San Benito County and its elected board of supervisors violated state environmental protection laws when they approved a conditional use permit for the Betabel commercial project proposed next to Highway 101, according to a lawsuit filed last week by two nonprofit organizations.
The lawsuit—filed Dec. 9 in San Benito County Superior Court by Center for Biological Diversity and Protect San Benito County—is asking a judge to order the board of supervisors to reverse its previous approvals of the project. The plaintiffs are also seeking court costs and attorneys’ fees.
“San Benito County officials can’t ignore how this project harms and disrupts one of the last remaining wildlife corridors between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Gabilan Range in San Benito County,” said Tiffany Yap, Senior Scientist for Center for Biological Diversity. “This area provides critical connectivity for wildlife, especially struggling local mountain lions that are being driven to extinction by habitat fragmentation.”
Before the board could consider approval of the Betabel project, an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was required under the California Environmental Quality Act. That EIR “fails to adequately identify, evaluate, and/or require mitigation for all significant direct and cumulative environmental impacts the project will cause,” says the lawsuit filed by Center for Biological Diversity and PSBC.
“(Substantial) evidence shows the project will have several significant unmitigated environmental effects that the EIR either failed to identify, failed to evaluate adequately, or failed to mitigate where feasible,” says the Dec. 9 lawsuit. “Furthermore, the record shows that the county violated the information disclosure provisions of CEQA in several other respects, failed to respond adequately to public and agency comments on the Draft EIR, and otherwise failed to proceed in the manner required by CEQA.”
The Betabel highway node proposal has been met with steady contention since it was proposed more than a year ago. Located at 9644 Betabel Road and owned by the McDowell Charity Trust, the 26-acre project includes a total of 108,425 square feet of commercial space—with a gas station and convenience store, restaurant, up to five amusement buildings, a visitor center, three-story motel (with an outdoor movie screen), event area, livestock corral, farmstand and related parking, restrooms, driveways and other supporting facilities.
The proposal also includes nature trails and a raptor rehab center.
The county board of supervisors on Nov. 8 voted to approve a conditional use permit and certify the final EIR for the Betabel project. The board also rejected, on a 4-1 vote, two appeals of an earlier planning commission recommendation to approve the Betabel project.
The two appeals were filed by PSBC and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The latter has long protested that the Betabel project would cause irreversible harm to the lands where it is proposed, which are part of the tribe’s sacred ancestral home known as Juristac.
Andy Hsia-Coron, a member of the PSBC legal committee, said after filing the lawsuit Dec. 9, “The Supervisors’ effort to aid the Betabel developer was a disservice to the people of San Benito County and puts our environment at risk. The Supervisors approved the EIR option with the greatest environmental impact and ignored other options that have less impact. Our Supervisors have proven they will bend over backwards and disregard environmental law when it comes to helping developers.”
PSBC is made up of San Benito County residents—including Andy and Mary Hsia-Coron—who formerly acted as Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC). The organization now uses various methods to promote the preservation of agricultural, rural and other natural resources in San Benito County.
The EIR that was approved by the board Nov. 8 identified “significant and unavoidable impacts” from the project on scenic resources, farmland, tribal cultural resources and increased vehicle traffic, according to county staff.
Rider McDowell of the McDowell Charity Trust has promised that all profits from the development of the Betabel site will go toward pediatric cancer research.
McDowell dismissed the Dec. 9 lawsuit as the act of a “desperate couple” whose efforts to stall development through the ballot box have been rejected by a majority of voters. He noted that the supervisors and planning commission have approved the Betabel project, and the greater community “has been wonderfully supportive.”
“We’re trying to do something positive for the county and children’s cancer on a former junkyard,” added McDowell, referring to the filthy state the Betabel property was in when he purchased it. “Their lawsuit is another desperate measure, which will fail. What motivated them? We simply don’t know.”
San Benito County Counsel Barbara Thompson declined to comment on the Dec. 9 lawsuit.
Named as “real parties in interest” by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are members of the McDowell family and other people connected to the ownership and development of the Betabel project.