HOLLISTER — With little environmental review, a 28-acre housing project on farmland in San Juan Bautista has been approved and Construction on the Rancho Vista Development will probably begin before the end of the year, said San Juan Bautista City Manager Roger Grimsley in a recent phone interview.
“In the latter part of this year we will see infrastructure improvements and houses, then, in the first part of next year,” he said.
With a few amendments for sidewalk improvements and more funding for city monuments, the San Juan Bautista City Council approved the development agreement between the city and R.L. Fulton Holding Company to build the Rancho Vista Subdivision on April 21.
The 28-acre project is located on the north end of the city on the west side of San Juan Highway, and abuts Christopher Ranch. The zoning would be changed from Agriculture to Low-Density Residential and the open farmland transformed into 85 lots for single-family residences, most of them between 6,000 and 10,000 square feet. San Juan Bautista currently has only about 550 residences.
The project is to be developed in phases. First, the site will be cleared and streets, sidewalks and utilities for the first homes will be installed. That is expected to take four months. Then, 14 homes would be built every five months until the project is complete. Water and sewer services would be connected through the city’s existing systems and PG&E would provide gas and electricity by extending service on 1st street.
All streets are to include curbs, gutters and sidewalks and parking. A new bridge would be built to extend Third Street onto the site and a roundabout will be installed on San Juan Highway to create an east-west main entrance to the subdivision.
The landscaping plan includes split-rail fencing around the perimeter to keep with the existing fencing. A row of large trees that partially obscures views of the site from the San Juan Highway would stay standing.
The City Council first adopted an agreement with the development company on March 17, but had also sought some changes. Those included installing all of the sidewalks at the beginning of the building process and for the developer to donate $25,000 towards monuments to be placed at the city’s entrance, an increase from $5,000. The new agreement also limits construction hours to 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Exceptionally loud work is to be stopped at 4 p.m. and can’t start until 8:30 a.m. on weekdays.
It’s a large project, but was approved with only a mitigated negative declaration study, rather than a full environmental review, to comply with California Environmental Quality Act requirements.
And that could be a problem if the project were to be challenged.
Grimsley said the environmental review process is always a concern.
“If they request more environmental review, we will have time to address their concerns,” Grimsley said. “I don’t anticipate a full EIR.”
But several public officials, both local and regional, said off the record that a project like Rancho Vista should have an EIR. San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho (District 2) was willing to go on the record.
“My advice is always to get the full EIR,” he said. “It should have a full EIR so you can have the proper level of review. There’s water, public safety, roads … drainage is a real concern to the county and you already have a problem along the whole San Juan Highway.”
A prominent local land-use attorney didn’t disagree. When asked whether using a negative mitigation declaration in such an instance was normal, Santa Cruz County land-use attorney Gary Patton, known for his “Land-Use Report” on local public radio, at first said it was “not normal,” but then changed his mind — sort of.
“Using a mitigated negative declaration in such an instance is often quite ‘normal,’ though it is unlikely that it is consistent with the law,” he said. “If the government agency decides it doesn’t need a full EIR, then that decision will stand, absent a challenge by the citizens.”
Or a challenge from a few public agencies. The Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife could both ask for more review. They have some jurisdiction over the land because of an onsite irrigation ditch and an intermittent creek channel that connects to the Pajaro River. The area has wetlands located on it and could contain several endangered species. The streams and waterways on the property will also be checked for steelhead. If steelhead are found, mitigation measures will have to be coordinated with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The current mitigation plan only says to “where feasible, retain streams and creeks in their natural channels rather than placing them in culverts or underground pipes. Where stream channels must be deepened, widened, or straightened, they should be landscaped and revegetated afterwards.”
A total of 15 bird species were identified as having a potential to occur on the project site, among them are nesting passerine birds and burrowing owls. Surveys will be conducted for both the passerines and owls and buffers created for them if they are found.
Workers will also be trained to identify, and then asked to look for, red-legged frogs and tiger salamanders, and if one is found, they will have to stop work until it either leaves the area voluntarily, or the project’s biologist comes remove it so he or she can release it at a pre-determined site.
The agricultural land being used is designated by the state as Farmland of Local Importance, rather than Prime Farmland or Farmland of Statewide Importance, as more than 90 percent of the farmland in the San Juan Valley has been designated. All of the farmland, just across the San Juan Highway from the project, has such a designation.
And if all these factors were not enough, a recent archeological study places the project in an area of high potential for buried prehistoric resources, according to the publication “Archeological Consulting,” published May 28, 2014. According to the mitigated negative declaration, some “ceramic and glass shards were noted on the surface of the small slope in the southeastern part of the project area.”
Nothing else was found, though, and because deep excavation is not proposed, the MND found it “unlikely that any paleontological resources would be encountered.”
Soil erosion and noise during construction, air pollutants and other environmental concerns will all have some affect on the environment and neighbors, but none of it was deemed “potentially significant” on the Mitigated Negative Declaration. Will this pass muster if challenged?
“I’m pretty neutral on the project,” Botelho said. “But if there is opposition, it will go to court, in my experience, and the judge will rule to do an EIR.”