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Measure to slow development in San Benito County qualifies for ballot


Mission San Juan Bautista, left, and farmland are seen from this drone view in San Juan Bautista, California, on Thursday, November 3, 2022. (Jane Teska/Bay Area News Group)

Hollister is located 45 miles south of downtown San Jose—a small town that can seem a far cry from the freeways and office towers of Silicon Valley. But the measure heading to voters this fall could have major impacts on both communities.

Saying that Silicon Valley residents looking for cheaper housing bring too much traffic and urban sprawl, activists in San Benito County, the rural county that touches the southern edges of Santa Clara County, have qualified for a ballot measure in November that could significantly impede new development there.

Measureif approved by a majority of San Benito County residents, would prohibit most new development on land zoned for agriculture and ranching in the county unless approved by voters.

The area is known for its expansive grasslands, the soaring California condors of Pinnacles National Park, and the 18th-century Spanish mission of San Juan Bautista.

San Benito County map

As housing prices continue to rise in the Bay Area, more development in San Benito County brings a new generation of commuters, the need to build new schools and stores, and the loss of orchards and farmland to suburbs — not unlike what happened in 2013. Some say Santa County Clara in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We are growing very quickly,” said Andy Hsia Coron, a retired teacher and one of the organizers of the initiative. “There are forces in Silicon Valley looking to use our county for housing and dumping. It is a rural county next to a huge metropolitan area. “We are paying the consequences.”

In 2022, Andy Hsia Coron distributed flyers about Measure Q to residents outside the post office in San Juan Bautista.  After Measure Q was defeated two years ago, Hsia Kuron became one of the organizers of a similar initiative that could put a major damper on new development in the area.  (Jane Teska/Bay Area News Group)
In 2022, Andy Hsia Coron distributed flyers about Measure Q to residents outside the post office in San Juan Bautista. After Measure Q was defeated two years ago, Hsia Kuron became one of the organizers of a similar initiative that could put a major damper on new development in the area. (Jane Teska/Bay Area News Group)

Opponents say such measures could go further, limiting property rights and halting domestic economic growth.

“Land use measures of this type are very radical,” said Donald Wears, president of the San Benito County Farm Bureau in Hollister. “It leaves farmers and ranchers stuck in terms of what improvements they can make to their land. It makes it more difficult to get bank loans, and it can limit the flexibility of property owners.”

From 2020 to 2023, San Benito was the fastest growing of all 58 counties in California, according to the U.S. Census, growing by 5.6%. By comparison, all nine Bay Area counties lost between 1% and 7% of their population during the same time.

However, San Benito County starts from a much smaller population base. Although its land area is the same as… next door neighbor, Its population is just 3% – 68,175 in 2023 – the same as Santa Clara County’s population in 1910.

In 2022, part of the new Fairview community proposed development in an eastward drone view near Hollister, California.  Activists in San Benito County have qualified for a November ballot measure that could dramatically halt new development there.  (Jane Teska/Bay Area News Group)
In 2022, part of the new Fairview community proposed development in an eastward drone view near Hollister, California. Activists in San Benito County have qualified for a November ballot measure that could dramatically halt new development there. (Jane Teska/Bay Area News Group)

Napa, Sonoma and Ventura counties already require voter approval to change zoning and develop orchards, pastures, vineyards and farms. Supporters of the ballot measure say San Benito County needs those protections, too.

“County supervisors allowed developers to cut down our orchards and build subdivisions to house Silicon Valley workers,” the November ballot measure says. “For too many years, inadequate road impact fees have allowed our roads to deteriorate. Our schools are overcrowded and residents feel that supervisors have not asked developers to do enough to support our schools. The majority of San Benito residents live in areas with less than three acres of parks or open space per 1,000 residents. Many residents now realize that the cumulative land use decisions made by our supervisors are negatively impacting our quality of life and our peaceful rural way of life is disappearing.”

Environmental groups and slow-growth advocates have had mixed success in preventing the rural county from becoming the bedroom community of its Silicon Valley neighbor, and in blocking uses that some say threaten the relatively pristine landscape.

Ten years ago, voters in San Benito County shocked the oil industry when they passed a ban on fracking. In 2020, voters also rejected a plan to build hotels, gas stations and restaurants at four sites along Highway 101 south of the Santa Clara County line.

But the forces of slow growth suffered a setback two years ago when voters rejected a measure similar to the current ballot initiative.

The San Benito County Farm Bureau, the San Benito Chamber of Commerce and several unions opposed the measure, saying it went too far. The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on the resolution.

Supporters of this initiative, Measure Q, include the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, Green Foothills, and Save Mount Diablo. But the opponents outperformed them 10-1, and the initiative failed.

Hsia Koron said things are different this time.

He added that voter turnout is expected to be much greater this fall than it was two years ago because of the presidential race. In March, voters installed a slower-growing majority on the county Board of Supervisors. That vote came on the heels of a controversial proposal to expand the John Smith Road landfill near Hollister five-fold to accept more waste from Santa Clara County and other Bay Area counties.

Waste Connections, the Texas-based company that operates the landfill, withdrew its plans in April amid widespread public opposition. This debate has prompted people to attend Planning Commission meetings in large numbers, expressing concerns about more garbage trucks on narrow roads, water pollution and other impacts. Signs of annihilation appeared. Slow-growth advocates, called the Campaign to Protect San Benito, had no trouble gathering nearly twice the number of signatures they needed to qualify for the November ballot after telling people that passing it would prevent future landfill expansions without a public vote.

“The frustrations are already mounting,” Hsia Koron said.

There are some exceptions to the proposed new rules. Public facilities such as libraries and schools as well as housing needed to meet state-mandated quotas on agricultural land can be built without a public vote.

Hsia Coron said: It’s okay. But excessive sprawl development is not.

“Since most of the new people moving here work in Silicon Valley, it’s not feasible for them to drive three hours a day to and from work,” he said. “Housing needs to be closer to where people work. They’re pricing locals out of the market here.”



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