by Michael Moore (Article in Hollister Freelance)
The developer of the 2,777-acre Strada Verde Specific Plan commercial development proposal has earmarked nearly $900,000 to promote a “Yes” vote on the Nov. 3 ballot measure that would allow the project to move forward.
As of Oct. 17, Newport Pacific Land Co. and its intermediary companies have contributed about $868,000 to the committee known as San Benito County Residents for Job Creation, which was created by the Newport Beach-based developer to campaign for Measure N. The committee has spent about $710,000 to promote Measure N as of Oct. 17, according to campaign financial disclosure forms filed with the San Benito County Registrar’s office.
The expenses largely include five- to six-figure payments to consultants, attorneys and other professional and campaign service firms, including Cleansweep Campaigns, GOCO Consulting and other companies. Individual expenses paid by Newport Pacific Land Company and its affiliated entities include $8,000 for an economic impact study and about $30,000 for a fiscal impact report on Strada Verde Specific Plan detailed in Measure N, according to the campaign disclosure filings.
By contrast, two committees formed to oppose Measure N have spent about $28,000 between them—and about $10,000 of that was for legal fees to take San Benito County to court this summer to change the wording of the Nov. 3 ballot measure.
The Coalition to Protect San Benito County has spent about $17,000 as of Oct. 17—mostly for signs, literature, mailers and other materials encouraging residents to vote No on Measure N—according to the disclosure forms.
Another No on N committee, known as No More Traffic and Unsafe Developments, has been far less active with only about $550 spent on the effort since this summer.
If Measure N wins a simple majority vote, the county would adopt the Strada Verde Specific Plan on a 2,777-acre agricultural property between Highways 25 and 101, bordered by the Pajaro River to the northwest. The specific plan would include a variety of commercial uses such as research and development, automotive testing, distribution, light industrial, retail, hospitality and others, according to the ballot measure. The plan also includes space for a public park and 561 acres to be preserved as farmland. There is no housing listed in the plan description on the ballot.
The proposed Strada Verde site is just over the Santa Clara County line, about seven miles from Gilroy.
Newport Pacific Land Co. proposed the project, formerly known as Strada Verde Innovation Park, earlier this year. The company and its representatives collected more than 3,000 signatures in July to place the proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Mary Hsia-Coron, treasurer of Coalition to Protect San Benito County, says it is “outrageous” that the developer has spent nearly $900,000 campaigning for its ballot measure. She noted that none of the contributors to the Yes on N campaign disclosure forms are San Benito County residents.
“They’re trying to buy the vote,” Hsia-Coron said. “It’s pretty outrageous that anyone who is wealthy can come and force everyone to vote on something like this… It’s very unfair, and it shows the inequality in our democracy that a wealthy developer can spend this much money on an election.”
Scott Fuller, a campaign consultant hired by the developer-funded Yes on N committee, said the hefty spending is necessary in order to get the word out about the benefits of the Strada Verde proposal.
“We want to get the message out to all the voters in San Benito County,” said Fuller, who has received multiple payments of $3,500 from San Benito County Residents for Job Creation. “We want to have them understand the project, the benefits, the jobs and the revenue it will bring to the community… In order to get that message out, it’s quite expensive.”
Although there are no San Benito County residents listed as contributors to the Yes on N committee, Fuller listed numerous active organizations and locals—former and current officials among them—who are endorsing Measure N. These include labor unions in San Benito and Santa Clara counties, chamber of commerce, San Benito County Business Council and environmentalist Herman Garcia.
“We have never asked for any local money,” Fuller said. “As a private developer, we’re funding (the campaign) ourselves.”
A county auditor’s report estimated that the Strada Verde commercial proposal, if built to completion, could generate up to $26.4 million in local annual tax revenues for the county and schools. Supporters of the project have estimated its construction would create 18,000 jobs, plus another 5,500 permanent jobs after it is fully built out, if approved.
Opponents of Measure N have listed numerous potential unwanted impacts from the massive commercial proposal, including increased truck traffic, urban sprawl, loss of farmland and habitat, as well as uncertainty over the projected job numbers and types of jobs.
Measure N detractors also worry about the project’s proximity to TriCal, Inc., a chemical storage and blending facility on Highway 25. TriCal was the subject of a county-commissioned report in August that detailed the hazards of a large-scale commercial project such as the Strada Verde Specific Plan within 3.5 miles of TriCal.
Fuller added that Newport Pacific Land’s campaign disclosure forms are “up to date and the letter of the law,” while alleging that the opposing campaign forms are incomplete. “There is no transparency in how they’re funded,” Fuller said.
The fundraising reports for Coalition to Protect San Benito County list about $17,000 in expenses, but only about $3,000 in contributions.
The No More Traffic and Unsafe Developments committee was created by Frank Barragan, who sued the county in August to change the wording of Measure N. The lawsuit was successful as Superior Court Judge Omar Rodriguez ordered the county to slightly change the Measure N wording on Sept. 2.
In September, the Fair Political Practices Commission received two complaints related to Barragan and the group Concerned Citizens of San Benito County. One of these was for mailers that allegedly failed to identify who sent them, in violation of FPPC rules. Both cases are open and pending.
When asked about Newport Pacific Land’s extensive spending on the Measure N campaign, Barragan wondered if the developer is “already looking at how to get around it” and build some version of the Strada Verde project even if the voters say No. He cited a press release from the Yes on N campaign this week touting an agreement between Strada Verde and TriCal to implement “full mitigations of any and all safety issues” before the county issues occupancy permits, if Measure N passes. The agreement would eliminate the need for a buffer zone between Strada Verde and TriCal, reads the Yes on N press release.
“They’re already looking at how to get around it,” Barragan said. “This is not the end game for them.”
If Measure N is approved, all construction within the Strada Verde Specific Plan area will require local county construction and planning approvals. It will also undergo a full environmental review under state guidelines, according to the Measure N text.
The ballot question in the Nov. 3 San Benito County election reads:
Shall an initiative enacting the Strada Verde Specific Plan, and making County General Plan and Zoning Code Amendments for approximately 2,777 acres of agricultural land in northwest San Benito County, allowing various uses (including Research/Development, Automotive Testing/Tracks, Distribution, Offices, Business/Professional Services Commercial, Light Industrial, Hospitality, Retail, and Public/Private Services) and requiring the creation of a 209.5 acre Pajaro River Park and preservation of 561.7 acres exclusively for agriculture be adopted?
More info: To read the full text of Measure N—as well as impartial analyses and arguments for and against—visit the county registrar’s site at http://sbcvote.us/measure-n-2020-san-benito-county/