A group of environmentalists known as Preserve Our Rural Communities, a grassroots group in San Benito County, took over a small section of the Superior Court parking lot on Tuesday morning.
Organizer Andy Hsia-Coron took the lead on Jan. 5 in what was a peaceful protest regarding recent actions made by the County Board of Supervisors, including the rezoning of properties on the highways that will allow commercial construction projects to move forward, despite a successful referendum against Measure K.
Now all he’s asking for is a reasonable period of time before a referendum petition on the approval of C-1 zoning for the Searle Road property can be submitted. The board of supervisors approved the C-1 zoning for a 21-acre portion of the Searle Road at Highway 129 at the Dec. 15 meeting.
But Hsia-Coron was told by county officials they still only have 30 days to collect petition signatures despite all of the Covid-19 restrictions that are put in place.
“There’s no vacancies in our intensive care units and everything is going up, there’s new contagious strains going on and they’re telling everybody to stay away from each other,” he said. “The idea that the county is suddenly saying it’s safe to send teams of people out collecting signatures seems like it’s completely counterproductive and it’s being driven by something other than public safety.”
A volunteer played a funeral dirge on violin as Hsia-Coron carried a black coffin with the words “Don’t let democracy die” followed by the protestors who marched to the Supervisors’ Building on Fourth Street in Hollister.
Prior to that, the group met at the parking lot at 11am where a couple of people including Hsia-Coron spoke to the small crowd. He mentioned that they used a funeral and plague doctor theme to highlight the fact that county officials are killing democracy by putting voters’ lives at risk.
PORC petitioned to repeal an ordinance that was approved by the county supervisors in September 2019, which would have converted four properties at highway interchanges to the regional commercial C-3 zoning. In the March 3 election, voters overwhelmingly rejected Measure K, which would have created the new C-3 zoning for the four properties, known as “nodes,” along Highway 101.
But In April, Betabel Road node owner Rider McDowell applied for and was granted the alternate C-1 zoning for his property.
The C-1 zoning classification shares some similarities with the C-3 zoning in terms of building standards and permitted uses. However, it is less restrictive in other areas, such as landscaping, theme and tourism aspects.
Jackie Morris-Lopez, who ran for city council in San Juan Bautista, was one of the protestors who spoke up against the supervisors’ most recent actions. She’s a supporter of “responsible growth” in San Benito County and she worked hard with the constituents to defeat Measure K.
“Now the fact that the board of supervisors are actually circumventing the will of the people, the way they’re denigrating the democratic process, is horrible,” she said.
Morris-Lopez added that it’s irresponsible for county officials to ask PORC members to put their lives in danger to collect the much needed signatures when the vote should stand. She works in health care every day and she sees the effect the pandemic is having on small communities such as San Benito County.
“They need to just pull this off the table for now because they’re doing this when people are under duress, stress and strain,” she said. “They need to table it but the fact is that we voted no and no should be loud enough. You can’t take a vote away from a citizen and that’s what they have essentially done.”
Hsia-Coron said that County interim Public Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci announced on Dec. 17 that petition signature gathering was deemed as safe, giving them a 30-day window to collect petition signatures.
But he’s hoping the county supervisors will put off the implementation of the effective date of the zone changes until after the threat level goes down to when people can get vaccinated. Until then, he doesn’t believe the board of supervisors have a true vision because it’s the same each year with the new nodes.
“They’re just taking care of powerful folks and there’s no thought about it,” he said. “You know what happens when you encourage [urban] sprawl all along your roads, you end up like San Jose.”