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County faces protests of Hwy. 101 rezoning plans

Supervisors to consider zoning changes

OVERPASS PROTESTS Protests like this on bridges over U.S. 101 led to petitions, then a March 2020 referendum on commercial development at four interchanges. File photo

[Updated 8pm July 19.]

Faced with a need to increase San Benito County coffers, officials are considering the creation of commercial zones at four intersections along Highway 101.

The County Board of Supervisors is expected to consider zoning changes along the state highway between Aromas and San Juan Bautista in August, following a Planning Commission recommendation in May.

The four commercial “nodes,” as they are called, are located along the highway at Betabel Road and Highway 129/Searle Road in San Juan Bautista, and Rocks Ranch and 101 Livestock Market in Aromas.

The properties, totaling about 326 acres, would be converted from agricultural to regional commercial zoning, which according to the 2035 General Plan approved in 2015, provides “areas that function as destinations for commercial activity serving the regional population.” Developments such as shopping centers, automobile stations and hotels could be built on the properties.

Under regional commercial zoning, retail space is limited to 85,000 square feet per node, and no more than 125 hotel rooms can be built within each area.

Each node could have its own theme. For instance, one theme discussed for the Betabel Road exit is that of a mid-century roadside, while the Highway 129 node was suggested by planners a possible early farmstead theme.

County Planner Darryl Boyd stressed that the zoning changes would not immediately result in any development.

“There’s no physical development that’s actually being proposed as part of this project,” he told the planning commission in May. “This project is continuing the implementation of the 2035 General Plan.”

Should the zoning changes pass muster with the supervisors, development likely would not be happening anytime soon. Each node would then need approval of a master development plan, which outlines a property’s site plan and landscaping, among many other things.

Once approved, major developments that are consistent with the master plan would then have to go through another round of county approvals.

The zoning proposal comes a month after the supervisors approved the county’s 2019-2020 budget, which stated a need to pursue economic development activities to bring revenues closer to expenditures.

According to the budget approved by the supervisors on June 25, the county’s expenditures are expected to outpace revenues by $16 million. In an earlier interview, Deputy County Administrative Officer Edgar Nolasco said reserves carried over from the previous year will make up the difference, and property tax revenues are expected to increase by $700,000 due to new construction in the county.

The proposal for creating new commercial development opportunities along Highway 101 has spurred some vigorous opposition from nearby residents , who spoke out against it at the planning commission meeting.

About 120 members and supporters of a new group, Preserve Our Rural Communities, spread out across the San Juan Road overpass during Friday evening rush hour July 19, waving signs to passing motorists, protesting any new commercial development in the area.

In addition, the San Juan Bautista City Council on June 18 voted to send a letter to supervisors opposing the project. San Juan Bautista is located about two miles south of the interchange.

At the meeting, San Juan Bautista resident Cara Vonk urged county officials to reject the proposal, saying such a development would destroy the rural beauty of San Benito County.

“We don’t need urban homogenization and fake Disneyland themes,” she said.

Gina Paolini, a member of the citizens group Preserve Our Rural Communities, said the group is circulating a petition opposing the node projects.

“The county does not have a tourism base to support the hotels,” she said. “This project is not going to save the county that’s already in fiscal crisis, yet it will have long-standing impacts on the surrounding community.”

Ben Bingaman, whose family owns nearby Rocks Ranch, said only 2 percent of the land would be touched by development, with the rest remaining open space.

“For 75 years, we have fought furiously for our ranch,” he said. “But at the same time, the county needs jobs. The county needs revenue. We can do a lot of things to mitigate and preserve our neighborhoods.”

Scott Fuller of the San Benito County Business Council said commercial development at the Highway 101 interchanges follows the already approved county General Plan.

“It will bring in additional revenue,” he said. “These are not destinations that are adding traffic. This is to attract traffic that is already there.”