Supporters of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band rally outside the San Benito County Courthouse April 24 prior to a hearing in which Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office sought to intervene in litigation surrounding the controversial Betabel project proposed on Highway 101. Photo: Josue Monroy

California Attorney General Rob Bonta is stepping in on behalf of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in their lawsuit against San Benito County to stop the embattled Betabel Road commercial development project, according to a motion filed by Bonta’s office on March 23. The matter was brought before Judge Patrick K. Palacios April 24 in San Benito County Superior Court for a ruling on whether to allow the state to intercede.

The intervention by the state’s top legal office is the first representing an indigenous tribe in California, setting a historic precedent. 

In December 2022, the Amah Mutsun filed a lawsuit against the San Benito County Board of Supervisors and developers of the Betabel project—following a similar complaint filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Protect San Benito County—claiming the board violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in approving a conditional use permit for the commercial proposal. 

Echoing the CBD/PSBC complaint, the lawsuit seeks the reversal of this and previous permit approvals by the county, which were granted despite an inadequate Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that failed to account for serious potential environmental effects, according to the filing. Additionally, the lawsuit names Rider McDowell of the McDowell Charity Trust as a defendant in the case. The trust is the owner of the property on Betabel Road and the proponent of the development project. 

The Amah Mutsun consider the property on Betabel Road near the San Benito/Santa Clara county line part of their larger ancestral home, Juristac, which holds important cultural significance for the Tribal Band. Under Assembly Bill 52, California law requires public agencies to consult with indigenous tribes during the CEQA process and, according to the complaint, this consultation was not sufficiently done.

Now, the Attorney General is seeking to intervene in the CEQA litigation on behalf of the Amah Mutsun, combining their complaint with the CDB/PSBC filing.

“It is a historic event,” said Amah Mutsun Tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez. “They recognized the injustice and the way that the Environment Impact Report was approved—without going through the proper channels for both the environmental issues involved and the cultural issues.”

According to its website, the California Attorney General’s Office “employs the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and related laws to ensure that local governments take seriously their obligation to consider potential environmental impacts, especially those that may affect the public health and welfare.”

The Betabel lawsuit would be the third time in the last 10 years that the Attorney General intervenes in a CEQA lawsuit. However, this would be the first intervention in a matter concerning indigenous tribal lands. 

Around 30 supporters of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Protect San Benito rallied in front of the courthouse on this foggy Monday morning before heading into the courtroom for the highly anticipated hearing. This hearing, however, was not what they expected.

Before proceeding with the Attorney General’s motion to intervene in the case, the legal team for the defense requested the CEQA lawsuit be thrown out based on what they considered an “untimely and invalid appeal.” The defense claimed that the appeal, or lawsuit, was not filed within the statute of limitations established by CEQA law. Sara A. Clark, the attorney representing the Amah Mutsun, argued that notice of determination, or the notification of a final decision by the board of supervisors, was “prematurely filed” before there was a chance to appeal the decision.

Palacios decided not to dismiss the lawsuit.

Due to the dismissal hearing, the matter of the Attorney General’s intervention in the case was postponed. Deputy Attorney General Yuting Chi was present on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office, and all parties agreed to postponing the hearing until May 3.

The development of San Benito County’s Highway 101 corridor has been a contentious issue for years. In 2020, Measure K, if passed, would have rezoned certain areas surrounding Highway 101 for commercial use. The measure was defeated at the polls with 60% of voters rejecting it. However, some residents feel that their voices are not being heard by local officials and the Betabel project is emblematic of this disconnect. 

“This is about respecting the environment, indigenous culture and democracy,” said Andy Hsia-Coron, a member of the PSBC legal committee. “I think in all three, our county has fallen short.”

Located at 9644 Betabel Road adjacent to Highway 101, the 26-acre project proposed by the McDowell Trust includes a total of 108,425 square feet of commercial space—with a gas station and convenience store, restaurant, up to five amusement buildings, a visitor center, three-story motel (with an outdoor movie screen), event area, livestock corral, farmstand and related parking, restrooms, driveways and other supporting facilities.

The McDowell Charity Trust has promised to donate all profits from the development of the Betabel Road site to pediatric cancer research. 

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