Nearly 30 years after a massive earthquake destroyed a section of downtown Hollister, the future of the vacant 400 block of San Benito Street will be decided by the city’s electorate next November.
On Monday, the Hollister City Council chose to put the issue before voters after Mayor Ignacio Velazquez’s successful petition drive forced the city to revisit their decision to sell the city-owned parcel.
“I’m glad the public will get their right to vote, I’m just saddened to hear the council is still looking for a way out,” Velazquez said by phone Tuesday. He recused himself from the council vote because he owns the neighboring Vault. “They’re still looking for a way to keep that right from the people.”
City officials are still awaiting an opinion by the California Attorney General’s Office on the petition’s validity, but it appears for now, the referendum will go ahead at the next general election.
“I’m telling you right now, if the attorney general comes back and says that this is an illegal administrative act that cannot be voted on, I’ll be the one up here saying we need to cancel everything we started and go back to the original agreement we had,” said Councilman Jim Gillio.
In June, the city council voted to sell the 400 block to the Community Foundation for San Benito County and local developers the Del Curto Brothers Group for $390,000, the corner plot’s value as last appraised in 2015.
Plans are to develop the 400 block into shop fronts, housing and a new philanthropic center for the nonprofit organization.
“I think the city council did the right thing,” said Community Foundation CEO Gary Byrne on Tuesday. “The least cost to the city is beneficial to everybody.”
The city council could have also decided to hold a special election, which is more costly than a general election, or rescind the agreement to sell the parcel. Holding the vote during next year’s general election is expected to cost the city between $25,000 and $30,000.
The election will be paid with monies from the city’s general fund reserves, estimated around $5 million.
To date, Hollister has spent $3,168.79 to verify petition signatures through the San Benito County Registrar of Voters.
Byrne said the November election would give the public time to learn about the planned development.
“This will give a great opportunity to educate people on the merits of the project,” Byrne said. “The more information the community has, the wiser they are.”
Councilman Ray Friend agreed.
“If this goes to November, there’s going to be an education plan,” Friend said. “Everybody in this city is going to know the truth about how this went around.”
Community Foundation Board Vice Chair Rebecca Wolf, who also pledged $900,000 towards the construction of the philanthropic center, said in an email the topic would be discussed at the foundation’s next board meeting.
The Del Curto Brothers Group did not respond to requests for comment.
Vice Mayor Karson Klauer said the best option was to place the issue before voters in November.
“The voters have made it clear that they want this on the ballot,” Klauer said. “I think we should do that.”
There were some on the council, however, who felt the 1,660 Hollister voters whose signatures were found valid were misled.
“Everybody has a right to the referendum,” Councilwoman Mickie Luna said. “Anybody who signed that referendum, think about what you signed. If you signed that referendum or petition in front of any store in the City of Hollister thinking you were signing against housing development, that wasn’t true. You were signing to put this as a referendum on the ballot about the 400 block that’s been sitting there for 28 years.”
Gillio said he wasn’t sure if people knew the full scope of the proposed project—a new headquarters for the community foundation and a mixed use building with commercial retail on the ground floor and condominiums on top.
“I think what we need to do as a city, as a council, as a community, everybody involved in this project, we need to get this information out,” Gillio said. “We have 1,600 people who signed this referendum and they expect a choice to be made.”
Former County Supervisor Margie Barrios spoke during public comment in support of the proposed 400 block development.
“The earthquake of 1989, which most of us remember very well, destroyed our buildings but not our spirit of philanthropy,” Barrios said. “We’re faced with a great opportunity. I think this is one of the greatest opportunities that this city council has had for a long time, and that is to rebuild with a great purpose.”
Local educator Victor Moroni reminded the council to consider the First Amendment.
“Tucked at the very end was the right to petition your government,” Moroni said. “It seems to me that the citizens of Hollister did that. That’s what the interim city clerk has pointed out: that the elections office has enumerated that process, has counted those petitions and found them valid. Now you have the simple choice tonight, which the election code is very crystal clear. The State of California says either repeal the whole thing or if you choose not to do that allow the people their right to vote. I’m a big fan of letting people have the right to vote. I think that’s a great thing.”