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Betabel rezoning lawsuit dismissed

Court rules in favor of supervisors’ April decision

COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT An artist’s rendering shows what development on Betabel Road could look like.

A San Benito County Superior Court judge ruled Oct. 20 that the county board of supervisors acted lawfully when it approved a rezoning for the Betabel property along Highway 101.

Preserve Our Rural Communities filed a lawsuit against the San Benito County Supervisors on April 22, contending that the board violated election code by superseding the voters’ March rejection of Measure K through the zoning change approval.

In addition, the group said the statewide shelter-in-place order due to the Covid-19 pandemic prevented proponents from gathering signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot.

Betabel property owner Thomas John McDowell and Victoria McDowell Charitable Remainder Unitrust submitted an application to the county to convert 29 acres of the land to a commercial zoning designation, known as “C-1.”

Such a zoning designation is slightly similar to the proposed “C-3” zoning for the property and others along Highway 101 that was defeated by voters in the March 3 election. The C-1 zoning classification shares many similarities with the C-3 zoning in terms of building standards and permitted uses. However, it is less restrictive in other areas, such as landscaping and themes.

In a filing to the court, San Benito County Counsel Barbara Thompson wrote that Measure K is “essentially different from Ordinance No. 1008 (C-1 zoning),” adding that Measure K would have created a new zoning district, while the supervisors’ April decision was applying an existing zoning.

She also wrote that Measure K would have allowed residential development, while C-1 zoning does not.

The court found that for those reasons, Measure K’s defeat does not preclude the adoption of the C-1 rezoning, Assistant County Counsel Joel Ellinwood said.

In May, Judge Thomas Breen granted a suspension of the C-1 rezoning to allow Preserve Our Rural Communities to launch a referendum drive after the state’s Covid-19 shelter-in-place order was lifted.

On June 2, the San Benito County Health Officer issued guidance for circulation of election petitions, which would have given Preserve Our Rural Communities until July 6 to gather signatures and submit the referendum.

However, Mark Wolfe, an attorney representing the group, wrote in a court filing that Preserve Our Rural Communities was unable to submit a petition by that date.

Wolfe added in an Oct. 8 filing to the court that the group’s “small band of volunteers” was unable to gather enough signatures during the “height of the Covid lockdown.” He noted that the developer-backed Strada Verde initiative, which proposes a 2,777-acre project a few miles north of the Betabel property, was able to gather enough signatures during the same time period.

“PORC is informed and believes that the Strada Verde initiative proponents employed a professional signature-gathering firm to collect signatures on that petition,” he wrote.

The proposal for the Betabel property adjacent to an RV park is inspired by a 1950s-era California roadside stop, with wooden barns, 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 such as Mission San Juan Bautista, Pinnacles National Park, Hollister and more.

Owner Rider McDowell has pledged that all profits from the project will go to children’s cancer research.

McDowell said his family’s charity is thankful for the court’s decision, noting it dealt a “crushing blow to PORC, aka Coalition to Protect San Benito.”

“PORC has tried to intimidate elected officials for their own selfish reasons and has repeatedly lied to the citizens of San Benito County,” he said. “It’s gratifying to watch the tide turning against this group of people.”

A request seeking comment from Preserve Our Rural Communities was not returned as of press time.