San Benito County is a place like no other, and yet could be mistaken for many other small towns within California. October is a dry month for most of the state, the rolling hills to the east and the farmlands that dominate the landscape were awash in hues of brown and yellow. Gorgeous Pinnacles National Park is a short drive south from any of its small towns and communities. Hollister is the seat of the county and holds a majority of the human population; unbeknownst to many residents this is also an important area for Central Coast mountain lions.
This was our home for the week of October 14th as fellow wildlife biologist Shadee Kohan and I assisted with gathering signatures for a citizen's referendum petition to halt action taken by the Board of Supervisors and put the matter of growth and development in the area on the ballot so that local people that will contend with the consequences can weigh in on the issue at the polls.
Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC) is a local grassroots non-profit organization attempting to do as their name suggests, preserve the rural way of life and protect the precious few places in California that have not succumbed to urban sprawl. Local Supervisors voted on September 24th to rezone four areas along Highway 101 from Agricultural and Rural to Commercial Regional, allowing the construction of a 125-room hotel, a 100,000 square foot strip mall, and 30 residential units at each site. This would completely transform the area, endanger valuable wildlife habitat, and destroy significant cultural sites of the local Ohlone tribe. The rezoning of the 4 sites on highway 101 is only the first round out of a total of 16 sites to rezone as part of the San Benito County 2035 General Plan. This was unacceptable to PORC members who mobilized quickly to start the referendum process. With less than a month and a deadline of October 23rd to gather 2,060 valid signatures from San Benito County residents, dedicated volunteers printed literature to hand out and hit the streets of San Benito County from every direction with great heart and unwavering optimism.
As a native Californian I have seen too many places become unrecognizable in the span of 5-10 years, often decreasing the quality of life for people that live there. Many of the residents we spoke with over the course of the week confided in us that Hollister and the surrounding area has been suffering from growing pains. Worry for local businesses that may be unable to compete with big box stores, traffic that keeps people from their homes 6 hours of every day, and infrastructure that is crumbling beneath them while more housing developments were being approved were the ones mentioned most over the course of the week. Shadee and I were on our way to San Juan Bautista for dinner with PORC members and saw a line of traffic on a two-lane road that stretched for miles, without a doubt a majority of these people were on their way home from work, giving us a glimpse into the daily struggles that motivated many community members to eagerly sign the referendum petitions.
The fear that beautiful San Benito County will soon become an extension of the Silicon Valley was palpable; a life-long resident who grew up on a cattle ranch purchased by her grandfather was brought to tears by this prospect. As is often the case, what is beneficial to wildlife is also beneficial to the people that share the land.
We were brought in by the Mountain Lion Foundation because these proposed developments would be devastating to the future of Central Coast mountain lions, which would become further isolated with the proposed development. What is good for San Benito's lions is ultimately good for the residents that wish to continue living in the beautiful, rural California that has been paved over in so many other areas across the state.
Through our time there, along with the efforts of volunteers before and after us, PORC was able to gather twice the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.
However, the battle is not over yet as PORC members will continue garnering support for their cause, helping residents to understand these issues and the far reaching impacts.
Getting people out to vote in the March 3rd election will be the next steps in an ongoing mission to Preserve San Benito County's Rural Communities.
For future updates visit preserveourruralcommunities.org.