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A Dave Potter for Supervisor sign has sprung to life at the Corral De Tierra shopping center property, either setting off or solving a political mystery

In the world of small-time journalism, Monterey County style, this might be something but then again it might be nothing at all. You decide.

It involves revisiting an old controversy about whether one large corner of the intersection of Highway 68 and Corral De Tierra Road should be made over as a fairly significant shopping center with a super market, dry cleaners, maybe a restaurant, that sort of thing, or whether it should remain as is, country funky with mostly bare grass and trees and an unused service station. Some people in the Corral De Tierra/San Benancio neighborhoods supported the plan. By my reckoning, they were mostly friends of the owners, the Phelps family, or people who would have some role in building or supplying the businesses to be built there. Most everyone I know in the neighborhood, my neighborhood, was opposed on grounds that they’d rather see the grass and trees left alone.

Couple years back, the issue went to the Board of Supervisors for a decision. The Phelps family, which owns the property, had been trying for decades to get approval for a shopping center and, finally, they got the vote they needed. It was 3-2. On the side of the Phelps family were Lou Calcagno, Simon Salinas and Fernando Armenta. On the losing side, Jane Parker and Dave Potter. Potter, not so incidentally, represents the territory involved in the dispute.

Potter’s no vote, combined with lack of any sign that he had worked behind the scene to combat the project, led to serious discussion among the political observers of Monterey County. Some, including yours truly, argued that Potter likely could have stopped the project if he had really wanted it stopped. He might have played a little politics, as politicians are wont to do, by trading something with one of the supervisors who voted yes. He might have stepped up and made some up-front arguments about what is wrong with the project. Water supply for instance. Our reasoning was that surely the hometown supervisor could have swung the vote against the project and away from his past campaign contributors if he really had wanted that result.

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Nearby, it’s the battle of the signs

Defenders of Potter said people such as myself were being unfair and seeing conspiracies where none exist. They said we were unfairly accusing Potter of trading votes with the only other potential no vote, Lou Calcacno, accusing without evidence. That position, I must admit, is not without merit. (As you might have guessed, the fate of the project is up to the courts.)

Now, fortunately for my piece of mind, another shred of evidence supporting my theory has surfaced in the form of a “Potter for Supervisor” sign that went up this week on the very property we’re talking about here. Let those who post comments at the end of Partisan pieces explain to me why the Phelps family would allow the posting of a sign for a supervisor seeking re-election if they truly believed he had attempted to foil their decades-long plan to turn their dormant land into some serious money.

To thicken the plot just a bit, signs for two other supervisorial candidates recently appeared on the neighboring property. They support Potter’s opponent, Mary Adams, and the other supervisor who opposed the Phelps project, Jane Parker. In front of those signs, on the Phelps side of the fence, a Potter sign quietly makes a recommendation of its own.

Am I reading too much into campaign signs? Probably so, but maybe not. Maybe the Phelpses are just the kind of folks who say yes to everyone wanting space for a sign. Or maybe I’m right and this is late-arriving and circumstantial evidence that I was right all along, which might be a first.

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The Monterey County Board of Supervisors’ 3-to-2 decision approving the Harper Canyon project is irresponsible. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that we do NOT have the water NOR do we have the traffic capacity on Highway 68 to support this development. Dave Potter and Jane Parker, the supervisors who voted against this project, made these points very clearly during the discussion before the vote. The staff report recommending approval of the project was truly egregious, because it ignores the most important information from the environmental analysis and makes false arguments that are not supported by the facts.

WATER

The final EIR makes clear (based on the most recent and definitive study of the water basin) that the Corral de Tierra sub-basin is in serious overdraft, with groundwater levels declining over a foot per year for decades to come. That study projects that groundwater levels will continue to decline as more building permits for existing lots of record are issued, harming existing well owners who will have to drill deeper wells to reach the water. Contrary to the county’s findings, the Geosyntec study does not identify any benefit to the Corral de Tierra sub-basin from the Salinas Valley Water Project (SVWP).

This last point is critical. The approving supervisors said that because the SVWP will solve all the Salinas Valley Basin’s problems, this subdivision should be approved. It was the same argument used for approving the Ferrini Ranch subdivision. The truth is, the SVWP was never intended to solve all the basin’s problems but rather help slow saltwater intrusion into the basin. Saltwater intrusion is still marching south towards Salinas. Relying on the SVWP is absurd and frankly dishonest.

All of the recent studies (Geoscience 2013, Brown and Caldwell 2015), the Monterey County Water Resources Agency staff, and the county’s own findings in the Ferrini Ranch project establish that the Salinas Valley Water Project will not restore groundwater elevations in the valley and that additional groundwater management projects are required.  The necessary projects have not been environmentally reviewed, approved, or funded.  None of this is disclosed in the Harper Canyon EIR or the county’s findings for the Harper Canyon project.  It is unreasonable and contrary to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to claim that the landowner’s payments toward an ineffective project is sufficient mitigation.  Despite this, the final EIR claims that the Harper Canyon project will not aggravate cumulative impacts to the Corral de Tierra sub-basin, citing the Salinas Valley Water Project panacea.

FINAL Ferrini Ranch and Harper Canyon centered

Even if the SVWP were effective in restoring groundwater levels in the adjacent Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin, neither the EIR nor any other substantive evidence in the record explains how the SVWP could restore groundwater levels in the up-gradient Corral de Tierra sub-basin. The only expert hydrological testimony in the record on this point explains that the Corral de Tierra sub-basin groundwater flows down into the Pressure Sub-basin, so it is a source of recharge  to the Valley, not a potential beneficiary of Valley groundwater flows.

The supervisors also apparently relied on a 72-hour pumping capacity test to conclude that there is a long-term sustainable water supply.  This test established only that the project wells are currently able to pump water.  The test cannot establish any conclusion about long-term cumulative impacts to the Corral de Tierra sub-basin, and in fact it revealed that groundwater levels have declined 20 feet at the project site in the last 15 years.

Even though the environmental analysis was incomplete and misleading, it is still quite clear that we do not have the water for this project. As the Planning Commission correctly determined, approval of the Harper Canyon project is inconsistent with the 1982 general plan policies that call for protecting a sustainable water supply for all users.

TRAFFIC

The EIR admits that the project will cause significant and unavoidable impacts to five of the eight Highway 68 intersections and segments analyzed under 2015 conditions.  LandWatch’s comments pointed out that this violates the 1982 general plan policies banning approval of projects without adequate traffic facilities.  At the final hearing, after the close of public comment, a Public Works staff member claimed that the payment of impact fees to address other traffic impacts would somehow ensure general plan consistency, despite these admitted unavoidable and significant impacts. We cannot understand how the county can find a project consistent with its general plan traffic policies, which bar approval of projects where there is insufficient traffic capacity, at the same time that its CEQA document admits unavoidably significant traffic impacts due to lack of traffic capacity. Both the Ferrini findings and the draft Harper Canyon findings finesse this issue by simply omitting any findings about general plan traffic policies.

Furthermore, the EIR’s admission of the scope of traffic impacts is incomplete. The EIR relies on illusory mitigation and thus fails to disclose that the project will in fact cause significant and unavoidable impacts to all eight of the Highway 68 intersections and segments evaluated under both 2015 conditions and 2030 conditions.  The EIR concludes that payment of TAMC impact fees toward the Highway 68 Commuter Improvements project will somehow mitigate year 2015 impacts to three intersections and segments; however, the Highway 68 Commuter Improvements project is not funded and not scheduled before 2035. The EIR also concludes that payment of impact fees will mitigate all year 2030 impacts to the Highway 68 intersections and segments.  However, as the Harper Canyon EIR admits, and as the 2010 general plan EIR and TAMC have both concluded, the necessary improvements to Highway 68 to restore adequate service are simply not feasible financially.  The contention that future impact fees will somehow mitigate a traffic problem that the county admits cannot be solved violates CEQA and strains credulity.

Indeed, the traffic impact story became even more absurd at the final hearing.  In response to LandWatch’s comments that the CEQA analysis was invalid because it rested on illusory mitigation, Public Works staff told the supervisors that the EIR does admit that cumulative traffic impacts are significant and unavoidable, citing pages from the draft EIR.  What staff did not explain was that this admission was stricken from the revised draft EIR and the final EIR, which both claimed that all 2030 traffic impacts would be adequately mitigated. This revised conclusion that all 2030 traffic impacts would be mitigated by impact fees, even while admitting that the needed improvements are not actually feasible, was identical to the conclusion in the Ferrini Ranch EIR, which used the same traffic consultants. Either Public Works did not get the revised conclusion, or they did not believe it.

In conclusion, the mistakes and misinterpretations of the environmental review for this project violate the California Environmental Quality Act. Successful litigation can force county government to redo the environmental analysis so that it is honest, complete and complies with the full public process required by the law. CEQA is based on the assumption that a full and honest review of environmental impacts, which are open to a full public process, will encourage elected officials to act responsibly. The track record of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors does not bode well for responsible land-use decisions. But the Supervisors may very well get the opportunity to vote again on this project after the courts force them to redo the environmental review. We hope that the electorate encourages those members of the Board who voted for this project the first time to vote more responsibly the next time round.

Amy L. White is executive director of LandWatch Monterey County.

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Saving the world, one red fence at a time

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Some readers of the Monterey Herald will glance at this column and mutter, “Oh no, not that damn fence again,” and who can blame them. The dilapidated red fence along otherwise scenic Highway 68 and the otherwise lovely Laguna Seca golf course became a rather tiresome subject in the venerable daily some three years ago, and the attention did nothing to correct its sorry state.

But that fence—let’s come right out and call it that ugly fence—deserves attention. Depending on one’s perspective, it is either an eyesore or a neglected artifact worthy of repair and preservation. I write about it here because a letter to the editor of the Herald a couple weeks back resurrected the issue, and because I have an idea, one that may satisfy both camps.

As it is, it’s a mess. In all, it amounts to a little more than a half mile of fencing, some upright but much of it toppled and tangled with the brush. There are gaps, many of them quite large. If there were a beauty contest for fences, it would be disqualified early for lack of integrity.

During the last round of attention, no one stepped up to take responsibility for the fence. As it is along Highway 68, a state highway, a case could be made that it is the state’s responsibility. Calls to state highway officials three years ago, however, resulted in nothing more than perplexity and empty promises to “look into it.” A case also could be made that it is the responsibility of the landowners along the route. A section of the Monterey County ordinances suggests strongly that county officials can and should require said landowners to remove or repair eyesores. Significant sections of the fence may reside on the golf course property, but the manager there made it clear three years ago that he had no sense of responsibility. For the fence, that is. Could the county force the issue? It could but it won’t.

After the Herald opined about the sorry state of the fence, readers responded with observations, memories and theories about its origin and purpose. The most definitive account came from Julie Work Beck, a Corral de Tierra resident, whose grandfather owned ranch land on one side. Here is a piece she wrote at the time, slightly abridged.

The red fence definitely dates from the 1930s, if not earlier. It extended from York Road past the current Laguna Seca area. It was built by Esteban (Steve) Field on property owned by him and his sister, Maria Antonia Field. The two inherited the property from their father, Tom Field, who married Maria Munras. Maria Antonia Field kept her residence across the highway in the hacienda, now a horse ranch with a watering hole close to the highway.

The entrance to Lady Field’s home was gated, as it still is, and to the left, was a box with a phone one would open to call the house to ask for admssion. I remember doing this as a child on the occasion of visits to Lady Field.

Lady Field as she was called for short, was given the title of Her Excellimentissima Maria Antonia Field in the 1930s or the 1940s by the then-pope (Pius XII?) for her work and support of the restoration of Carmel Mission and her help to Father Ramon Mestres. Lady Field and Steve Field were the children of Tom Field and Maria Munras of Spanish Rancho land grant times.

Tom Field was a clever Scot, as was my grandfather, T.A. Work, who owned the ranch lands on the other side of the road. These two Toms were known countywide for their skill and perceptiveness and had great influence in the county on land matters. My grandfather assembled the ranch on the south side of the road from different sources, but mainly from purchase from David Jacks, also a Scot. My grandfather’s ranch lands were enclosed by barbed wire ranch fencing to keep his cattle on his property. But Steve Field erected a beautiful decorative fence — the red and white fence still remaining in differing states of repair or disrepair.

My grandfather told him the fence was a huge waste of money and a frivolous piece of vanity. T.A. Work was not wrong about much in the realm of property and money, but I have to say he was wrong about this. For this fence to be still standing, even in its state of disrepair after close to 100 years, is a tribute in its own right.

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Until Beck and others weighed in about the history, I was all for tearing the fence out. But she and they have convinced me otherwise.

So here’s the idea. Unfortunately, it will require a committee, but that is not always a guarantee of failure. It also will require a work crew. Beyond that, it gets simple: We tear out the worst sections of the fence, the parts flattened against the ground, the really ugly parts. We leave the rest of it alone to be enjoyed by history buffs for at least another few decades. Unless we decide to paint it, which isn’t really all that hard.

Why not restore the fence, either all the portions that remain or the whole thing? Because that would require capital in addition to labor, and as much as I dislike the fence in its current condition, if I’m going to be involved in fundraising, I have more important fish to fry and so do you.

If the fence really is the responsibility of the state, we might be informed of that early on, and if the golf course operator accuses us of trespass, we’ll have another useful answer. Fine, we’ll say as we walk away, you fix it.

Consider it a test. There are many larger issues that need attention, of course, challenges that seem exceptionally daunting. Our water issue, for instance. Already I know that we’ll be told that it is foolish to worry about a fence when there are children starving anywhere, but the same could be said about just about any idea, couldn’t it? If we could find a measure of success with the fence, maybe it would restore our confidence in our collective ability to solve bigger problems.

So what do you think? And who wants to chair this committee? I’m tempted to nominate Julie Beck and Mike Weaver of the Highway 68 Coalition. Surely there are other potential candidates for both the talking and doing parts of the mission. I’ve got some work gloves somewhere and am prepared to stand by for assignment.

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