Group files suit to block Betabel

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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

Opponents of the supervisors’ April 7 decision to rezone a property along Highway 101 filed a lawsuit against the county on April 22, saying the officials violated state elections law.

The citizens group Preserve Our Rural Communities contends that the San Benito County Supervisors superseded the voters’ March rejection of Measure K by approving a similar zoning change for the Betabel property.

In addition, the group said the statewide shelter-in-place order due to the COVID-19 pandemic prevents proponents from gathering signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot. In San Benito County, at least 2,060 valid signatures must be gathered within 30 days of the supervisors’ action for a referendum to qualify for an upcoming ballot.

Preserve Our Rural Communities has retained land use attorney Mark Wolfe for the lawsuit.

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 proposed “C-3” zoning for the property and others along Highway 101 outlined in Measure K, which was defeated in the March election. The C-1 zoning classification shares many 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 features.

Preserve Our Rural Communities president Andy Hsia-Coron said the supervisors violated the California Constitution by “approving the same thing they had before” despite nearly 60 percent of voters “rejecting their crazy plans for Highway 101,” as well as passing legislation knowing that citizens would be unable to gather signatures for a referendum.

“If the people aren’t allowed to go out and collect signatures after it was passed, you are stripping that check and balance that is written into the constitution,” he said. “The governor’s [March 12] executive order suspends the Brown Act, but he didn’t suspend the constitution.”

For now, California legislators have not presented an alternative for signature-gatherers under COVID-19, leaving proponents across the state falling short of requirements, according to reports.

The supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the C-1 zoning on April 7, with Supervisor Jaime De la Cruz dissenting. Hsia-Coron said those who voted in favor of the rezoning “deserve to be recalled.”

“They serve the interests of powerful people,” he said. “They don’t understand what’s best for the people in this county.”

Supervisor Anthony Botelho, whose district covers the Betabel property, said he wasn’t surprised when he learned Preserve Our Rural Communities was filing the lawsuit.

“I figured they would, since all they do is keep wasting taxpayers’ money,” he said. “It’s too bad that they are using the courts as a weapon against the people.”

Botelho said the county will continue to entertain C-1 zoning applications. It received an application to rezone a property near the interchange of highways 129 and 101 in February, according to Botelho, but it is unknown when it will come before the planning commission and supervisors for consideration.

“[The lawsuit] shouldn’t deter the county from continuing forward with the application process,” he said.

Most of the supervisors argued during the April 7 meeting that such development along Highway 101 would create much-needed sales tax revenue and jobs for San Benito County. Such potential businesses could help the county recover from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, they said.

The proposal for the Betabel property adjacent to an RV park is inspired by a 1950s-era California roadside stop, with wooden barns, local produce, a service station with gas and diesel and a vintage motel. A visitors’ center would be built in the shape of a watering can, meant to introduce travelers to San Benito County and promote its destinations such as Mission San Juan Bautista, Pinnacles National Park, Hollister and more.

According to property owner Rider McDowell, the property was previously home to a 20-acre junkyard with steel buildings, more than 150 derelict vehicles and mobile homes, a chop shop, and a doublewide trailer occupied by a Salinas drug gang. The property has since been cleared.

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