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May 30, 2024

Letter from mayor’s lawyers delays 400 block consideration

A law firm representing Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez submitted a letter to the planning commission last week claiming the mixed-use project planned for the 400 block of San Benito Street exceeds density limits in the city’s own zoning code.

The mayor’s letter, received hours before the planning commission was set to take up the 400 block matter Thursday night, prompted the panel to put off consideration on the project until its next meeting in late March.

The letter from San Francisco-based Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger on behalf of Velazquez also alleges the plan requires a full environmental review and that builders should pay development impact fees. Velazquez owns The Vault building that neighbors the project site and has recused himself from city decisions on the project.

Velazquez, who claimed the planning commission was ready to “rubber stamp” the project Thursday, didn’t affirm or deny whether the letter is a precursor to further legal action on his part.

“As I said from the beginning, let’s follow the right procedures and we’d never be in these situations,” he said when asked if he’s considering court action.

He went on: “Let’s get the public input. Let’s follow the rules.”

The city has so far exempted the developers from paying impact fees while claiming they shouldn’t have to because buildings had been on the site prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake, which destroyed structures on the block. The city has also allowed the developers to forego a full California Environmental Quality Act review, which can add significant costs to such a project.

That project, located on what’s commonly called the 400 block, has been going through the approval process at the planning commission and council levels. The Community Foundation for San Benito County partnered with the Del Curto Brothers on the project, which would include a building referred to as a Philanthropic Center serving local nonprofits to go with 22 condominiums and six commercial units.

The letter focuses on the Del Curto portion of the project, the condos and commercial portion, and claims the 22 condominium units amount to double the allowable density as written in the zoning code portion of the city’s general plan. A municipality must abide by its own zoning rules, but can allow for density bonuses if a project offers up a certain number of affordable units.

The mayor’s lawyers argue the condos and commercial portion of the project are on 12,535 square feet, or 0.288 of an acre. The city has included the entire lot consisting of 0.45 acres, including the foundation’s portion, in its calculations as they relate to allowable residential density.

The city’s zoning code allows for a maximum of 40 units per acre in the downtown district. According to the mayor’s interpretation of the applicable lot size, that would allow for just 11 condo units. Using the city’s interpretation, it would allow for 18 condo units. To get to 22 condos, then, city officials acknowledge the developer would have to include some units designated as affordable in the final project in order to qualify for a density bonus.

Top Hollister planning officials Bryan Swanson and Abraham Prado spoke about the letter to San Benito Live on Tuesday.

“They’re going to have to provide a certain amount of affordable housing in order to get that density,” Prado acknowledged.

The city’s planning officials said the developers could receive a “density bonus” by building “maybe two or three” affordable units in the project.

Swanson said city officials put off Thursday’s planning commission consideration “in order to get a little more time to review the letter that was submitted.” He said Thursday’s decisions likely would have been the planning commission’s final consideration on the project.

The letter, which has put the consideration on hold for at least a month, is a 12-page document with the letter on six pages and exhibits on the other six pages.

“The City cannot lawfully approve the Project as proposed,” according to the letter signed by two attorneys, Robert Permutter and Edward T. Schexnayder. “It must be redesigned to comply with the City of Hollister’s land use regulations. Even if redesigned, the Project will cause foreseeable environmental impacts in downtown Hollister that the City must evaluate. The City cannot rely on a CEQA exemption to approve development of the 400 Block.”

The City of Hollister sold the 400 block property to the two development partners in 2017 for $390,000 as part of the extinct Hollister Redevelopment Agency’s state-required dissolution. It came with expectations the partners would build the nonprofit center, commercial units and condominiums. The Del Curto portion of the project includes six units on the ground floor, with 11 condos on the second floor and another 11 planned for the third floor.

To read the letter sent by attorneys for Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, click below: