HERMAN GARCIA IS AN UNLIKELY ENVIRONMENTAL HERO.He grew up in Gilroy, hunting and fishing and playing in local rivers and streams for recreation, but the natural world grew distant for him during a 33-year career as a professional poker player. At 72, he is proud of his still-black hair and says he stays young thanks to a diet of mostly burgers and burritos (he doesnt cook).
He was competitive and athletic as a kid, then eventually turned that physical energy toward fighting. But he decided to fight on behalf of the state, stepping in to make over 2,000 citizens arrests and participating as a volunteer in drug busts.
In his gambling years, Garcia played under the moniker The California Kid, specializing in California stud poker a game upheld as legal by the California Supreme Court in 1962, thanks to Garcias dad, also a poker pro. He dropped out of Gavilan College to go into the family business, working at Garcias Club and pursuing a gambling career because he was enticed by the money.
They used to say at the poker table, if he cant beat you with his chips, hell beat you with his lips, Garcia says.
Hes still talkative, with a remarkable recall for details, rattling off dates and numbers easily. Some are from his earlier life. In making all those arrests, Garcia says he was shot twice, stabbed 24 times and got 17 concussions. (All of those concussions left him with positional vertigo, a neurological disability, so he avoids looking up or down quickly, as well as traveling by boats, planes and elevators. He views the world from straight on, like a giant flat-screen TV.)
Garcia knows his past sounds fantastical, so he keeps a binder of records and news clippings to prove it for example, a letter dated April 2, 1990 from President George H.W. Bush commending him for his crime-fighting efforts.
The more relevant numbers Garcia rattles off today have to do with cleaning up the Pajaro River watershed (1,300 square miles, 1,800 miles of streams, four subbasins, hell tell you) and steelhead restoration. On that topic, he also has fish counts off the top of his head for how many steelhead he rescued year over year in Uvas Creek, also in the watershed, reflecting 200-fold growth: 120 in 2006, followed 1,482 in 2007 then 23,512 in 2008.
In 2006, the Pajaro River was number one on nonprofit American Rivers annual list of the most endangered rivers. The Pajaro is designated as impaired under state clean water standards, and contributes the worst quality water of any river to the Monterey Bay [National Marine] Sanctuary, according to the report.
Now were on nobodys list, Garcia says. We reclaimed it.
A nonprofit called CHEER Coastal Habitat Education and Environmental Restoration became Garcias retirement project. He put down the cards and returned to Gilroy in 2001, and invested roughly $80,000 to get the organization started. It remains small; its most recent Form 990s, filed with the IRS by nonprofits in lieu of tax returns, show just $53,000 in annual revenue.
Suddenly, Garcia and his small nonprofit are at the center of a controversial and litigious battle for the future of the Highway 101 corridor in San Benito County, at a 112-acre property off Betabel Road along the confluence of the San Benito and Pajaro rivers.
He is also a supporter of a Pebble Beach family that wants to develop a shopping center and visitor center at the property, becoming the de facto spokesperson for their environmental bonafides, despite opposition from a local nonprofit group, and a pending lawsuit.
Herman Garcia has spent a year-and-a-half cleaning up the Betabel Road property. He travels with documents detailing his river cleanup efforts, which he says are inspired by his childhood in Gilroy: All we did as kids was go to the creek.
FOR THAT PEBBLE BEACH FAMILY, the story of the Betabel Road Project is tied to tragedy.
The eldest of Rider and Tori McDowells three sons, Errol, was 18 when he died in 2018 after a six-year battle with medulloblastoma, a pediatric brain cancer.
They talk about their late son largely in the context of music and art, describing him as a renaissance man with a spirited personality. He was larger than life, Tori says. He was like a lawyer, always negotiating.
He stayed positive through those six years, attending school when he could at All Saints Day School and then Carmel High, in between treatments including clinical trials, many of which came with nasty side effects. He was so courageous, Tori says. He underwent so many procedures, because he knew it might help other kids.
One clinical trial left him with hearing loss, particularly painful for a musician. He was a genius on piano, Rider adds.
The McDowells Pebble Beach home is full of artwork, with a nautical theme in the living room and portraits in the dining rooms, including one piece by Riders father, artist Sam McDowell, depicting Errol playing piano.
Theres also a rustic farm vibe, with a horse pasture out front and a chicken coop. They also have a farm in New Jersey, where Rider grew up. During shelter-in-place, theyve been home in Pebble Beach a lot, cooking with their 12-year-old twins, but plan to make a road trip to the East Coast farm this summer.
The McDowells have been remarkably successful in business. In the 1990s, Tori invented Airborne, an effervescent immune supplement. At the time, she was teaching second grade in Spreckels, and looking for a way to beat the constant colds; the product took off as the first of its kind to be successfully marketed mainstream, rather than just in health food stores. (In 2008, Airborne agreed to pay $23.3 million to consumers in a class-action settlement over claims of false advertising. The next year, the McDowells sold the company to New York-based private equity firm GF Capital Management and Advisors, LLC, for an undisclosed price, and the company was sold again in 2012 for $1.4 billion.)
Today, theyre kind of retired, Rider says, though he writes films and plays, and Tori has created a new immune supplement, called Victorias Family Formula with ingredients like garlic and oregano.
The McDowells also own Pine Brothers, a gummy throat drop product that originated in 1870 in Philadelphia. A few billboards along Highway 101 in Monterey and San Benito counties promote Pine Brothers drops, and the Betabel Road shopping center, naturally, would sell them.
Rider and Tori McDowell with Gritz, their adopted shepherd mix, were hopeful when their son Errols (right) brain cancer went into remission three times. We had hope, then no hope, then hopethen it got dashed, Rider says.
THE MCDOWELLS MADE NATIONAL NEWSwhen, in 2017, they offered $10 million to anyone who could procure what they believed would be a life-saving (but rare) drug for their son.
Errol himself started a nonprofit, Cancer-A-Go-Go, with the goal of raising $1 from every American, hoping to amass some $325 million to fund 28 pediatric cancer therapies. The McDowell Charitable Trust continues funding cancer research, and was one of the two dozen funders behind a promising breakthrough announced on May 18, when researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute published their findings inNature Neuroscience. They discovered that combining immunotherapy with a drug called TNF (tumor necrosis factor) eradicated a deadly type of pediatric brain tumor in mice, working to remove a so-called invisibility cloak and enable the immune system to recognize cancer cells.
The thing that killed our son we have on the ropes now, which is bittersweet, Rider says.
During Errols years of treatment, theyd drive back and forth to UC San Francisco along Highway 101. There was a junkyard next to Betabel Road in San Benito County, a spot that Errol envisioned buying and turning into something, Rider says. The familys McDowell Charitable Trust acquired the property before Errol died, but a development there is still in contention.
As if to prove Errols affection for the all-American road trip and roadside attractions, Rider pulls a half-dozen books on the topic off a shelf about Americana. Errol and I would dream up a road trip highway project, he says. It would inspire him to think about going to weird-ass places.
We have no interest in being developers he identified the spot, while we went up and down the highway twice a week. We are just trying to make Errols life matter.
To that end, the profits from the Betabel Road Project would go to the trust, which would then fund cancer research, like the findings in theNature Neurosciencepaper. In the McDowells telling, the Betabel Road Project would also be a living monument to Errol.
It would also permanently change the look and feel of the Highway 101 corridor in ways that some San Benito County activists oppose and that San Benito County voters already rejected. Despite that, Rider McDowell is determined to see his project through: Thisll fly, because Ill never give up.
IN SEPTEMBER OF 2019, THE SAN BENITO COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORSvoted unanimously to rezone four swaths of property, called nodes, to allow commercial development, in alignment with what was in their general plan, which designated 16 total commercial nodes. The county ordinance would have rezoned each of four nodes on Highway 101, up to 120 acres in total, to be developed with up to 100,000 square feet of commercial space, up to 125 hotel rooms and 30 residential units. Each node would have an established theme that would drive that nodes visual character and promote an aspect of the countys history or economy, according to an initial study prepared for the county in 2019. (For Betabel, it would be a mid-century roadside theme.)
The four property owners hired attorney Dan DeVries to advocate for rezoning to make their agricultural properties align with the countys general plan; DeVries was a planning commissioner in 2015 when that plan was approved, and he sees the zoning as a simple update to match that planning document.
San Benito County is hungry for economic development, especially coming out of Covid-19, DeVries says. We want a brighter future, not a bleaker one.
But a group of San Benito County residents saw a transformation of their rural county with sprawling growth and a series of schlocky developments, says Andy Hsia-Coron.
Hsia-Coron has lived in Aromas since 1986, and has long been a champion of progressive causes. A former teacher at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, he became an advocate for prison reform, and helped free a man wrongfully convicted of murder. He volunteered politically for progressives like John Laird and Bernie Sanders. And he became a successful organizer: In 2014, he helped lead the charge onMeasure J, San Benito Countys fracking ban the first of its kind in California and then got involved as a lead on neighboringMonterey Countys Measure Z, a fracking ban that passed in 2018.
When the San Benito County supervisors voted to rezone the four nodes, Hsia-Coron rallied neighbors to form nonprofit Preserve Our Rural Communities (PORC). The group is now working on an urban growth boundary for the city of Hollister and a policy that would make rezoning subject to voter approval.
But their most urgent initiative was to overturn the countys rezoning ordinance. In the March 3, 2020 election, they succeeded by voting downMeasure Kwith 60 percent of the vote.
With their grand rezoning plan sunk by a referendum, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors decided instead to take a more piecemeal approach. On April 7, they voted to rezone just one of the four nodes the Betabel Road property. (DeVries continues working with the other three property owners on alternative paths forward.)
PORC members wouldve again gone out to gather signatures in an effort to overturn the rezoning, but the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible to go door-to-door. So the group sued the McDowells and San Benito County, asking a judge to block the zoning change, and for a temporary injunction to give them more time to collect signatures.
That temporary order was granted, but a judge then gave PORC 30 days to gather signatures starting on June 6, based on modified county health orders. Hsia-Coron says the pandemic still made it unsafe for volunteers, and well before their deadline of July 6 to submit 2,010 valid signatures for a referendum, theyd stopped with just a couple hundred.
Instead, the group hopes the other claim in their lawsuit stops the project.
Their claim is that because voters already sank the four-node rezoning plan with Measure K, the Betabel rezoning is a violation of election law. A court hearing is expected within a couple of months.
Hsia-Coron believes McDowell is leading the supervisors down an unwise path, promising growth. Hes a con man, Hsia-Coron says. Hes making San Benito County his next B-movie. Hes recruited actors our county supervisors and given them scripts that are just ridiculous.
Herman Garcia and CHEER volunteers removed thousands of pounds of trash from the river banks and the floodplain where the San Benito flows into the Pajaro River on the Betabel Road property, including more than 100 tires, two destroyed RVs, and electronics and home furnishings.
ON A RECENT THURSDAY MORNING,Herman Garcias truck is filled to the brim with junk a box spring, a grill, a tray of paint cans, a wooden table that he gathered from the side of the road the night before. Someone called him around 7pm to report the dumping in progress, and he rolled up to load it all. The truck was empty, so I scooted right over, he says. If I dont respond to the hot spots, its like graffiti.
Before the Betabel Road Project advanced very far, Garcia was the guy everyone wanted on their side. Both the developer and representatives of PORC asked him to join them long ago.
Garcia says members of PORC approached him at a political fundraiser for Assemblymember Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, and asked him to join them in opposition to the project.
He said he didnt have an opinion either way, that he didnt have enough information and there was no environmental impact report spelling out details.
He also remembers getting a call in early 2019 from McDowell inviting him to the property, followed immediately by a call from DeVries. He met them onsite and they asked for his support on the project. I said, I cant support you, I cant oppose you, because you have nothing to show me no architectural drawings, no soil samples, no EIR, Garcia recalls. Then Rider says, What can I do for you right now? I said, Well, Id really like access. Rider says, Sure, heres the combination.
Thus began a relationship between McDowell and Garcia, and between Garcia and the river.
Garcia started walking the property the next day, discovering tons of trash along the banks. What I discovered was just a nightmare, Garcia says. I told Rider, You bought a landfill, dude.
The McDowells trust and Graniterock chipped in to buy CHEER, Garcias nonprofit, a lift loader valued at more than $10,000; Garcia proceeded to haul tons of garbage from the lower half-mile of the San Benito River, where it runs into the Pajaro River on the Betabel Road property.
Theres still no EIR instead, the San Benito County Planning Department prepared supplemental documents to describe the effects of rezoning and project details remain conceptual for the Betabel Road Project. In a town hall meeting via Zoom on June 25, McDowell detailed a few components, including a visitor center shaped like a giant watering can. Thered be a restaurant, a market, a fruit stand, a gas station and a river walk. Its only nine acres out of 120, and its pretty and unobtrusive, McDowell says.
Garcia decided he didnt need an EIR to throw his support behind the project. Thanks to Rider McDowells support, he says hes been able to access the property and clean it up to the point that steelhead trout were seen in the San Benito River in May, for what he believes is the first time in over 50 years.
Garcia went back twice with a videographer after he first saw what he was sure were steelhead, to capture footage to share with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And sure enough, NOAA Fisheries biologist Joel Casagrande says they are juvenile steelhead, though he says its not clear this is a return one benefit of a group like CHEER is that volunteers are out monitoring in places government agencies dont regularly see but says its definitely good news. To find theyre using any part of the San Benito system is important, and its reassuring to know not all is lost, Casagrande says.
Garcia is dismissive of PORC and its members.Theyre not environmentalists, theyre just activists, Garcia says. Our success is that were the boots on the ground. Were the witness to the murder going on in our watershed, and were the ones out here doing the hard work.
ITS EASY TO SEEhow the property was recently a junkyard. Other than the locked chain-link fence and a billboard for Pine Brothers throat drops, theres nothing to see; the only stop off the highway exit is an RV park.
But the Betabel Road property is Steinbeck-country pretty. On a recent day, a couple of deer graze in a meadow just above the river. The confluence of the San Benito and Pajaro rivers is a thick forest of willows with fluffy pollen floating on the breeze and catching the light. The Pajaro River is deep and murky here, but the San Benito River runs clear, and a few three-inch fish, probably California suckers, swim in a shallow pool.
There are also bigger animals that inhabit this wildlife corridor, where the Santa Cruz Mountains meet the Gabilan Mountains. In February, the Land Trust for Santa Cruz County acquired nearby Rocks Ranch, a 2,640-acre property south of Highway 101 that straddles Monterey and San Benito counties. In a 2019 study on the potential acquisition of that property, consultant Jodi McGraw wrote about the connectivity of that area, calling it a critical landscape linkage. (The Bingaman family, which owned Rocks Ranch for more than 70 years, sold most of it to the land trust, and kept a remaining 60 acres along the highway that had been zoned for development as a node with the theme of an old California village or small town, a designation which was then overturned by Measure K.)
To Garcia, the presence of steelhead here is a divine sign that McDowells project is meant to be. Its also a sign that Garcias hard work has made this old junkyard into something worth saving: We transformed it from a dead ecosystem, he says.
Without the signatures for a referendum, McDowell says hell submit building plans to the San Benito County Building Department: Now we move forward with our project.