There are an array of concerning question marks and red flags in the proposal for a massive vehicle testing facility and commercial hub off Highway 25 near the Santa Clara County line.
The most concerning red flag is the prospect that a loophole in state law would allow developers of the Strada Verde project—if it’s approved through a ballot initiative—to circumvent much of the traditional environmental review process. My trepidation, however, doesn’t end there.
After reading the 139-page proposal, I’m offering a detailed perspective and analysis on the issue.
To be clear, I was ready to consider getting behind this project if several important factors—namely concerns over traffic and environmental impacts—checked out. We do need more high-paying employers in our county—but can’t just ignore adverse impacts and must balance the pros and cons.
The project encompasses 2,777 acres between Highway 25 and the intersection of Highway 101 at Betabel Road. If approved, it would rezone the property from highly protected “agriculture productive” and “agriculture rangeland” designations—including some prime farmland—to industrial and commercial zoning. It also would establish a “specific plan” outlining what’s allowed in the project.
As for project details, it includes a variety of tracks for testing autonomous vehicles, up to 5.8 million square feet for distribution and logistics businesses, another 115,000 square feet for retail businesses, 750,000 square feet of office and light industrial buildings, 562 acres remaining as agriculture, a 209-acre park and a 2.4-mile multi-use trail.
For starters when breaking down my concerns, project proponents took a very unusual route—the ballot initiative process—in an attempt to gain approval on the 2,777-acre vehicle testing site and commercial hub. Traditionally, such a project would go through extensive reviews and numerous approvals before a planning commission and board of supervisors. A full California Environmental Quality Act report—which would take months if not more than a year to complete in the case of Strada Verde—would be required early in the planning process.
That prompts the first important question among many about this project: What would motivate such a decision to use the ballot initiative process? It seems clear the ability to save significant money while legally circumventing the lengthy EIR process would make sense for a profit-seeking mega-developer.
The prospect of limiting the extent of an environmental review—especially on a project of this magnitude—is alarming to say the least. But the loophole in California law allowing EIR exemptions on projects approved through the ballot does, undeniably, exist. That 2014 ruling on a case from Tuolumne County says projects OK’d by initiative are exempt from a full CEQA review.
Assuming initiative signatures are verified, supervisors also would have the ability to approve it outright with the same CEQA exemption in place. That is especially alarming, and I hope there is no such consideration by the board considering the ramifications of limiting an environmental review.
This is precisely the type of project—at nearly 3,000 acres—meant for full CEQA review. Additionally, this project is situated near a river and wetlands, and 800 acres of the site are within a floodplain—further adding to my conviction that minimizing the environmental review on this project through a ballot initiative is irresponsible and reckless.
The proposal does note that developers will do necessary environmental mitigation on “future discretionary actions” taken by the board—of course they will because it’s required by law—but such piecemeal measures are nowhere near the magnitude of requirements in a full EIR.
Circumventing any level of environmental review on this project is a non-starter for me—and it should be for other voters who care about preserving this county’s character, too. Again, I’m a proponent of efforts to create good jobs and economic vitality—but not at the extraordinary expense of the environment as proposed under this process.
The second-most alarming red flag is the abundance of allowable commercial space, especially on the heels of Measure K’s defeat in November and the board’s recent approval of the Betabel Road project right in the same area of the county where Strada Verde is proposed.
Aside from nearly 6 million square feet set aside for distribution and logistics businesses—which equates to a lot of new traffic by nature—the 115,000 square-foot retail element includes dozens of permitted commercial uses.
Some examples include these categories: Conference center, hotel, bed and breakfast, medical offices, salon, day spa, dry cleaner, carwash, auto repair, college or other learning centers, religious institution, daycare, gym, museum, bar, wedding venue, farmers market, fast food, restaurant, miscellaneous retail shops, vehicle sales, gas station, truck stop and other uses.
These types of activities will undoubtedly and significantly impact traffic conditions—and commute times—on Highways 101 and 25. Although developers are saying they want most Strada Verde traffic to enter and exit on 101, the report acknowledges they will build a Highway 25 extension to the site based on demand. A diagram in the report indicates some commercial will front Highway 25, which underscores there will be a likely impact along the busy highway.
Adding good, permanent jobs is a positive prospect, indeed, but I’m confident the vast majority of county residents—based on the Measure K result—would oppose the expansive commercial element in this proposal if they’re educated about it.
As an additional question mark, I would take the job creation claim—5,500 permanent jobs and 18,000 construction jobs—with a grain of salt. That’s because the report lacks information on how developers came up with those numbers, so there’s no way of knowing to what extent the figures are arbitrarily derived. Developers pushing a pro-jobs message on the ballot have an inherent incentive to present the highest-possible employment figures to the public. The same goes for economic figures such as the claim it would create $2.3 billion in construction activity. We should be asking these questions—not just trusting the developer at face value.
To go further with red flags, that developer—Newport Pacific Land Co.—is primarily a builder of residential master-planned communities. Project proponents have insisted there is no housing in the Strade Verde plan, but that wouldn’t stop developers from attempting to add housing later under the guise that we need more homes for the new workers. They also might be banking on the state’s pro-housing push and legislation that is increasingly stripping local elected officials of their decision-making powers with housing.
Raising eyebrows further is the fact that this property has been targeted for immense residential development—specifically master-planned communities—for decades. Most local residents want slower housing growth because we don’t have necessary traffic infrastructure to support it.
That leads to a final question mark: Strada Verde estimates it will pay the county $18 million in traffic impact fees, according to the local fee schedule. I would like to see the developer commit to funding a more significant portion of the upcoming Highway 25 expansion that will cost local taxpayers $240 million. In other words, I’m very concerned that taxpayers might end up footing too much of the infrastructure bill.
As a whole, it would be irresponsible to even tepidly endorse such a massive project without getting firm answers on concerns about impacts to government coffers, traffic and—of course—the environment.
With so many red flags, I can’t support this project on the ballot this November.
Kollin Kosmicki is a former editor of the Hollister Free Lance and a candidate for the San Benito County Supervisors District 2 seat.