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Highway 101 project is slated to help cancer research but rural activists could stop it

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    SAN BENITO COUNTY, CA (KSWB) — “Now is the time. No more kids can die,” said Rider McDowell.

It’s been a little more than a year since Rider’s oldest son Errol died of brain cancer.

“Errol McDowell was a nonpareil. One of a kind. He died last year at age 18. Very tough. Amazingly creative. Part of his creative genius was conceiving of this project with me,” said McDowell.

Selflessly, during his six-years suffering with cancer, Errol focused his efforts on finding a cure. He and his brothers created non-profit, Cancer-A-Gogo, asking for $1 from each American for pediatric cancer research.

Locally, he and his parents, the founders of Airborne, dreamed up this charitable project: a 1950s vintage roadside stop off of Highway 101 and Betabel Road in San Benito County, with a gas station, restaurant, motel, historic river walk, barn to sell local goods and produce, and a San Benito County Visitor’s Center.

“All profits from this project go to pediatric cancer research. Every penny,” Rider said.

His projection: $2-$10 million a year. Which is exciting the cancer research world across the country.

Support has already poured in from the University of Utah, “This project has the potential to be the largest private contributor to pediatric brain cancer research in the entire world.”

UC San Francisco and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute have also voiced their support.

“But for the funding, I think we could cure pediatric brain tumors. We’re very close thanks to immunotherapy, gene therapy and other things that are nascent treatments,” said Rider.

Two years ago, the McDowell’s purchased the land. They’ve since used their own money to clear out what used to be a junkyard and an illegal marijuana farm and are teaming up with environmental group Coastal Habitat Education Environmental Restoration “CHEER” to clean up the Pajaro River; some days removing 5,000 pounds of garbage.

“We’re going to reclaim and restore it. All of it. This is a huge opportunity,” saidHerman Garcia, CHEER CEO/Executive Director. The McDowells’ plan to keep 86 of their 112 acres ag land, to grow organic produce on site.

Rider explained the other reason the family chose this stretch of highway, “It gets 70,000 cars a day and 250,000 cars over the weekend. So it’s a wonderful location.

And one that Frank Paura, part-owner of the Betabel RV Resort next door said, is much needed for his thousands of visitors.

“We have a lot of people that run out of gas on the highway they come over and ask us if we can borrow gas. Having a service station here would be a fantastic thing to do because we would have travelers on the highway who can stop, people from the park who can get fuel,” said Paura.

County Supervisors say the project will generate about $2 million in sales tax revenue each year. “What we’ll have is businesses that will attract some of that traffic that’s driving through our area every single day and collecting some tax dollars. Fixing our local roads, providing better services for public safety,” said San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho.

There’s one group who is strongly opposed to the project. Andy Hsia-Coron is the president of Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC) and he explained that they’re worried about the impact.

“There’s a sense in this whole area that traffic is out of control, growth is out of control and that additional development on this stretch of highway will make for more traffic. Then there were additional concerns about the beauty of the area,” said Hsia-Coron.

He and his group have been fighting this project since September, when the San Benito County Board of Supervisors passed a new zoning ordinance, allowing four commercial zoning areas along Highway 101 in San Benito County. One of those is the Betabel Road project.

“I call this the lipstick on the pig. This move to do this rezone, so they put forward the prettiest project and then they’re trying to argue for a rezone of an eight mile stretch of highway,” said Hsia-Coron.

But Supervisor Botelho disagrees.

“I think the C-3 Ordinance really does a good job in protecting our rural, agricultural character. It limits the scope of each node area to a very defined and specific area,” said Botelho.

The ordinance does outline specific qualifications for each development area and requires a developer to submit plans for public review. PORC argues that the ordinance also said each node could have a motel, 100-thousand square feet of retail space, and up to 30 residential units.

“We think ultimately if you turn around and rezone areas commercially, we think it’s dilutional to think these areas that there won’t be tremendous pressure to eventually develop them commercially,” said Hsia-Coron.

Preserve Our Rural Communities has collected enough signatures for a referendum on the ordinance which will let voters decide whether it stands. But Supervisor Botelho believes the group may have been dishonest when encouraging voters to sign the referendum.

“They have misled the public with their publications and how they gathered signatures as far as playing on people’s fear of massive residential growth and massive shopping centers that will create more traffic. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Botelho said.

McDowell said, “They were telling lies. We have them recorded a number of them. Where they’re telling untruths and exaggeration about what’s allowed to be built here. Saying we’re owned by a Chinese hedge fund, that we’re going to put a chemical factory, a big car dealership, a six-story hotel, down the road talked about putting in housing, water slides, big shopping malls.”

McDowell hopes San Benito County voters will read the zoning ordinance for themselves because he’s ready to move forward with his project and contribution to the world of cancer research.

“This is not for my son anymore. It’s for yours,” said McDowell.

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors is meeting Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. to decide whether to put the referendum on the March ballot.

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