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July 25, 2021

County contends Strada Verde report is inaccurate

Impact study required by elections code

San Benito County officials are at odds over a consultant’s report outlining potential issues with a proposed development, but agreed Aug. 18 to work together on addressing concerns.

Voters in November will consider a master plan for the 2,777-acre Strada Verde Innovation Park, known as Measure N on the Nov. 3 ballot, which would consist of automotive testing facilities, an e-commerce center, a park and other facilities located between highways 25 and 101.

Per election code, the county is required to issue a report on potential impacts of an initiative within 30 days of certifying the petition.

The county entered into an agreement with EMC Planning Group and Applied Development Economics to draft the report.

But the way the report presented the potential issues drew the ire of some county supervisors as well as the county counsel, who suggested the authors were biased and attempting to influence voters to reject the proposal.

County Counsel Barbara Thompson said the report consists of various inaccuracies and “questionable language choices.”

“Whether this project succeeds or fails, it should be on its own merits based upon truthful, accurate information provided to the public,” she said.

Assistant County Counsel Joel Ellinwood pointed to one aspect of the report, which suggested that the initiative process would limit environmental review of future projects on the property. He said that nothing could be built on the property without an approved subdivision map by the county. Such maps are subject to California Environmental Quality Act review.

He added that the county is in the process of seeking proposals from firms to conduct an environmental impact report of the Strada Verde project.

Michael Groves of EMC Planning Group said if the specific plan is approved by voters, “95 percent” of the uses outlined in it are “by-right uses,” meaning Strada Verde developers can receive building permits without a subdivision map.

“The fact that county counsel is now telling us they are already doing an EIR and they want to do a subdivision would’ve been nice information to know,” he said. “We did not know that information.”

Other issues discussed by the consultant and the supervisors during the more than two-hour conversation included a buffer zone recommended in a previous EMC Planning Group report, as well as differences of opinion regarding the access feasibility from the Betabel Road interchange at Highway 101.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he rated the credibility of the report a “zero” on a scale of one to 10. He questioned why the county continues to hire EMC Planning Group, saying previous reports by the consultant, such as the county’s general plan and hazards report for Strada Verde, have been “flubbed.”

“Why this is happening is beyond me,” he said. “I’m going to get to the bottom of it. I’m really upset.”

Botelho added that he “truly believes there is bias” in the report, and said the county needs to seize on the economic opportunity Strada Verde could provide. According to a presentation by Doug Svensson of Applied Development Economics, Strada Verde, once fully built out over a period of 10 years, could generate $10.7 million in annual revenue for the county, as well as $23 million for agencies such as county fire and the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District.

Groves, addressing Botelho’s claims of bias, said he has “no stake in the matter,” and added that the purpose of the report is to raise the positives and the challenges of the proposal.

“If you don’t like the negatives, there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said. “Our job is to prepare a balanced report for the voters.”

Supervisor Peter Hernandez said the potential benefits of Strada Verde were lost in the report.

“It sounds like a report written from the devil’s advocate perspective,” he said. “I don’t think that’s as productive as we expected and hoped.”

The county has until Aug. 20 to release the final report to the public, per elections code.

The two parties agreed to meet on Aug. 19 to work out their differences on the report so it could be finalized. If they are unable to reach an agreement, then the county counsel will attach a cover letter with the report outlining their concerns.

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