No on Measure N – Let Us Count The Ways to Say No
From time to time, we encounter proposals that have so much wrong with them that the only unifying theme responding to the problems is simply, “No”. Welcome to Measure N, the San Benito County ballot measure that would approve the massive Strada Verde development proposal on 2700 acres of undeveloped open space right on the border of Santa Clara County. The developers claim it is a high-tech jobs proposal for autonomous vehicle testing and development, but the truth is that it primarily creates massive warehouses and associated traffic.
Harms a Critical Wildlife Corridor
Among the many other problems with this sprawl proposal, located along the Pajaro River, is that it threatens one of the two wildlife linkages connecting the Diablo Range to the Santa Cruz Mountains (the other one being Coyote Valley). This linkage is the same one that runs through Juristac, the most sacred landscape of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Juristac landscape includes Strada Verde, and damage to its ecological value, much like the proposed sand quarry a short distance to the north, would be a both a cultural and environmental scar on the landscape. We could win the fight to protect Juristac from the sand quarry but still lose a major portion of the wildlife linkage if the Strada Verde development goes forward.
Places Thousands of People Adjacent to a Dangerous Chemical Storage Facility
In the current and deadly fire season, we need to be even more aware of physical danger, and the Strada Verde project literally creates the risk of bringing a cloud of deadly poison to a crowded area. The risk already exists in the form of an agricultural chemical storage facility called Trical, immediately adjacent to the proposed development, where thousands of pounds of dangerous chemicals are stored. Currently, the Trical facility is isolated, with only agricultural parcels for neighbors. What Measure N would do is bring thousands of workers to the neighboring property of Strada Verde.
Although the thousands of jobs promised by the Strada Verde developers may never materialize, if we take the developers at their word, their proposal would put thousands of people in danger. San Benito County analyzed the risk from Trical, and their consultant found that an explosion or simply a large leak could create a deadly cloud that might extend for miles. The consultant reached this conclusion despite the County staff’s support of the project for its potential tax revenue. A second consultant not only agreed that a moderately shorter, two-mile plume could result, but also found that the chemical concentration in the atmosphere could end up being twice the amount that they analyzed.
Illusory Protection for Remaining Open Space
Under Measure N, over half of the 2700 acres of farmland and ranchland would be converted to developed uses. Of the remaining land, the proposal supposedly protects a remnant 562 acres of farmland from development – but only for the 20 years that Measure N may not be modified without voter approval. Afterwards, a simple vote of the Supervisors could eliminate the farmland, and putting development right next to those farms makes that Supervisor decision more likely.
Strada Verde supposedly treats a strip of land along the Pajaro River as “permanently” protected park. However, that permanence is illusory. The park is not required to be created until after the first of the park’s two phases of the development have been constructed, so if the developer never proceeds to the second phase of development, the park may never happen. Also, dedication of parkland is listed only as a possibility and not required. This means they could choose to not dedicate any ownership rights to the County, and then after 20 years when Measure N expires, give the County Supervisors some excuse or incentive for deciding the “permanent” protection component needs to be removed or amended in the Specific Plan. This supposed environmental protection is not at all guaranteed.
Environmental Review Gutted by Measure N
Many of these problems could have been exposed and corrected through environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but as a “voter initiative” (one entirely created and paid for by the developers, including the use of paid signature gatherers), it is not subject to environmental review required of development that goes through the normal planning process everyone else follows. The developers and the County staff argue some environmental review will occur afterwards for a subdivision map for the property, but if Measure N passes, the decision to modify the General Plan and enact a Specific Plan for Strada Verde will not undergo review, period. The primary purpose of CEQA is to “look before you leap” and that purpose will be defeated as to these changes to the General Plan, which can be regarded as the Constitution of the county.
County staff are claiming they have started and will do an Environmental Impact Report for a subdivision map that Measure N says is “required” for the project, but this involves far less scrutiny. The General Plan is changed by Measure N and that change will not be examined. Contrary to the staff statements, Strada Verde could be built, operated, and even sold without a subdivision, so whatever CEQA review is done for a subdivision could be ignored as long as the owner doesn’t subdivide the property. The subdivision map will be required to comply with Measure N’s Specific Plan, so any significant reduction in development would almost certainly be found infeasible and discarded.
County staff like to refer to a subdivision being necessary “as a practical matter,” but as a practical matter this after-the-fact, environmental review seems likely to only point out environmental impacts from the project without proposing conflicting mitigations, and it will basically just offer an up-or-down decision on the subdivision where the Supervisors are highly unlikely to vote against Measure N. There may be some new mitigations that don’t conflict with Measure N, but most of the flexibility to protect the environment will be lost.
A Vote of the People Should Be a Safeguard, Not a Loophole
Finally, one of the most important things to remember is that a vote of the people works properly as a final safeguard for environmental protection, but Strada Verde is abusing the initiative process to turn a vote into a loophole that evades the public control and oversight that happens in the normal planning process. Requiring a vote of the people prior to a massive sprawl project after it has undergone the full planning process is good – it’s one more safeguard against the system breaking down. Measure N is the opposite. We hope San Benito County voters reject Measure N.