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earthmover operator giving thumb upI tried to let it pass. I really did. The Herald editorial Thursday morning about the Ferrini Ranch project caused me to grit my teeth harder than my dentist recommends. Among several things,  it leaned a little to the tacky side. It’s one thing to endorse a project but to come back with a “good job, supervisors” editorial afterward might seem a little insensitive to the many project opponents.  Is “gloaty” a word?

But as I said, I tried to just take a breath and move on. It’s over. I told myself to just turn to the sports page and enjoy the story about the Warriors’ big victory over Houston last night. That would make me feel better.

I checked the front of the sports section. There was a silly story about the 49ers and their hopes of beating Seattle, which is as likely as me beating Steph Curry in a three-point shooting contest. But no Warriors story. I turned to the inside pages. Still no Warriors.

I thought back to last night. Was it a late game? No. As I recall, it ended with plenty of time for me to check my Paypal account for Partisan contributions before Chicago P.D. aired at 10 p.m. So, no, it wasn’t late.

Maybe they just forgot about it, I thought. After all, the Herald staff may report to soulless, bean-counting corporate masters but the worker bees are earnest humans. Finally, I found something, a little blurb at the bottom of the page suggesting I go online for a story about the game. At least I knew I had not dreamt of the Warriors’ record rising to 18-2. It wasn’t an oversight. It was an understaff. It was something, but it did not scratch my basketball itch.

It takes a lot to move me to action, but by then I was irritated enough to flip back to the editorial page. This time I read the whole piece. My course was set, though I admit to a brief moment of hesitation because I once edited the Herald and wrote its editorials. I worried that some folks might be bothered by the idea of me writing a piece criticizing the work of my former employer. I realized it might edge toward the inappropriate, but no more so than a crowing editorial while so many people are so upset.

I’ll go through the Herald piece slowly.

“Critics cited the development’s impact on traffic and the area’s water supply as reasons to turn down the project. We’re not so sure.”

If there is a worse traffic issue anywhere in Monterey County, we have not heard of it. The morning rush hour backup can put traffic at a standstill from Ryan Ranch in Monterey to beyond Reservation Road on the outskirts of Salinas. The nightly rush hour backup turns a 10-minute commute into a 45-minute festival of rear-end collisions. The Ferrini Ranch development will add 2,000-plus cars a day to Highway 68, and that’s according to the county planning staff that had been manipulated into essentially lobbying for the project.

“Opponents have commented that the development would only make traffic snarls worse. We’re not so sure. Developers will be required to provide for one additional mile of four lanes, and a new signaled intersection. These improvements and rights-of-way have been part of adopted local and state transportation plans for years, but had no funding. Ferrini will pay for these improvements.”

Imagine a long pipe an inch in diameter and imagine you’re trying to get a lot of water through it quickly. Imagine that in the middle of the pipe you can splice another piece of pipe, say three inches in diameter, but you still have one-inch pipe at both ends. Is the water going to get through any faster? Now imagine that in middle of the length of pipe you install a valve that shuts the water off briefly every few minutes. Is the water going to move faster now? If you think so, you don’t understand the question.

Speaking of water, the Herald goes on to say that Ferrini Ranch will use an exceptionally small percentage of the water in the Salinas Valley aquifer. That is quite true. But there is already more water coming out of the aquifer than going in. Which means that someday there won’t be any more water unless officialdom comes up with some big ideas, and we’ve all seen how well officialdom does with such things hereabouts. Until then,  salt water from Monterey Bay will continue to fill the void created by the subsiding aquifer, making groundwater near the coast too saline for irrigation purposes. The opponents of Ferrini Ranch are not making this up.

“The reality is that most opponents just don’t like the development and they’re citing infrastructure limits as a reason for denial. We expect that the infrastructure issue will be raised again as those against the project prepare to do battle in court.”

You think?

The Herald likes the idea of the developer putting up $425,000 toward creation of a community services district so that wastewater eventually will be treated and potentially used to combat seawater intrusion. That’s a condition imposed by lame duck Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who, by the way, was the largest recipient of campaign contributions from the developer, more than any other supervisor. By the way, the community services district idea obviously was the result of a negotiation between Calcagno and the developers. It was sprung on the public, with no chance for anyone to press for details, suggest alternatives or simply raise questions. If it doesn’t work out, is the project dead? Will this be like the community services district, and related infrastructure, that the supervisors gave to Cal Am?

Actually, the community services district may be a good idea and it may even help combat seawater intrusion. But here’s an even better idea. Let’s postpone the project and begin construction after the district is created and the recycling is well under way and seawater has stopped intruding.  At Tuesday’s supervisorial meeting, the best thing the county planners could say about the Salinas Valley Water Project is that it has slowed groundwater over-drafting to an unknown degree and seawater intrusion to an equally unknown degree. They’ll know more after a study is completed. In about five years.

Says the Herald: “We’re old-fashioned enough to believe that land owners have some rights, too, and that the county has its duty to observe those rights even while balancing the impact of development on the area.”

Hmm, I didn’t really notice much balancing going on, and are we forgetting the rights of the other land owners in the area? Let’s start with those who have been paying into the Salinas Valley Water Project only to be told they can’t build on their property because there isn’t enough water. How about the rights of the thousands of property owners who live in Toro Park, San Benancio Canyon and Corral de Tierra who want to be able to get home from work at night without having to detour through Marina. (In the interest of disclosure, I must admit that I live in San Benancio Canyon and was a victim of the Highway 68 commute while I worked for the Herald. One member of the Herald editorial board also lives in the canyon. One lives in Monterey and the others live in Santa Cruz County.)

And how about the rights of a few people who don’t own land? If people were to complain about how hard it is to commute from Salinas to Pebble Beach jobs n the morning, I’m thinking the Herald might suggest they move closer to their work. Carmel maybe.

The Herald asks, “Will there be an impact? Certainly, as Supervisor Jane Parker pointed out at the hearing. But we’re satisfied the impact will not be severe.”

This is a cute oneWill there be an impact? Why, yes, come to think of it, there could be. But why no mention of everyone else who pointed out the same thing, including Supervisor Dave Potter, who represents the area affected by the project and who pointed out that the traffic and water issues are symptoms of the “most blatant examples of bad planning.” Is the Herald trying to make it seem like only one official was bothered by the project, Parker, coincidentally the only one of the five supervisors who didn’t receive campaign contributions from the property owners? Heck, even Supervisor Fernando Armenta, every developer’s best friend, said he feared that the traffic impact could be severe.

Having written editorials myself for several years, I thought the Herald’s piece might offer an olive branch to the project opponents. Its original editorial endorsing the project had said that the opponents’ concerns should be dismissed because some of them had opposed a project in Spreckels some years ago, though almost none of those speaking out against the Ferrini Ranch project had ever expressed any opinion about the Spreckels venture. The Herald also had said the opposition’s concerns should be ignored because some opponents purportedly had said something untrue about the Ferrini venture. That was a difficult one to respond to in that the people purportedly making the untrue statements weren’t identified and the purportedly untrue statements went unidentified as well. Tuesday’s editorial, it would have seemed, might have been a time for some fence mending but, no, apparently it was time for the opposite.

One last point. Two, actually. The Warriors game next Thursday against the Oklahoma City Thunder is a big one. There should be coverage and if there is, I’m sure I will be more forgiving of the Herald’s foibles for ever more. It shouldn’t be hard for them to meet the challenge because it’s an away game and should be over by 9 p.m. at the latest. And if the  bean counters have moved the deadlines up so early to make that impossible, it’s game over anyway. For the paper, not the Warriors.

That other point is this. I watched the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday and was struck by the degree to which the county planning staff had been put in the position of being advocates for the projects. Not arbiters but champions. It isn’t supposed to be like that. On a large and fairly complex project such as Ferrini Ranch, it is necessary for the county staff to work closely with the developers on numerous issues, boundaries, lot sizes, setbacks, visual aspects, traffic flow, drainage, etc., etc. But working with the developers does not mean removing all obstacles on their behalf or automatically taking their side when challenges arise.

Much of Tuesday’s session was devoted to having the county staff address questions that had been raised by project critics during a public hearing the week before. There were pointed questions and some more general. The answers to most were not helpful. Did the staff consider this factor or this one? The answer. Yes we did. No elaboration, no explanation. Just a meaningless yes. Yes, we thought about the impact on wildlife and vegetation. Since the public hearing had been closed, there was no one to ask the follow-up: So what were your thoughts?

The county planning staff should be working for everyone, the supervisors, developers and the public. It should be a credible source of accurate information on the design and potential impacts of projects. It should not be part of the development team. As the result showed, the supervisors are capable of tipping the scales far enough all by themselves.

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Perfection concept.What’s not to like abut the Ferrini Ranch project? That’s the one that goes to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors for a decision on Tuesday, and it’s about time. The project website promises a very long lost list of really bad things that won’t happen if the supervisors say yes.

For instance, there won’t be 703 acres of development like there would have been under the previous plan. Nope. Now it will only be 602 acres, so the supervisors will actually be saving 101 acres of lovely grasslands!

There won’t be 212 residential units in the lovely hills along Highway 68, or 500 or 600 units as originally envisioned. That’s because there will only be 185.

Key scenic views from Highway 68, River Road and San Benancio Road will not be ruined because most of the 185 houses will largely be hidden behind hills! One might wonder whether something much worse might have been hidden there instead if the supervisors didn’t act.

The wine facility won’t be a huge 110,000-square-foot structure like the developers. No way! It will be just 28,500 square feet, not much bigger than some of the homes!

Not all of the pretty lupine field behind San Benancio Middle School will be lost! Only some of it. Phew.

Remember the proposed access road in Toro Park? Not going to happen! And the frontage road along Highway 68. Thanks to the developers and no one else, it won’t be needed either! Which means more open space for all of us to enjoy! If they keep on creating open space, the supes might end up deserving what we’re paying them.

Finally, the project will not draw down the water table from the already overdrawn Toro Basin? That’s because it will draw down the water table from the already overdrawn Salinas Valley aquifer instead, and there’s a legal agreement already in place that says that’s no big deal!

The agreement, a byproduct of the county’s last general plan, says that if the property owners have been paying into the Salinas Valley Water Project, the property is presumed to have an adequate water supply even though everyone knows that it does not. This is what is known as a legal fiction.

(If you have a minute, take a look at the website for the Salinas Valley Water Project. You’ll find lots of detail, such as the thickness of the concrete at Nacimiento Dam and the number of gallons in an acre-foot, but you won’t find any details about any plans for the Salinas Valley Water Project to produce any more water because there aren’t any such plans. BTW, this “sentence” from the website is my favorite part: “The SVWP the Nacimiento Dam Spillway Modification Component , which includes enlargement of the spillway and installation of a rubber spillway gate at the dam and a diversion facility , which is another rubber dam on the Salinas River near Marina, to allow diversion of river water for treatment and piping to nearby farms for irrigation.” )

In other words, the only thing that could have been better than the project being approved Tuesday would have occurred if the developers, the Kelton family, had proposed a significantly larger project, because then this smaller project would be saving us from even more harm. Maybe the next time, they’ll think bigger early on and we’ll have even more to be thankful about.

It’s called land-used planning by mitigation and negotiation. Rather than build subdivisions where they belong, in cities, developers pick attractive parcels well out of town. (It’s called leapfrog development, but they avoid the term in their brochures.) Next, rather than rely on good planning principles, they propose the maximum possible number of units that could be squeezed onto the property, unimaginative design, elimination of trees, marginal replacement landscaping and suspect drainage plans. Think of it as a bluff, or, if you prefer, a threat.

Then, proving themselves to actually be great folks after all, they negotiate downward. They meet with the neighbors and decide to reduce the density, maybe even plant more trees as buffers. Over time, they give up some of this and some of that until, near the end, they’re nominating themselves for philanthropist of the year awards.

What results, of course, is a project that probably should be called It Could Have Been Much Worse Estates, Phase 1.

The Ferrini Ranch project is, in many ways, the absolute model of how planning is done these days in Monterey County, with predictable results. Years of campaign contributions set the stage, the larger plan is introduced, neighbors complain, plan is downsized before it goes to planning commission, planning commission is divided, goes to supes. Then, if it is in Dave Potter’s district, Potter votes against it but doesn’t put up any real political fight against because, after all, he was one of the recipients of the campaign contributions (see paragraph above.) He doesn’t do what politicians do and trade votes with the automatic yes votes, Simon Salinas and Fernando Armenta. He just votes no along with Supervisor Jane Parker. Chairman Lou Calcagno goes back and forth, looks troubled, says this is a tough one, folks, and then votes for the development, which is approved 3-2.

But no, it doesn’t end there. Richard Rosenthal and/or Michael Stamp file a lawsuit over the inadequate environmental impact report or, in this case, the systematic overdrafting of the Salinas Valley aquifer. A couple years go by. Settlement allows for much smaller development or contribution of land to Big Sur Land Trust.

Developer takes huge tax write-off based on value of original project.

No one notices because everyone is focused on next big plan.

Years of campaign contributions set the stage . . .

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