In a state where rolling golden hills and aged oaks are steadily disappearing, the approved Ferrini Ranch development along Highway 68 eviscerates this pristine and quintessentially Californian image. Yet despite significant environmental impacts to water, traffic and views in direct conflict with its general plan, Monterey County not only approved the project but also completely ignored the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
CEQA requires that the county deny a project where there is feasible mitigation that would avoid or substantially lessen significant environmental impacts. If an impact cannot be mitigated, CEQA requires that the county disclose that fact. Additionally, CEQA requires that the county prepare, circulate for review, and respond to comments on a legally adequate Environmental Impact Report (EIR). These steps are crucial to ensuring informed public participation in the approval process and accountable decision-making.
In approving the Ferrini Ranch development, the county failed to comply with these mandates.
The Ferrini Ranch approval relied on incomplete mitigation through water and traffic management projects that will never occur. It also failed to disclose that impacts would not, in fact, be mitigated.
The Ferrini Ranch project raises serious water concerns, and these issues were not clearly disclosed or addressed during the approval process. The draft EIR failed to make known significant cumulative water impacts because it relied on the county’s all-purpose panacea for water impacts, the Salinas Valley Water Project. Despite LandWatch’s demonstration that the Salinas Valley Water Project is no longer expected to solve the problem, the EIR stonewalled, refusing to acknowledge the impact.
Only after the EIR was complete did the county admit the Salinas Valley Water Project will not stop seawater intrusion and that additional water management projects are needed. But the EIR failed to disclose that the water impacts remain unmitigated because the needed groundwater management projects have not been approved, funded or environmentally reviewed. And despite the incomplete mitigation, the county told the public that the water impacts would be mitigated by the project’s assessments for the Salinas Valley Water Project.
It is indisputable that Monterey County has serious seawater intrusion and overdraft problems.
The county cannot make these problems go away by ignoring them, as it did in the EIR, or by simply assuming a solution, as it did in approving the project. Where approval of a project is based on an inaccurate EIR and denial of reality, California law demands that the decision not stand.
The county’s treatment of the project’s impact on Highway 68 traffic was similar. As in its water analysis, the EIR proposes that the project fund its share of a partial solution and call it a day. Even if the applicant builds a one-mile widening of Highway 68, that is inadequate mitigation under CEQA. The applicant will be reimbursed for whatever it spends over its “fair share” for this mile of pavement, but it will make no fair share contribution to the remaining needed Highway 68 expansion, which is unbudgeted, unfunded and unplanned. This is akin to offering someone a bicycle frame with no tires. Without tires, the frame isn’t a transportation solution, but merely a disheartening reminder of one’s inability to travel anywhere.
The county has acknowledged that the Highway 68 traffic problem is unsolvable. It follows that the proposed solution of funding a partial expansion of Highway 68 will not solve the traffic problem. Rather, it will serve as a disheartening reminder that, despite the acknowledged existence of a severe traffic problem, the county approved a development that exacerbates the problem. Such actions do not comply with CEQA, nor do they constitute sound land-use policy.
Finally, the county, again ignoring CEQA, decided that the development’s impacts on views were either nonexistent or negligible despite obvious risks to Highway 68’s designation as a California Scenic Highway and obvious impacts to hikers in the Fort Ord National Monument and Toro Regional Park, who will be forced to view 185 large new houses where there are now rolling hills. In this case, the draft EIR claimed that all visual impacts were mitigated, based on inaccurate photo simulations and mapping created by the applicant and on zoning provisions that will not actually apply to the project.
When LandWatch questioned the adequacy of this analysis, the final EIR again stonewalled. Again, only after the EIR process was complete did the county admit that there were, in fact, numerous errors in the analysis.
Staff scrambled to redesign the project, admitting that the EIR‘s project description had become “obsolete.” The ensuing back and forth of chaotic and conflicting staff reports forced the Planning Commission to approve a subdivision without even knowing where the lots would be.
And some visual impacts were never evaluated because lots will be relocated in the future and because the visual impacts of a mile of new freeway and a new intersection were never evaluated.
Informed decision-making is at the heart of CEQA. A government body cannot make an informed decision, and the public cannot weigh in on that decision, if the information on which the EIR is based changes or is incomplete. In short, the county’s visual impact analysis violated CEQA by taking a wait-and-not-see approach.
The approval of Ferrini Ranch demonstrates the county’s willingness to ignore CEQA’s mandates in order to dispose of community assets – water, views, and ease of travel – for short-term gain. The proposed mitigation for Ferrini Ranch is inadequate under CEQA. The EIR process failed to provide the public with required information and an opportunity for informed comments and responses.
The county abused the CEQA process by conducting its environmental analysis on the fly after the EIR was finalized based on a changing project and a changing description of the environmental circumstances.
If the courts condone such actions and allow the project approval to stand, what prevents the county from making other baseless approvals in the future? Either CEQA means something, or it does not. The county seems to think it does not. It is now up to the courts to protect the public’s interest by informing the county that, in fact, CEQA matters.
This piece was co-authored by Laura C. Davis and originally appeared in the Salinas Californian. DeLapa is executive director and a founder of LandWatch Monterey County. He holds multiple degrees from Stanford University. Davis is a volunteer with LandWatch Monterey County and an attorney. She holds degrees from Stanford University, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and Santa Clara University School of Law.