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April 12, 2024

Amah Mutsun files complaint to stop Betabel project

Tribe says commercial proposal would harm cultural resources

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band last week announced that it has filed a lawsuit against San Benito County to halt development of a new commercial project on Betabel Road, which sits on property that “holds significant historical, cultural and religious value” to the tribe. 

The lawsuit filed by the Amah Mutsun Tribe follows the news that two San Benito County organizations—the Center for Biological Diversity and Protect San Benito—filed a similar complaint in superior court, alleging that the county’s environmental review of the Betabel Road project was insufficient. 

The Amah Mutsun lawsuit asks the San Benito County Superior Court to set aside the board of supervisors’ previous approvals for the 26-acre commercial project on Betabel Road next to Highway 101. The lawsuit also asks the court to prohibit the project from moving forward “unless and until the developers and county comply with” the California Environmental Quality Act and other applicable land use laws, says a press release from the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. 

The property where the Betabel Road project is proposed sits within the Amah Mutsun’s sacred ancestral home, known as Juristac, and as such contains tribal cultural resources that will be “irreparably harmed” by the development. The site is also a key wildlife corridor and provides “valuable open space for the community,” says the press release. 

“The landscape of Betabel and the larger Juristac area holds so much of our Tribe’s history and culture,” said Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “The people of our Tribal Band were stewards of this land since time immemorial. We are trying to work with the county, the developer and the community to resolve this issue in a way that is fair to all parties, while insisting that our rights, as a Native American Tribe with historical claim to this land, be respected.”

The county board of supervisors on Nov. 8 voted to approve a conditional use permit and certify the final Environmental Impact Report for the Betabel project. The board also rejected, on a 4-1 vote, two appeals of an earlier planning commission recommendation to approve the Betabel project. The two appeals were filed by PSBC and the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

The EIR approved by the board Nov. 8 identified “significant and unavoidable impacts” from the project on scenic resources, farmland, tribal cultural resources and increased vehicle traffic, according to county staff.

Located at 9644 Betabel Road and owned by the McDowell Charity Trust, the 26-acre project includes a total of 108,425 square feet of commercial space—with a gas station and convenience store, restaurant, up to five amusement buildings, a visitor center, three-story motel (with an outdoor movie screen), event area, livestock corral, farmstand and related parking, restrooms, driveways and other supporting facilities.

The McDowell Charity Trust has promised to donate all profits from the development of the Betabel Road site to pediatric cancer research. 

The Amah Mutsun Tribe’s lawsuit names the county, board of supervisors and project developers as defendants, according to the press release. 

CEQA requires public agencies to analyze, among other things, a proposed project’s impact on tribal cultural resources, noted the press release from the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The lawsuit claims the county failed to consult with the tribe and that their draft EIR did not properly consider or mitigate the impacts of the project to these cultural resources, says the press release. The County also failed to revise the EIR to consider the project’s impact on the unique value and conditions of at least five individual sites and features that have cultural or archeological significance.

“The county rushed through this commercial development proposal, neglecting to finish basic studies requested by the Tribe in time for them to be considered, and releasing a blatantly incomplete environmental impact report,” said Sara A. Clark, Partner at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, the law firm representing the Amah Mutsun. “Then the county failed to revise their report to incorporate information on Tribal cultural resources at the project site. We are asking that the county follow their own local laws and the laws of the State of California.”

On Dec. 9, the Center for Biological Diversity and Protect San Benito County filed a lawsuit to stop the Betabel project, claiming that the board of supervisors violated environmental protection laws when they approved the conditional use permit. 

Rider McDowell, of the McDowell Charity Trust, said in response to the Dec. 9 lawsuit that the community “has been wonderfully supportive” of the plans at the Betabel Road node. 

“We’re trying to do something positive for the county and children’s cancer on a former junkyard,” said McDowell, referring to the filthy state the Betabel property was in when the trust purchased it. 

Michael Moore
Michael Moore
Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.

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