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Silhouettes of construction cranes against the evening skyIF FERNANDO ARMENTA WINS AGAIN, ENVIROS ARE FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE

People of the Peninsula, listen up. Yes, I’m talking to you. This is important, including the part that involves Salinas. Try not to go into your “I don’t care about Salinas” mode when we get to it.

Here’s the deal. There’s a local election coming up. It’s not until next year but you need to start thinking about it now – and setting money aside for it.

Three of the five seats will be up for grabs on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. If the election goes one way, we could end up with a transparent, responsible board that carefully considers development issues and approves only the projects that make sense. Or, more likely, it will go the other way we’ll end up with a board fully and proudly resistant to good land-use planning. A board like we have now, only worse.

One of the contests should get your attention right from the start. That’s the one for Dave Potter’s seat in District 1, which includes the Peninsula from Seaside south. That means Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel, Carmel Valley, Big Sur, and the Highway 68 corridor.

Once upon a time, Potter was able to straddle the fence on land-use issues well enough to keep both the environmentalists and the business community fairly happy. Times have changed, however. Now, Potter will vote against poorly planned projects in his district but only after making sure there are enough votes for approval. The Ferrini Ranch and Harper Canyon projects are recent and glaring examples. He was able to tell his constituents that he tried, darn it, while actually doing nothing to prevent the result his campaign contributors wanted.

Don’t forget, Potter’s also the guy who brought the Monterey Downs people to the Peninsula and put in a good word for them.

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Mary Adams

Fortunately, a solid candidate has stepped up to the challenge of taking Potter on: Mary Adams, executive director of the United Way of Monterey County.

Adams is an accomplished and talented manager who is quite capable of doing what Potter once did, balance the concerns of progressives with the needs of commerce. She’s no ideologue but she understands that we can’t keep approving subdivisions when we don’t have enough water to take care of our existing needs. Because of her long years of service in the non-profit arena, she is on top of other key areas of county governance, particularly health care and social services. Yes, there is more to the Board of Supervisors than land use, but those topics are less relevant to residents of the Peninsula cities.

Potter’s campaign will be well-funded. The Adams’ campaign also needs to be well-funded. That’s where you come in.

Just as important is the race in District 4. That’s the seat now held by Jane Parker, the board’s lone wolf on environmental issues, the woman in the white hat. You know all about her. District 4 takes in Seaside and Marina and, unfortunately, slides on over to cover part of Salinas. I say unfortunately because the Salinas territory is what enables former Salinas mayor Dennis Donohue to throw his oversized hat into the ring. His isn’t white.

Though the primary election for these seats isn’t until next June, Donohue is already campaigning. He and contractor Don Chapin’s Salinas Valley Leadership Group were likely behind the recent push-polling in which respondents were asked if they would vote for Parker again if they knew she doesn’t get along with the rest of the board. Like that’s a bad thing. Voting is more than a year away and already they’re playing mean.

Donohue, like Potter, will have plenty of money for his campaign. He’s a well-connected part of the produce industry and he has cozied up to the development industry. He’s smart and fairly slick, but he offers little of value to the Peninsula.

When Jane Parker first ran for the board, Donohue supported her opponent, former Marina Mayor Ila Mettee McCutchon, and her “Pave Marina” crusade. He endorsed Mike Kanalakis for sheriff over Scott Miller and Lou Calcagno for supervisor over Ed Mitchell. Get the picture?

How much will development and ag interests pay to try to knock the Parker’s enviro vote off the board? Plenty. There are loads of growers in the Salinas Valley whose retirement plan involves planting houses where lettuce grows now. The only question they’ll have for their candidate will be “How much you need, Dennis?”

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Jane Parker

Now for the Salinas part. Stay with me.

Supervisor Fernando Armenta has represented District 1, much of the city of Salinas, for four terms now. He says he cannot remember ever voting against a development project. Oh, there was that one time, he acknowledges, but it was only to send a message to the development boys that they shouldn’t take him for granted. True story.

Armenta has found one of the sweet spots of politics. All development proposals that reach the Board of Supervisors come from outside his urban district. So he can collect campaign contributions from everyone with an interest in development and vote their way without upsetting any of his constituents. And if anyone in his district ever did question him, he could claim the high road by saying he is voting for jobs and affordable housing, as though the trickle-down theory applies to the construction of luxury homes far from his district.

Whoever wins will be on the board with supervisors Simon Salinas and John Phillips. Neither has any trouble approving poorly placed developments without adequate water supplies.

Do the math. It’s a five-member board. If Armenta wins again, the Parker-Adams tandem still would be outvoted 3-2 whenever the supes were presented with a ill-advised but big-bucks project.

Which takes us to Tony Barrera. He’s on the Salinas City Council but most of you have never heard of him because, well, you know why. Salinas.

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Tony Barrera

On top of that, Barrera’s not really a Peninsula kind of guy. He’s smart, very smart, but he doesn’t use big words. He’s got a rough side. He got in some legal trouble a few decades back and had to claw his way back into politics. At the moment, he’s under some scrutiny over a neighborhood beef. Barrera wasn’t at the Food & Wine event at Pebble Beach last weekend. He was at a neighborhood meeting in the Alisal.

When Donohue was endorsing Ila Mettee McCutchon, Barrera was supporting Parker.

When the Harper Canyon and Ferrini Ranch proposals went before the board, when the construction unions that support Armenta were recommending yes votes, Barrera was pointing out that the water for the projects doesn’t seem to exist, and if it does, it is already spoken for.

Barrera ran against Armenta four years ago. He got clobbered, not surprising since Armenta outspent him 8-to-1. He’s going to try again next year. Stubborn, I guess. There was talk of Armenta stepping down next year and letting Assemblyman Luis Alejo move down from Watsonville to take over the District 1 seat, but Armenta apparently nixed the deal, holding out for one more term.

So, people of the Peninsula. Is the message being received?

You can put time, effort and money into the Parker campaign next year and feel good about yourselves. You can put time, effort and money into the Adams campaign and feel even better. With enough of your time, effort and money, they might even win, unless the big money on the other side buys too many deceptive ads and pays for enough unscrupulous campaign staffers. In other words, if the activists of the Peninsula follow the standard script, it is possible that Parker and Adams will win.

But if the people of the Peninsula don’t broaden their horizons and think beyond the familiar, if they don’t also put time, effort and money into the Barrera campaign, who are they going to blame when the next project from hell is approved by a 3-2 vote?

Think it over.

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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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