County delays highway zoning decision

Supervisors cite concerns over new technology

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LIVE-STREAM A screenshot of Zoom shows how the public watched the March 24 San Benito County Board of Supervisors meeting.

In this new era of virtual meetings under the COVID-19 outbreak, most of the San Benito County supervisors felt that using a technology platform to run a meeting for the first time was not appropriate for such a highly-charged topic as Highway 101 development.

The supervisors on March 24 delayed their decision for a commercial zoning change for the Betabel property along the highway to April 7.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 12 executive order, which suspends some provisions of the Brown Act, allows legislative bodies to hold meetings via conference calls while still meeting state transparency requirements.

The meeting was live-streamed on a platform known as Zoom, where participants could speak through their devices during the public comment period. The public could also phone in to the meeting.

Roughly 50 people participated in the Zoom viewing, with more than a dozen voicing their comments. Supervisor Peter Hernandez attended the meeting virtually, while the remaining four supervisors attended the meeting in person inside the board of supervisors chambers.

However, the frequent complaints from viewers that they could not hear the meeting was a cause for concern for some of the supervisors.

Supervisor Jim Gillio suggested pushing the meeting to April 21 to allow county staff more time to fix the bugs with Zoom.

“We’ve had our technology now for about a week,” he said. “We don’t know who’s having problems out there. We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Supervisor Anthony Botelho, whose district covers the Betabel property, said continuing to delay the zoning change was “just flat not fair to the property owner,” and risks “losing the project.”

“Government is an essential service,” he said. “It’s not just about the crisis, it’s about the responsibility of day-to-day operations as well. We are going into a recession. Anything that we can do to protect our local economy, action needs to be done yesterday.”

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 similar to the “C-3” zoning for the property and others along Highway 101 that was defeated by voters in the March 3 election.

San Juan Bautista resident Jackie Morris-Lopez, speaking from her phone, said the zoning change is not considered “essential business.”

“The reception is very garbled,” she said of the teleconferenced meeting. “For anyone that has any hearing issues or bad reception, this is not the way to run a public meeting.”

All supervisors voiced support for the project in general. On a 4-1 vote, the supervisors agreed to revert the land back to its original “agricultural rangeland” zoning in the meantime, while considering the C-1 zoning at an April 7 meeting.

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz was the lone dissenting vote, saying he thought the item should be pushed back farther in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Before the item was discussed, Supervisor Mark Medina said he returned a donation he received from the Betabel project owner so he could participate in the March 24 discussion. Medina, who came out on top in the two-person primary race for the District 1 seat, received $2,500 from “McDowell CRT,” financial filings show.

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