities filed a lawsuit against the San Benito County Supervisors in April 2020 contending that the board violated election code by superseding the voters’ March 2020 rejection of Measure K through the zoning change approval.

That measure would have created what was known as a “C-3” commercial zoning for the Betabel property.

In April 2020, the supervisors approved a “C-1” commercial zoning for the property.

The court found that the “C-1” zoning was “essentially different” from “C-3,” therefore the supervisors acted lawfully when it approved the rezoning.

Photo: Erik Chalhoub

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