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June 14, 2021

City needs alternate funding path for trenching

With no city funding available for earthquake fault studies in downtown Hollister, officials are looking for other ways to get large portions of the historic area approved by the state for potential redevelopment.
For the past three years, a geotechnical engineering firm hired by the city’s now-defunct redevelopment agency has been compiling and reviewing prior surface fault studies to see where additional, costly trenching to look for faults can be avoided. The goal is to show the state geologist which properties are not near an earthquake fault and therefore eligible for reconstruction – particularly the mixed-use, residential-business combination that is called for in the city’s General Plan.
City officials this week were attempting to set up a meeting with the state geologist to find out how to proceed without having the money available to do extensive trenching throughout downtown.
“We’re hoping that with a modest amount of money we can get a blanket clearance for some areas on up to 30 properties, based on studies that were done before,” said Mary Paxton, program manager for the city’s development services department.
The now-dissolved Hollister Redevelopment Agency last summer had given the go-ahead on tests to study the most recent geologic layer underlying downtown. However, that project was not started when the state ruled that redevelopment agencies must be abolished.
Among the ideas floated to help pay for the cost of the needed fault studies is forming a partnership with an educational institution that would have interest in conducting quake research.
“We are unique in that we have two cities in the county that have a fault system traversing through the city,” Paxton said. “It’s part of the urban fabric. We’re hoping that what we can do with a modest amount of money is get some areas (covering up to 30 properties) to get a blanket clearance based on studies that were done before.”
After 1989’s Loma Prieta quake, which destroyed some un-reinforced masonry buildings downtown, quake trenching was done primarily near the properties that needed to be rebuilt, rather than having general studies done to prove faults were not underlying more sections of the area. The RDA in 1991 funded the excavation of 18 trenches downtown to help facilitate re-construction of the quake-ravaged area.
“They were just looking at it with a very narrow lens,” Paxton said. “They were focused on the property that needed to be rebuilt or repaired. We’re asking why can’t we use these (individual trenching studies) to justify clearing a larger area for development.”
The city has also considered asking downtown property owners if they would be interested in funding an assessment district that would pay for a few, targeted studies that could be used to clear larger areas for development.
The Alquist Priolo Act requires that when development occurs in an earthquake zone, a surface fault investigation must be done. Then, a geologist hired by the city must review the work and forward it to state geologists for a final ruling on whether the property can be cleared for development or ruled non-developable.
Individual fault studies can be prohibitively expensive for some downtown property owners. For the city’s recently-rebuilt fire station No. 1 on Fifth Street, quake trenching cost $115,000 – or $9-per-square-foot – at the less than a third of an acre site.
“Part of the reason (for the expense) is you’re in an urban setting so you have to close the street, damage and then excavate the street and move utilities,” Paxton said. “There are a lot more safety considerations, so per-square-foot it costs a lot more downtown.”
By comparison, a fault study for the Vista Meadows development near Rancho San Justo School cost approximately $54,000 – $2.42-per-square-foot – for a three-acre lot.
“We’re hoping to schedule a meeting soon with the state geologist, who retires in August,” Paxton said. “It’s something where the more we can try to chip away at it the more we can get it addressed. Part of it is educating the state geologist and helping our legislators understand that we need to look at this as an area-wide examination instead of a piecemeal property examination.”

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