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Supes eliminate ‘study areas’ to restrict housing

New Community Study Areas were added to General Plan in 2015

The map above, from the 2035 General Plan, shows where four New Community Study Areas were designated for future development. In an effort to limit new housing in the unincorporated areas, the board of supervisors on Sept. 13 voted to eliminate the New Community Study Areas from the General Plan.

San Benito County supervisors recently decided to restrict new housing in four geographical areas that encompass significant swaths of the county’s unincorporated agricultural, open space or vacant land.

But some local residents at the last board meeting decried the move as “political theater,” while voicing their support for two Nov. 8 ballot measures that aim to limit new construction throughout San Benito County.

The board of supervisors at the Sept. 13 meeting voted unanimously to eliminate all four “New Community Study Areas” that are defined in the San Benito County 2035 General Plan. The areas were added to the General Plan in 2015 as potential areas for future residential, commercial and mixed-use development.

Supervisor Bob Tiffany on Aug. 23 asked the board to consider eliminating the study areas, and declaring that the county does not support new housing in the New Community Study Areas. Tiffany’s request was specific to the Bolsa New Community Study Area in the northwest part of San Benito County.

The Bolsa area consists of about 11,657 acres on 170 private parcels—most of which is currently zoned agricultural (one home allowed per five acres) and rangeland (one home per 40 acres), County Assistant Director of Planning Abraham Prado explained to the board.

The Bolsa study area is hobbled by existing constraints that make residential development “undesirable,” including inadequate transportation infrastructure; a lack of jobs-housing balance; and other General Plan priorities on non-housing development that generates jobs, tax revenue and impact fees, Prado said.

Under the 2035 General Plan, future development in the New Community Study Areas could have included “new towns to mixed-use master plan communities,” but no property owner or developer had submitted any plans for such projects before the board’s Sept. 13 discussion, according to county staff.

The board on Sept. 13 also approved a motion to direct staff to present an “urgency ordinance” at the next supervisors meeting, allowing the county to immediately “prohibit or restrict” residential development on the lands within the New Community Study Areas while it goes through the General Plan amendment process to formally eliminate them.

The other unincorporated New Community Study areas eliminated from the General Plan by the board Sept. 13 are the San Juan New Community Study Area just west of San Juan Bautista; the Fairview study area in northeast San Benito County; and the Union study area on the southwest side of the City of Hollister.

The supervisors on Sept. 13 noted that while these areas are part of the General Plan, they were added in 2015 when none of the current officials were on the board. They said eliminating the study areas is consistent with their preferences to direct new residential growth inside or closer to the city limits of Hollister, and to prioritize commercial types of growth in the unincorporated areas.

“These New Community Study Areas are reckless, completely out of touch with residents and they underscored how flawed the process was to develop this General Plan,” Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki said. “They are sprawl by definition; even hinting at residential growth in these areas is completely ludicrous.”

However, Kosmicki noted that the timing of the supervisors’ Sept. 13 discussion is unfortunate as it took place less than two months before the Nov. 8 election, which features two local measures that could vastly impact future development in San Benito County.

Some of the proponents of those measures spoke during public comment at the Sept. 13 meeting. Jan Sexton called the agenda item “political theater.” She described the board’s position as “a way to remove the areas of concern from the General Plan right before the public gets to consider Measure Q, which would take future decisions like this away from the supervisors, and give them to the citizens of the county.

“I trust the citizens of the county,” Sexton added. “In the past, I have not trusted the supervisors to make good land planning decisions.”

Measure Q, if approved by a majority of voters, would require a future election vote each time an agricultural, rangeland or rural zoned property owner applies for a rezoning of their land for other uses. It would also eliminate commercial node land use designations from the county’s General Plan.

Measure R would establish a 3.5-mile buffer zone around TriCal, Inc.’s property on Highway 25, in which no future construction would be allowed.

“This vote from the supervisors does not make me feel comfortable that we’re really being transparent and honest about how we’re handling land planning in the county,” Sexton said.

Local resident Daniel Camacho agreed, and noted that even with the elimination of the study areas, a property owner could still submit plans to rezone agricultural or rangeland property for housing. He also urged the public to vote “yes” on Measures Q and R.

“These measures will place the power in the San Benito County voters to ensure we are not developing areas that will increase traffic, are next to dangerous chemical plants or destroy our agricultural ground,” Camacho said.

The supervisors, however, rejected any suggestion that they would approve new housing projects in the four study areas anyway.

“This has nothing to do with trying to circumvent anything,” Supervisor Bea Gonzales said. “It’s to clear the record and make sure that there is no housing there whatsoever.”

Tiffany, who has been a vocal opponent of Measure Q, said it is “ironic” that the people who want to restrict future growth were speaking against a proposal to limit new housing in large areas of the county. He said the proponents of Measures Q and R—who include a group that has lobbied against growth in San Benito County for several years—have cited the 2015 creation of the New Community Study Areas as a “secret plan” by the county to build more housing on properties within the areas.

“We continue to hear these outright lies,” Tiffany said. “I felt this was a way, if we get rid of these New Community Study Areas once and for all, that would help undercut that erroneous message that was out there.”