Hollister
– The San Benito County Board of Supervisors is considering
loosening restrictions protecting prime agricultural land from
development for housing.
Hollister – The San Benito County Board of Supervisors is considering loosening restrictions protecting prime agricultural land from development for housing.

County Planning Director Art Henriques said the existing ordinance essentially prohibits residential development on Grade 1 soils, the highest-quality farm land. The law doesn’t include any flexibility for the board to make its own case-by-case decisions, Supervisor Anthony Botelho said.

Most recently, the restrictions have prevented Joe Zanger and his business partners at Casa de Fruta from completing development of Pacheco Creek Estates, a small subdivision located just south of Highway 152.

“The intent is not to allow wholesale development on Grade 1 soils,” Botelho said. “It should allow us the ability to grant a variance in very special circumstances.”

Agriculture remains one of San Benito County’s primary industries, generating $268 million in 2005.

San Benito Farm Bureau President George Bonacich said protecting agricultural land is important, but he thinks development questions should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“If somebody wants to build a house on Grade 1 soil, that’d be one thing,” Bonacich said. “But if they wanted to do a whole subdivision … I’d have reservations about that. They’ve got to be judged on their own merits.”

Henriques said the county has plenty of high-quality soil in the greater Hollister area and in the San Juan Valley. But, he said, “We don’t want to get to a point where there’s scarcity. So much farmland on the coast has already been converted, and agriculture has had to shift to the central valley.”

While the details are still being worked out, Henriques said San Benito could follow the lead of Yolo County, which allows “one-for-one tradeoffs.” Under that system, a developer can build on an acre of agricultural land, as long as he sets aside another acre for farming, so there’s no net loss to agriculture.

“It’s just a tool,” Henriques said. “If the supervisors find, on balance, ‘Hey, this is a good trade,’ then they could support it. If they decide on balance that it’s not such a good idea, they could say no.”

The supervisors plan to vote on the revised ordinance on April 24. If the ordinance is approved, they will consider approving new Pacheco Creek homes in May.

Zanger and his partners first dreamed up the Pacheco Creek development nearly 20 years ago, and planning and construction have continued in fits and starts since. Six of the originally planned nine houses have been completed.

Zanger approached the county about adding four units to the development in 2004, but the approval process hit a snag when a small quantity of Grade 1 soil was discovered on the land.

Supervisor Don Marcus said Tuesday that it’s unreasonable to hold up a worthwhile project for such a small amount of soil. Pacheco Creek Estates was one of the first projects he pushed for after taking office in 2004, Marcus said.

“I’m the last one to say that prime ag land isn’t the key to the salvation of humanity,” Marcus said. “But it’s well over two years later, and it seems we haven’t moved any further forward.”

Zanger said that when completed, the development will include 13 homes, each on lots about one acre in size. The development will also feature recreational facilities, including a tennis court, a playground for toddlers and a picnic shelter.

“We’ve got the houses all clustered off on a corner of the property,” Zanger said. “We’re still able to do farming next door.”

The land targeted for development used to be a walnut orchard, but Zanger said “it never grew right” because of the quality of the soil.

When asked about the long gap between the project’s conception in the late 1980s and its projected completion several years from now, Zanger said, “I know, isn’t it something?”

Anthony Ha covers local government for the Free Lance. Reach him at 831-637-5566 ext. 330 or [email protected].

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.

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