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August 17, 2022

O’Connell Ranch rejected

Planning Commission calls the proposed 361-home subdivision off
101 and Betabel Road more

urban sprawl

Developers who wanted to build a 361-home community between San
Juan Bautista and Gilroy were stunned last week when San Benito
County officials shot down their proposal.
Planning Commission calls the proposed 361-home subdivision off 101 and Betabel Road more “urban sprawl”

Developers who wanted to build a 361-home community between San Juan Bautista and Gilroy were stunned last week when San Benito County officials shot down their proposal.

The county planning department denied the O’Connell Ranch project, which had been in the planning stages for years. As recently as July, attorneys and advisors had moved some holdings out of the Williamson Act as part of the process.

“I was terribly disappointed and surprised last week because that wasn’t what we were told was going to happen,” said developer Alan Bornstein, speaking from his THF Realty office in St. Louis, Mo., on Tuesday.

O’Connell Ranch would have nestled homes in the rolling – and sometimes severely steep – Lomerias Muertas hills along the north border of the San Juan Valley. The ranch is part of a 6,947-acre block of territory that begins on the edge of Highway 101 and Betabel Road on the west, borders the Flint Hills to the southeast and pours into the Bolsa basin adjacent to Highway 25. Of that vast tract, 6,000 acres were to be kept in cattle grazing and the remaining 947 acres tucked in the southwestern corner of the parcel would have become the O’Connell Ranch community. About 210 acres would have houses sitting on them, with the more expensive homes located at higher elevations.

It is similar, however, to the Paicines Ranch project that the planning commission denied last year, in part because it was leap frog development far from urban areas.

“I don’t see how this thing is not considered urban sprawl,” said Commissioner Joe Tonascia. “At the same time, I’m wondering where the benefit to San Benito County is.”

The project would include 91 affordable homes for senior citizens, its own batch wastewater facility that would recycle the water on landscaping, an 80-acre cemetery, an elementary school, a fire station, a sheriff’s substation and plans for 40 acres of retail stores, including an AM/PM type service station.

But last Wednesday, after characterizing the subdivision as “urban sprawl,” the Planning Commission told the developers not to bother paying the county to perform an Environmental Impact Report for the project.

“What haven’t I done here to meet the requirements?” Bornstein asked rhetorically in an interview. “I’d only use 3 percent of the land I own to cluster my development.”

The meeting was held to decide what kind of research should be included in the environmental impact review that planning staff recommended be completed before developers enter the competition for building allocations under the county’s 1 percent growth cap.

For three years, Bornstein and his associates worked on a specific plan for the O’Connell Ranch development and with county planners on how best to approach the project. They were aware they were facing a rising tide of public resistance to big development.

“People in the development community of California had told me I was going to face a hostile reception in San Benito County,” he said.

Even with the warnings, however, Bornstein didn’t expect to get denied before he could pay for an EIR. He flew out for the planning commission meeting last week to “observe,” as he said, expecting the meeting to be a general formality in the long road to realize his dream.

When Chair Jack Kent opened the meeting up to public comment, the developers said they were only there to answer questions. It was an indication, planners said later, that the backers thought approval would be a slam-dunk.

“I’m kind of surprised no one wants to talk about this,” said Kent, who then closed the public hearing.

That’s when the planning commissioners took the project to task.

“Granted there’s three-quarters of a million dollars in tax revenue, but then, San Benito County has to maintain the thing so what’s our costs on that going to eventually be?” said Tonascia. “I don’t see any benefit to any of our businesses, both commercial and industrial, for the workforce or dollars spent in the stores. I see it costing the county money and not making it any money.”

Murrill Conley agreed.

“What does San Benito County get out of it?” said Conley. “How does it benefit the current residents? You’ve heard me say that before. I see nothing in here about traffic. It’s touched on very, very lightly. How does CalTrans feel about these additional 3,000 trips a day on Highway 101? I’m surprised that nobody wants to speak on this.”

The commissioners noted that the area was known for landslides. Adding to their trepidation was that the San Benito River borders the southwest side of the property, and Tonascia said that the county is already getting criticism from neighboring communities about San Benito’s polluted contributions to the waterway, which eventually flows into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Commissioner Anthony Freitas didn’t like the idea of another city being built.

At that point project consultant Geary Coates of Pacific Grove asked for the hearing to be reopened.

Coates said that his clients’ concerns were the same as the commissioners’, but that their plan avoids all the potential problems cited.

“In our opinion, it does not create any new impacts or contribute to any older impacts that would be associated with development within that area,” said Coates, who added that because the development was to be located adjacent to a freeway, there would be no impacts to county roads.

Coates defended a preliminary traffic study of the area and assured the board that the 40 acres of retail space would be located right next to the highway. In reality, he said, only 20,000 to 40,000 square feet of the 40-acre lot would be used for retail.

He reiterated that performing an EIR would answer any further questions they have.

But Tonascia persisted with his inquiry throughout the meeting.

“Why isn’t this urban sprawl for San Benito County?” he asked.

Coates said the project was consistent with the county’s General Plan. After batting it around further with Tonascia, the commissioner asked Coates again why the project wasn’t an example of urban sprawl and what benefit it would have to the county.

Again, Coates attempted to answer by saying their project was well within the criteria required of the General Plan growth ordinance. He cited the school that developers planned to build on the premises, that the land was not considered prime farmland and how it was appropriate for residential development to fit the needs of the area.

“Well, I don’t find where it’s going to help the labor situation or new businesses or help the businesses we have,” said Tonascia.

“You’ve got to disguise it pretty well to not call it urban sprawl,” said Freitas. “I really don’t like the project, it’s too big.”

Eventually commissioners voted unanimously to deny the next step in approval for the project. It means that Deputy Planning Director Fred Goodrich and other planners have been directed to find the reasons why the project should be denied.

The main reasons are landslides that have created vast craters in the hillside over the years.

“It does have areas that have experienced land slippage over the past 50 years or more,” said Goodrich. “Their own geology report indicated those areas. They planned to build the homes in areas away from that, but still, that whole area is on unstable ground. Plus, you have the San Andreas Fault quite close, on Anzar Road.”

Bornstein and his associates were crestfallen.

“We did not want to compete with businesses in San Juan Bautista, we wanted to add to their level of business,” said Bornstein. “None of that was aired because of that summary decision they made.”

The O’Connell Ranch was a departure from what Bornstein’s company specializes in: shopping centers. In half the states of the U.S., the THF Realty Co. has built every size of shopping mall. But Bornstein stressed that the O’Connell Ranch project had no such ulterior motive.

Bornstein calls himself a “developer,” although he is also a real estate lawyer in St. Louis. He said if he doesn’t get his way with San Benito, he will not sue the county.

“I’m not a litigator,” he said. “I don’t want to be perceived as threatening the county.”

Bornstein plans to appeal the commission’s decision to the Board of Supervisors.

“There are some developers that come in on their high horse,” he said, and try to strong-arm a county and leave them to pay for the services needed.

“I believe we are the antithesis of that,” said Bornstein. “We did come in from out of town, but we didn’t assume we had the right to do anything.”

Kate Woods
A staff member edited this provided article.

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