Are both District 4 supervisorial candidates really for “smart growth?”
Most of us have a hard time envisioning 15,000 acres because we don’t deal with properties of that size. This should help. The existing Fort Ord National Monument is about 15,000 acres. The fort itself was about twice that size during its heyday. Toro Regional Park between Monterey and Salinas stretches deeper into the hills than you’d expect but still covers only 5,000 acres or so. It would take three Toros to equal 15,000 acres.
Remember the Rancho San Juan proposal? That was one of the big land-use controversies of the last decade. The Rancho San Juan community north of Salinas would have been huge but it would have taken seven of them to cover 15,000 acres.
Need something smaller? Maybe you’ve been to Spreckels, the cute community near Salinas. Set 200 of them side by side and you’d have 15,000 acres.
We’re talking about 15,000 acres here because that’s the amount of good farmland that would be turned over to development purposes under the proposed Economic Development Element to the Salinas General Plan. No, it wouldn’t be developed all at once, of course. It would happen in dribs and drabs, so most of the work wouldn’t set off any Rancho San Juan-style controversies.
Much of that development would be to the southwest and southeast of current Salinas city limits. Significantly, it would spread the city south beyond Blanco Road, which traditionally has been viewed as the firm and final dividing line between urban and ag.
We’re talking about that 15,000 acres now because it is a factor in the current political campaign between Monterey County Supervisor Jane Parker and challenger Dennis Donohue, the former mayor of Salinas. It is a factor, an important factor even, though it has not yet risen to the status of a public campaign issue. That’s because Parker is a quiet sort, not one to shout about things, and Donohue maybe isn’t sure how to play it.
According to a handful of knowledgeable observers, including Supervisor Dave Potter, Donohue’s support for the Economic Development Element is a key reason that former Supervisor Lou Calcagno chose to endorse environmentalist Parker over agriculturalist Donohue in the June contest. It was a big deal, that endorsement.
Calcagno was a major force on the board, often the swing vote. And though he is something of an environmentalist, he was better known as a champion of both agriculture and development, as incompatible as those two industries might seem. What some folks don’t know about Calcagno, however, is that he is a fierce champion of preserving farm land. That’s why he has been active for years now with the Ag Land Trust, which helps provide tax advantages for farmers who agree to easements protecting their land from commercial or residential development.
Anyone who didn’t know about Calcagno’s position on farmland or the Economic Development Element must have been surprised to hear of his endorsement of Parker. By the way, did I mention that some of the 15,000 acres slated for development is currently covered by Ag Land Trusts?
So is Donohue really supporting the Economic Development Element, which still faces an environmental impact review before it will be eagerly adopted by the growth-minded Salinas City Council? He says he hasn’t really made up his mind.
“I could not begin to offer an opinion on the reasons behind why Lou endorsed my opponent because he never spoke to me about my candidacy,” Donohue said via email. “Additionally, to comment on the expansion of South Salinas would be completely irresponsible as I have yet to see any plans, formal or otherwise and to offer an opinion would be pure speculation.
“What I can definitively say, is that as the three-term mayor of Salinas and candidate for District 4 supervisor, I am in complete support of the revitalization of Oldtown Salinas, and feel our efforts should be focused on what we can accomplish in the near term.”
I had told Donohue in an email of my own that others believed that he is squarely behind the 15,000-acre plan but he didn’t address that point. He says he hasn’t seen any plans, formal or otherwise, yet the Economic Development Element has been around since 2014, has been unanimously approved by the Salinas City Council and has been the subject of at least one article in the Monterey County Weekly.
To be clear, the Economic Development Element proposes much more than merely gobbling up farmland. It pushes the concept of Salinas as a key player in the intersection of ag and technology, something Donohue had pushed hard during his tenure as mayor. It would provide space for industrial uses and promote significant highway construction and traffic reconfiguration, ending the near gridlock conditions that sometimes occur in and near the ag-related industrial zone near the airport. I figure the promise of change there is a big part of why big ag is supporting Donohue in a big way, campaign contributionwise.
The Economic Development Element makes no secret of its intentions. Its south-of-Blanco ambitions are spelled out in maps and its underlying intent is delineated here:“Lack of available vacant land within city limits and within the city’s sphere of influence is a key constraint to economic development.”
So you might be asking what this has to do with the Board of Supervisors? Good question.
The county comes into the equation at several levels. First, the county government is well-represented at LAFCO. That’s the agency that determines when cities can annex property or even widen what is known as their spheres of influence, the area of probable expansion. A Board of Supervisors that includes Donohue rather than Parker would be a Board of Supervisors more likely to support the annexation effort.
Urban boundaries also represent agreements between the cities and the county because the lines affect the provision of constituent services and the collection of taxes. The city of Salinas would find it easier to negotiate with a board that includes Donohue instead of a board that includes Parker.
For her part, Parker doesn’t have a lot to say. She’s like that. She has done little so far to trumpet Calcagno’s endorsement. She offered only a short take on the subject.
“As you know, I support smart growth and the preservation of farmland — both of which contribute to our economic vitality. My understanding is that extending the city limits south of Blanco could violate an agreement between the city and county. Right now, it’s important to focus on the economic vitality of downtown Salinas.”
Oh, by the way, LandWatch Monterey County has already had something to say about the Economic Development Element. Among other things, it has argued in letters to the city that considerable vacant and underutilized property now exists within city limits, that thousands of acres designated for residential development to the north and east of the city remains open and that development on the fringes of a city tends to discourage healthier and more efficient infill development.
LandWatch’s Amy White also makes a key point about water. Supporters of the Economic Development Element argue that industrial development generally does not require more water than the previous agricultural use. White counters that taking farmland out of production often results in cultivation of rangeland and other untilled acreage, resulting in a net increase in water use, a huge factor in the Salinas Valley.
So, it’s complicated, as you probably have concluded from the length and meandering nature of this missive. That’s partly why, as important as it is, you probably won’t be reading about the issue until well after the election, at which point it may be too late to do anything about it, depending on who wins.