A developer is proposing a new town of up to 6,800 housing units and 2.5 million square feet of commercial and industrial space in the northwest corner of San Benito County, just across the boundary of Santa Clara County.

DMB Associates, which has developed about 10 master-planned communities in the West, has proposed the El Rancho San Benito project on approximately 11,500 acres just east of Highway 101. The project still faces a very long process: Proponents have yet to file an application with San Benito County, and they will need voters to approve rezoning of what is now farmland, pasture and open space.

“We are well into our third year of community outreach,” said Ray Becker, DMB’s project manager. “I expect we will have a land plan, as a result of a series of charettes, by the end of March.” The developer intends to file a specific plan application with the county later this year, he said.

The developer has been courting local officials and members of the public through mailings, surveys, public meetings and even field trips to a DMB project west of Phoenix called Verrado. Becker said DMB has tried to learn about local needs, and is drawing up a plan to respond.

Traffic is undoubtedly the number one issue. Highways 25 and 152, which carry commuters from Hollister and the Central Valley to Highway 101 and the Silicon Valley, are jammed at commute time, and the two-lane roads are considered exceedingly dangerous. Becker said DMB would address this situation by building a new arterial road through its project from Highway 25 to the 101 freeway. In addition, DMB has acquired a branch rail line running through the new town site from Gilroy to Hollister. “We’re still exploring potential uses of the rail line,” Becker said.

San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho said, “We have some very unique transportation needs in the region. The project would need to deal with not only its own impacts, but others.”

Gilroy Planning Manger Bill Faus said traffic generated by El Rancho San Benito would be one of his city’s primary concerns with the project. The job market and shopping opportunities all lie north of the new town in Gilroy and beyond, Faus pointed out, but Highway 101 and Gilroy streets are already quite congested. A related concern is air quality, as any large development impacts air quality in the narrow air basin at the south end of the Santa Clara Valley, Faus said.

The project’s potential orientation toward Gilroy and the rest of Santa Clara County — rather than toward the San Benito county seat of Hollister — is also a local concern. With its location adjacent to Highway 101, Rancho San Benito might have fewer impacts both positive and negative than if a new town were located elsewhere, Botelho said.

“Are those folks going to shop in Hollister? Probably not,” Botelho said of the new town’s potential residents.

DMB sees the site’s proximity to Silicon Valley as a definite asset. The location is far closer to the South Bay’s job centers than are new developments in the Central Valley, Becker noted.

“It’s in an excellent location,” Becker said. “It is at the tail end of the Silicon Valley. It is a 45-minute commute, traffic permitting, to the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.”

But Becker insists that Rancho San Benito would be more than simply a bedroom for Silicon Valley employees. The project is intended to be a fully rounded community, he said. Of the 6,800 housing units, 20% will be affordable, with a “full spectrum of housing types,” Becker promised. Nearly 2 million square feet of industrial development is planned, as is 500,000 square feet of commercial space. Once built out over 10 to 12 years, the new community could provide as many as 9,000 permanent jobs, according to promoters.

Rancho San Benito would have a mixed-use downtown district and an extensive park system. The company favors small neighborhoods of roughly 100 units centered around an iconic feature, such as a park or school, Becker said. The company’s policy is for every housing unit to be no more than two blocks from a park.

The project would also involve protection of a great deal of open space. DMB currently owns about 4,500 acres and is nearly finished acquiring another 7,000 acres. Of that total 11,500 acres, only about 3,000 acres are pegged for development, according to Becker. In general, the property is not great farmland, and there is not a lot of irrigated agriculture, he added.

Of course, new town dreams and schemes are anything but new in California. Many projects never get past the promotional brochure stage, let alone the public approval process. Supervisor Botelho, whose district includes the new town site, said he needs a lot more detail and analysis before he can make a decision.

“I’m taking a neutral position until I see the project,” Botelho said. “One of the concerns that everybody has is the scope. A new town is, to us, a big step. It has to be a contributing project that solves problems. It needs to be integrated into our community.”

Besides enduring the normal planning and environmental review process, Rancho San Benito cannot go forward unless supervisors amend the county’s growth ordinance, which caps development at 1% annually, or about 60 newly subdivided lots. In addition, the project cannot advance without voters’ consent. This is because the project involves a general plan amendment for more than 100 housing units, which requires an election in San Benito County.

Exactly when the project should go to voters has not been determined, said Art Henriques, the county’s planning and building inspection director. The voter initiative that requires the vote appears to call for an election early on, before substantial planning is done. However, the initiative also calls for the Board of Supervisors to refer such proposals to the ballot, which means the proposal would be a “project” under the California Environmental Quality Act. Thus, there would have to be a fairly substantial environmental review before the election, he said.

Becker said the growth restrictions are “a fairly understandable result of the growth patterns the county had realized in the ’90s — rapid growth without a whole lot of infrastructure growth.” Becker said that county officials and voters should be willing to relax the growth restrictions once they see how DMB will enhance San Benito County and provide needed infrastructure. Getting infrastructure in place ahead of new houses is essential, he said.

Indeed, lack of infrastructure is an issue throughout much of the county. State officials shut down growth in the City of Hollister in 2002 because of wastewater treatment capacity. The county itself has minimal infrastructure, and there are virtually no improvements on the Rancho San Benito site, so DMB would be starting from scratch.

This is the not the first try at developing a new town on the property. Ten years ago, the county rejected a proposal for nearly 10,000 housing units.

The DMB proposal also follows voter rejection in Hollister last November of a retirement community proposed by Del Webb and Pulte Homes. Their initiative — which would have rezoned 1,300 acres of agricultural land to permit “mixed-use residential” and would have exempted the project from the city’s annual limit on sewer hookups once the moratorium is lifted — received only 43% support.

Some people have drawn comparisons between the two projects, saying they both are fairly isolated locations and propose relatively dense housing. DMB did not participate in the Pulte Homes campaign and laid low for a while after the election. Becker, however, said the projects are not alike. Importantly, he said, DMB is going through the normal planning and environmental review process, rather than taking its project directly to voters. In addition, the Pulte Homes project would have been a closed-off retirement community, while DMB proposes building a fully rounded town.

Ray Becker, DMB Associates, (831) 635-5910.
Anthony Botelho, San Benito County supervisor, (831) 636-4000.
Art Henriques, San Benito County Planning and Building Inspection Department, (831) 637-5313.
Bill Faus, City of Gilroy, (408) 846-0440.
El Rancho San Benito website: www.elranchosanbenito.com