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Superior Court Judge Tom Wills has upheld Monterey County’s approval of the Ferrini Ranch subdivision along the Monterey-Salinas Highway. Disagreeing with LandWatch, the Highway 68 Coalition and others, Wills held on Aug. 3 that Monterey County’s environmental review adequately disclosed and mitigated impacts to water resources, traffic and air pollution.

The project consists of 185 lots with 168 market-rate homes and 17 inclusionary units on the east side of Highway 68 between San Benancio and River Roads. It sits across the highway from the existing Toro Park subdivision, also developed by the Ferrini developers, the Kelton family of Southern California, longtime campaign contributors to several Monterey County supervisors over the years. See previous piece on special treatment afforded the developer.

“To say we are disappointed is an understatement,” said Michael DeLapa, executive director of LandWatch, one of the plaintiffs.
DeLapa said Monterey County’s approval of the venture relied on unsatisfactory measures to mitigate water and traffic issues.

The environmental impact report said the Salinas Valley Water Project would provide a sustainable supply even though it is already in overdraft and is being seriously undermined by seawater intrusion.

While transportation officials say relieving congestion on Highway 68 is their highest priority, the development would add significant traffic to the heavily traveled road. The developer will be required to pay for another traffic signal, or likely a roundabout, and to widen a one-mile stretch of the highway.

DeLapa said LandWatch will consider an appeal.

“We remain undeterred in our strong belief, supported by strong facts, that the county and the court erred, and that Ferrini Ranch is the wrong development in the wrong place.”

You can read the court’s decision here (1.8M PDF file).

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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.

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Dollarphotoclub_89236926Reading last Sunday’s editorial in the Monterey Herald made me think I’d fallen into an endless loop from “Groundhog Day” two days early.

Without a specific reference to anything beyond a “special report” in a recent Economist magazine, the editorial took to task older members of the community who engage in “controlling growth” because such activity harms housing opportunities for younger members of the community.

Such selfish activity by “current property owners” intent on blocking “any change in their immediate neighborhood,” the editorial argued, is a controlled-growth mindset that extracts a cost inevitably paid by the young in the form of higher housing costs.

This “think of the kids” argument is trotted out in a vast array of public policy debates from changing school principals to reducing the federal debt. And it is fall-back catch-phrase of developers pushing large residential developments, particularly ones in the Salinas Valley and less pricey parts of Monterey County’s coast (Marina and Seaside.)

It’s a hollow and, therefore, unusable pitch to defend expensive new homes in Pebble Beach, Carmel Valley or the Toro corridor on some of the most expensive land on the California coast. Those homes aren’t going to be marketed to working young families, and no one suggests building them for the kids.

The other old saw in the editorial really is the ready acronym that rolls off the tongue with a sneer in many land-use fights — NIMBY for Not in My Backyard. Or as the editorial describes it: entrenched, politically potent property owners seeking to preserve their neighborhoods.

NIMBYism is the perjorative usage, trotted out to paint folks opposed to big residential or commercial projects as selfish dilettantes who cherish empty fields and old trees more than kids and grandkids. The more positive form — protecting our property values — is used when, say, the land-use battle is over safe parking for homeless women at a Monterey church, or a communications tower in the Del Monte forest or a dog park in Carmel Valley.

Hip deep in two hoary arguments against those “controlling growth,”  the editorial presents itself as a philosophical commentary against this attitude in every neighborhood battle over new housing, rather than “a call for massive development here.”

In that case, it’s a rather pointless effort to recycle encrusted rhetoric against “zealous” controlled-growth advocates. Or not.

The only current fight over land use in these parts for the past several years has been over the massive Monterey Downs project, which includes 1,280 new homes along with hotels, offices and its more high-profile horse track, arena and equestrian park.

County supervisors have already given the green light to the only other residential development that produced a lot of recent sparks from Toro area neighbors — the 185-lot Ferrini Ranch project in the rolling hills above Highway 68.

I can’t recall any other battles between neighbors and housing developers over more modest-sized housing projects. They must have slipped under the radar.

The only conclusion is the Herald editorial was either an exercise for thumb-sucking over favorite talking points by developers, builders and real estate agents or a stealth argument for Monterey Downs. For supporters of the Seaside project, the development’s economic benefits — which are open to fierce debate along with its environmental impacts — certainly include more housing opportunities.

But there are hundreds of already approved new home lots on former Fort Ord lands that always get ignored when cries of “remember the kids” and “anti-NIMBYism” are raised to rally the latest project pushed by land developers.

Three very big projects — Marina Heights, The Dunes and East Garrison — have moved into building the first of their total of nearly 3,700 new and long-ago approved homes after being stalled for years by the Great Recession.

East Garrison was first out of the box in 2013, and The Dunes announced its first 117-home phase last year. And Marina Heights says it’s ready to start its first 299 homes beginning this quarter.

Of course, home builders in the three large projects won’t produce all of the approved homes in a frenzy of activity. The path toward buildout will be deliberate. The growth of these new neighborhoods will be controlled.

This controlled growth won’t be the result of selfish neighbors seeking to hurt the kids, but of market demand, price and the builders’ desire to turn a nice profit. This kind of controlled growth is rarely the subject of disdain on editorial pages.

Responses to this and other pieces in the Partisan are encouraged. Publication of reader comments, and the pieces themselves, do not constitute any endorsement of the positions presented. The Partisan greatly prefers accurately attributed comments that avoid personal attacks.

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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?”

picJaneParkerSunset

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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Lovely girl and little pony

Contrarian Larry Parsons wants people to remember that a vote against Monterey Downs is a vote against ponies

It’s one of the glorious days when possible subjects to write about are falling from the sky like so many stars in a Jimi Hendrix song.

First, there are all advance quotes from former Vice President Dick Cheney’s interview in the upcoming issue of Playboy in which he — major SPOILER alert — calls President Obama the worst president of all time and space.

This from the guy who never saw an oil well or potential Middle Eastern war without feeling lust in his heart. Cue the Jimmy Carter canoe-and-cannibal-rabbit story, and juxtapose it with the time Cheney was bitten by a floppy-eared werewolf.

Another subject, naturally, is Starbucks’ harebrained push for employees to engage customers in conversations about racial relations in the United States. People much higher in their pay grades in politics, pulpits, the media and corporate board rooms should be having these conversations — not $10-an-hour baristas, for pity’s sake.

“Reparations, race cards, rap music!!! Just give me caffeine, for #!?%’s sake.” Oh, the sound of America healing.

And there is the Hillary problem — that amorphous, media-fed tidal wave carrying the flotsam of secret emails, cattle futures, travel bookings, botched health-care plans and being-married-to-Bill again to the shores of our presidential politics. But there will be time, oh, there will be time, to wear out the fingers blogging about this. It never will go away, and the mighty Wurlitzer is just getting tuned up.

Then I spotted a story from the right side of the media world that seemed especially piquant. A blogger for the Daily Caller, the conservative web site run by Peter Pan frat boy Tucker Carlson, quit when Tucker spiked a column critical of Fox News. Seems you can criticize everything under the sun but Fox News — Imperial Death Star of right-wing confabulation — at the Daily Caller.

The writer was unhappy that Fox lately has dropped threat-level 7 stories about the scourge of unauthorized immigration and Obama amnesty plans to pad Democratic voter lists. Apparently, Fox is hitting harder at the scourge of all things Muslim and the terrible fact that American troops are no longer dying in sufficient numbers in the Middle East because the last two wars went so well.

This falling-out among fevered founts of Fox fabulism got me thinking. I’d best watch my step, or something similar could upset the equilibrium here the Monterey Bay Partisan.

In my notebook, I found a few ideas I’d been kicking around for columns that I realize might run afoul of what could be called the Partisan party line. Rest assured they will never see the light of day, or I, too, would have to take the high road and resign in a righteous huff from this comfortable and prestigious sinecure. I will share a few, but this is strictly between me and you. Totally off the record, very hush-hush.

1. Sure Cal Am hasn’t produced a major water project for the Peninsula to save the Carmel River for almost 40 years and the multinational utility takes profits out of the community and passes on all sorts of questionable costs to customers who spend a good part of each day getting thorns and needles out of their hides from their prickly xeriscape gardens, but the water company isn’t all bad. I saw a crew fixing a water line one day, and the guy with the jack hammer smiled, or looked like he was trying to smile as his face jiggled like Jello …

2. We can agree that the undeveloped land at Fort Ord is pretty unsurpassed in coastal country beauty, but just a teensy bit could be tastefully destroyed to make room for the charming, little Monterey Downs horsolopolis. Think of all the jobs. You remember, Hercules got his start mucking out stables. And if there were horses, there would be ponies. So there will be pony rides for all the children, and we must think of the children …

3. OK, the Ferrini Ranch subdivision will dump hundreds of more vehicles each day on Highway 68, making the stop-and-go commute between Salinas and Monterey a lot more stoppy than goey. But there are a lot of good audio books that can be very instructive when you spend more than two hours a day listening to them in frozen traffic. And some folks, who must take Highway 68 to get to the two or three jobs they juggle to make ends meet, may decide to eat and sleep in their cars during peak congestion. This could ease the horrible shortage of affordable housing in Monterey County. Moreover, the slower traffic pace will allow travelers more time to enjoy the rustic beauty of the old red-and-white fence near Laguna Seca …

Seriously, these jottings, I promise, will never see the light of day at this blog.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the upcoming Cheney issue of Playboy. I’m interested in whether the Playboy editors have ever found a Playboy Party Joke that is funny. Like this one:

Trimalchio: I attended an orgy last night with the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

Encolpius: Ooh, sounds nasty. Was it fun?

Trimalchio: For a while, but then Mike Huckabee arrived.

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Business fraudThe author of a recent Partisan column proposed stronger transparency rules for state public utilities commissioners, who already are required to publicly report any contacts with utility representatives. The existing rules haven’t stopped commissioners from becoming overly chummy with those they regulate but at least they have helped show ratepayers what they’re up against.

The proposal likely won’t go anywhere, but it raises a thought. If California lawmakers thought such disclosures were needed in the utilities arena, why shouldn’t there be similar rules for other officeholders, starting with county boards of supervisors?

Monterey County’s handling of the Ferrini Ranch development provides real support for the idea and it also raises important questions about the roles of individual supervisors. While making land-use decisions, are they unbiased arbiters making tough calls in the name of the public good, after all sides have had their say? Or are they negotiators, expediters, accommodators, empowered to make private deals even while the public process plays out as though it mattered?

In other words, should they do what then-Supervisor Lou Calcagno did, work behind the scene for months—actually years, it turns out—in order to help a favored developer and campaign contributor win a vote worth millions of dollars? Can a supervisor quietly lobby other government agencies on behalf of a proposed development and then assume a posture of neutrality while voting in favor? Or should there be rules to prevent such a thing?

The proposed 185-lot Ferrini Ranch development straddles Toro Regional Park along Highway 68. Neighbors and environmental groups protested vigorously on several grounds, especially the lack of a sustainable water supply and the impact on Highway 68, easily the most congested roadway in the county.

In the midst of the formal vote on the plans Calcagno announced that he had negotiated a side deal calling for the developer to put money into escrow for potential use in recycling area wastewater if area residents agree to form a community services district for that purpose. Suggesting that he had found a magic solution, Calcagno offered that the arrangement could help ease the project’s impact on the dwindling Salinas Valley water supply.

If anyone in the audience wondered about details of the recycling plan or about the propriety of one supervisor crafting a special deal that had received no public airing of any sort, there was no chance to raise those issues because the public hearing had been closed.

If any of the other supervisors knew about Calcagno’s negotiations over the recycling idea, they didn’t let on. As arranged by Calcagno, the developer is to put $425,000 into an escrow account that would be used toward wastewater recycling if and when residents of the Toro Park and Las Palmas areas agree to form a community services district for that purpose. Chances of that seem remote, however, because such a project would at least double sewer bills for each residence in the area.

If the district isn’t formed, the developer gets the money back—assuming that county officials actually require the money to be deposited in the first place.

That was not the only example of Calcagno’s behind-the-scenes work to accommodate the venture. Newly disclosed county email records indicate that Calcagno’s office organized a July 2013 meeting between the head of the development team, Mark Kelton, and John Laird, director of natural resources for California. Calcagno also attended, along with a biologist working for Kelton, a county planner who is now the chief planner on the Ferrini project, and Sherwood Darington of the Monterey County Ag Land Trust.

As natural resources director, Laird oversees several key state agencies, including Fish & Wildlife. Although the Monterey County supervisors have approved the Ferrini Ranch project, Kelton and state Fish & Wildlife officials are still discussing the ramifications of sensitive clover and salamander habitat on at the project site, the foothills overlooking Highway 68.

At the time of the meeting in Santa Cruz, the environmental impact report for the Ferrini project was still in the works and state Fish & Wildlife officials had raised concerns about how Kelton would mitigate the project’s impact on the salamander and clover. Fish & Game also was concerned about the project’s potential for blocking the movement of other wildlife on the hilly property. Theoretically, the project still could be stopped if Fish & Wildlife declines to issue the appropriate permits.

Laird said last week that he could not recall details of the meeting other than that Kelton expressed concern about the positions of state agencies. The Partisan was unable to determine whether the meeting resulted in any softening of the Fish & Game stance on habitat protection despite Calcagno’s effort.

Mike Novo, head of the county department, said Friday that planner John Ford of his staff attended the meeting in order to discuss Fish & Wildlife issues on the Ferrini property and elsewhere.

Derrington, a managing director of the Land Trust, said he was looking for help obtaining a state grant to help the trust pay for Kelton-owned land that could qualify for protection under an agricultural easement. Discussions about that possibility continue even now that the subdivision plans have been approved.

“There were other discussions that day that I was not involved with,” Derrington said.

Calcagno declined to comment on the meeting. Over the telephone, his wife told the Partisan, “He says he is out of politics now and doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Supporters of Calcagno and the Ferrini Ranch project will say he did nothing wrong, and it is almost certainly true that he broke no laws. But in these instances, and who knows how many others, he certainly stretched the definition of representative government. Getting the Ferrini Ranch project this far has required discussions, negotiations, with highway officials, parks officials and many others. It would be a surprise if Calcagno let the county staff handle all that without his hands-on guidance.

“I don’t think county supervisors should lobby on behalf of private interests at the expense of community interests,” said Chris Fitz, the former director of LandWatch Monterey, which is suing to stop the project.

“The Department of Fish & Wildlife is charged with protecting the public interest. If Calcagno participated in lobbying Fish & Wildlife to go easy on the developers of Ferrini Ranch, he put the interests of the landowners above those of the public. It appears that Lou Calcagno made up his mind to support this project before the environmental analysis was complete. Indeed, it looks as if he wanted Fish & Wildlife to go easy on the project so that his support of the project would not look so egregious.”

Throughout his three terms on the board, Calcagno was known as a backroom negotiator, something that brought him both praise and criticism. Over time, the public and other officials seemed to accept his role as a dealmaker, even when it clashed with widely accepted government practices. However, his backroom dealings on the Ferrini matter raise serious questions about the private actions of public officials acting in a quasi-judicial role. The Ferrini project had been narrowly approved by the county Planning Commission but that recommendation had been formally appealed to the Board of Supervisors, by a planning commissioner, no less.

It has long been considered a legal requirement that local governing bodies avoid “pre-judging” any issues until the public has had its say. For Calcagno, any pretense of abiding by that basic principle evaporated well before the Ferrini Ranch project came up for a vote.

What good would it do if supervisors were required to publicly declare their contacts with developers or their representatives, or representatives of companies wanting county contracts? Directly, probably not much. But if a supervisor had to disclose repeated private meetings and communications with the same interests, one of two things would likely occur. Fewer private discussions would come about, or disclosure of the contacts would make it obvious that the supervisor had a conflict of interest and should not vote.

In fairness to Calcagno, the roles of county supervisors are not nearly as clear cut as the roles of city council members and some other elected officials. City council members are supposed to act solely as legislators, adopting policies and making decisions but staying out of administrative matters at City Hall. Technically, similar restrictions apply to county supervisors, but they receive full-time salaries and often work at their county roles full-time. It is not unusual for them to insert themselves into administrative matters despite the presence of professionals assigned to those duties.

Not surprisingly, Calcagno received a series of campaign contributions over the years from Kelton and related parties, who also contributed to the other two supervisors supporting the project, Simon Salinas and Fernando Armenta. Calcagno’s take topped $10,000. The others received smaller amounts.

Kelton contributions also went to Supervisor Dave Potter, who voted against the project, which is in his district. Project opponents have criticized him, however, for not doing more to block it. Some have even characterized his no vote as a sham. Glen Robinson, former president of the Carmel Valley Association, accused Potter in a letter to the editor of voting against the development only after being assured by his colleagues that it would be approved no matter how he voted.

The developers also contributed to the campaign of Calcagno’s successor, John Phillips. There is no record that they ever contributed to any of Laird’s campaigns but they did make a series of contributions to the legislative campaigns of a Laird ally, former Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero. She is now secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency.

Coincidentally, the Ferrini developers are represented by well-known land-use attorney Tony Lombardo, who also has done private legal work for Calcagno and Potter.

Two groups, LandWatch Monterey County and the Highway 68 Coalition, have filed lawsuits aimed at blocking the project. The litigation challenges the adequacy of the environmental impact, particularly as it pertains to traffic, and challenges the county’s decision to approve the project under provisions of the county’s 1982 general plan rather than the 2010 plan.

Two supervisors, Potter and Salinas, announced late last year that they planned to pursue tighter limits on campaign contributions to supervisorial candidates. It’s an idea that seems overdue. At the same time, though, it could prove to be an even better idea to consider regulations barring supervisors from voting on matters affecting contributors, like the rule in place for members of the Pacific Grove City Council. And, better yet, activities surrounding the Ferrini Ranch project suggest that rules should be put into place requiring supervisors to tell the public what’s really going on and requiring them to stop pretending that it’s a level playing field.

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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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Board of Supervisors approves Ferrini Project

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By a predictable vote of 3-2 Tuesday evening, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors approved the 180-lot Ferrini Ranch subdivision along Highway 68 near Toro Park.

Voting no were supervisors Jane Parker and Dave Potter, who said that two issues, traffic and water, make this project “a blatant example of bad planning.”

Supervisors Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas voted for the project, despite Armenta’s expressed concerns about near gridlock traffic conditions at rush hour.

The swing vote was lame duck Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who called for creation of a community service district that could use wastewater in the Toro Park area for recycling into potable water, helping to alleviate the project’s impact on the already overdrawn Salinas Valley aquifer.

Each of the three supervisors voting for the project had received campaign contributions from the developers, the Kelton family of Southern California. Potter also had received contributions from the Keltons but the project is in his supervisorial district, so he had the choice of alienating a contributor or his constituents.

The board majority ignored emotional pleas from area residents, including one woman who cried as she told the board that she had been in three increasingly serious traffic accidents on Highway 68 in the past three years. Representatives of the Toro Park neighborhood also called for the supervisors to eliminate a plan to widen the highway near their homes and to eliminate an additional traffic signal now planned in reaction to the Ferrini Ranch project. The supervisors ignored those requests.

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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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Dollar bagThe public really should support Monterey County supervisors Dave Potter and Simon Salinas in their plan to take the money out of political campaigns, but the effort should not stop at contribution limits. The larger problem is not the amount of the contributions but the impact they have on the recipients. So why not do as Pacific Grove and other jurisdictions have done and require the elected officials to abstain when their vote would benefit a contributor?

Money indeed is the root of most evil in politics and as they say at AA meetings, “half measures availed us nothing.”

As pitched by Potter and Salinas, Monterey County will soon consider adopting state limits of $4,200 from individual contributors and $8,500 from political action committees. The limits would apply to the supervisorial candidates and those running for sheriff, district attorney and county superintendent of schools.

Successful sheriff’s candidate Steve Bernal raised more than $500,000 in his recent campaign, prompting the opposition to charge that he had bought the election. Such amounts are becoming commonplace in local politics.

“There shouldn’t be the perception that the one who spends the most money is going to win, and that’s kind of the way it’s been headed,” Potter told the Monterey Herald.

True enough. But community members who are concerned about decisions by the Board of Supervisors are less concerned about the size of their campaign treasuries and more concerned about the impact of contributions of any size. Buying elections is certainly a problem, but buying votes is a bigger problem.

For example, the Ferrini Ranch subdivision proposal goes to the supervisors next month. It is a highly controversial development that features nearly 200 lots that stretch along congested Highway 68 near Toro Park. As the Partisan recently reported, the developers have been generous contributors to the current supervisors, with the exception of environmentalist Jane Parker. They even contributed to incoming supervisor John Phillips.

The biggest recipient of Ferrini Ranch money has been Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who received $4,750 from one of the partners in the development in 2010 and $4,500 from another.

Supervisor Fernando Armenta says he has never, ever voted against a proposed development, so the Ferrini people were able to save some of their money. In recent years, he has received only $500.

In the past four years, the Ferrini Ranch developers have contributed $2,300 to Simon Salinas, who is almost always a sure vote for development projects of any kind.

After receiving a series of contributions from the developers earlier in his career, Potter has reported receiving $1,800 from them since 2011. He’s not as much of a sure vote as Salinas is, especially when the project is in his district as the Ferrini project is. He is likely to vote against the development if it is clear that it could win approval without his vote. Consider that a prediction.

With five supervisors on the board, three votes are needed to approve. Salinas and Armenta are in. Calcagno could be swayed by the fact that the project would rely on the endangered Salinas Valley aquifer

Most of the contributions made by the Ferrini Ranch developers would have been allowed if the proposed limits had been in place. The gifts to Calcagno would have needed to have been trimmed only slightly. Will the contributions make the difference. They total not much more than $20,000 but, yes, they certainly could be the deciding factor, overriding such issues as water, traffic, urban sprawl, leapfrog development and destruction of habitat.

As stated above, there is good reason to support the contribution limits. It would make it harder for candidates to run Bernal-like campaigns featuring a barrage of negative advertising. But the limits would have no impact on supposedly independent groups doing the dirty work for the candidates and no impact on corrupting the process through well-aimed but smaller contributions.

In Potter’s last campaign, opponent Marc Del Piero received more than $100,000 from an environmental trust created by a lawsuit settlement. Only cynics or the closest observers might suspect that Potter and Salinas are motivated by that as much as anything else, but it is difficult for anyone who pays much attention to the supervisors to avoid a touch of cynicism.

When Potter and Salinas start their next campaigns, they are likely to have money in their campaign treasuries, a luxury not shared by their potential opponents. And as congressional elections have made clear, incumbency amounts to a contribution magnet.

Fixing the flawed system we labor under now would be difficult. Ordinances requiring officials to abstain from votes benefitting contributors can be hard to enforce and interpret. When does a vote benefit someone? How about indirect benefits? And what about contributions from environmental groups such as LandWatch? If LandWatch contributes to an official, must that official abstain on all land-use votes?

Those are tricky questions to be sure, but the issues they pose are not insurmountable. It is better to have discussions over the fine points than to continue the process as we know it.

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billete monedaPROPOSED CAMPAIGN SPENDING LIMITS: GOOD PUBLIC POLICY OR A POLITICAL PLOY?

A couple weeks back the Monterey County Planning Commission narrowly approved plans for a 185-home subdivision to be known as Ferrini Ranch along Highway 68 between Monterey and Salinas. Opposition from environmentalists and neighbors focused on traffic congestion and the uncertain water supply. Wells in the area near Toro Park have been dropping steadily, and a county-imposed moratorium on development remains in place.

But not to worry, said one of the favorable planning commissioners, Jose Mendez. The water basin may be overdrafted already, but the county government’s Water Resources Agency hasn’t raised alarms about the water issue. Mendez said that if county officials say it’s OK, it must be OK.

If the water agency “won’t step up and say there’s no water, then there must be water,” said Mendez.

There is a real problem with Mendez’s logic, however. He seems to think that county officials are neutral arbiters, that they are there to protect the interests of everyone. He forgets that when it comes to major land-use decisions, concerned neighbors and others are at a huge disadvantage for one simple reason: Campaign contributions. Planning commissioners don’t receive contributions but county supervisors will make  the final decision on Ferrini Ranch and they most definitely do.

While a supervisor would be unlikely to personally lobby a water resources employee to fudge in favor of a developer, a large bureaucracy such as county government presents any number of  indirect routes for persuasive messaging.

The Ferrini Ranch project has been in the works in one form or the other for decades. The Kelton family of Southern California developed the Toro Park subdivision across Highway 68 from the hilly project site. The length of their wait will be cited by supporters as one reason the Board of Supervisors should approve the venture, something the supervisors will be inclined to do anyway. The years of waiting have provided the Keltons with plenty of opportunities to make financial contributions to the supervisors.

In one case, though, time worked against the Keltons. One of their favorite contribution recipients has been Supervisor Lou Calcagno, and he’s on his way out of office.

In June 2010, while Calcagno faced a primary election challenge from Ed Mitchell, a Kelton-owned company contributed $4,750 to the Calcagno campaign. Two days after Calcagno’s victory in that election, the Keltons’ builder, Ray Harrod, contributed $4,500 more, according to county election records.

Earlier, Mark, Richard and David Kelton each contributed $500 to Calcagno’s campaign.

Though that money might be considered wasted, the Keltons were undaunted. They surveyed the political landscape and kept writing checks to other board members and to the man who will replace Calcagno.

Like Calcagno did four years ago, retired Judge John Phillips defeated Mitchell in last week’s election and will represent the north county supervisorial district, District 2.

Though the Kelton’s project is in District 5,  represented by Dave Potter, Phillips started getting Ferrini Ranch-related contributions in March, receiving $2,000 from Harrod and Harrod Construction. In May, Richard, Mark and David Kelton each contributed $350 to Phillips.

Because those contributions came in so close to the upcoming Board of Supervisors vote on the project, the Partisan emailed Phillips and his campaign manager, Plasha Will, to ask whether he would return the money. After four days, there had been no response.

The Keltons also care about representation in the other districts as well. Mark Kelton contributed $500 to District 1 Supervisor Fernando Armenta in April 2012. They were able to economize in Armenta’s case because the Salinas-based supervisor has never voted against a development project.

Early in 2010, when it appeared the Ferrini Ranch project was about to reach the supervisors, each of the three Keltons contributed $500 to District 3 Supervisor Simon Salinas, who has been nearly as pro-development as Armenta. Then, last year, David and Mark Kelton each contributed $250 to Salinas while Ray Harrod contributed $300.

They did not overlook Potter. After all, the project is in his district. The Keltons have made campaign contributions here for many years, since before they build the Toro Park subdivision, but records from before 2005 weren’t immediately available in the past week. The first available record of a payment to Potter was from October 2006 when David and Richard wrote checks for $250 and Mark coughed up $500.

Two years later, the trio gave those same amounts.

In April 2008 Potter received $500 from the David and Lenora Kelton Family Trust and $500 each from Richard and Mark Kelton. In 2011, the contributions amounted to $600 from each of the three Keltons.

Since 2006, the total obvious contributions from the Keltons amounted to $20,400, not a large amount by modern campaign standards but certainly enough to assure them of audiences with the supervisors. Most of those contributions were clearly reported as having come from the Keltons or Harrod but the $4,750 check to Calcagno in June 2010, during the primary campaign, was from a Kelton entity called Allied Farming.

One Ferrini opponent, who asked not to be named for fear of offending the supervisors, said, “Our main tool is getting large numbers out for the hearings but it’s really too late by then because the supervisors have made their decisions even before the checks have cleared the bank.”

With Supervisor Jane Parker unlikely to vote for a project with a questionable water supply and other issues, one logical scenario has the project winning approval on a 3-2 vote, with Potter able to vote with the minority so as not to ruffle feathers within his district. Another scenario makes Phillips a swing vote, putting the new supervisor to an early test.

Some of the supervisors did receive contributions from environmental interests and construction unions over the same stretch of time. Potter, for instance, received contributions from Mitchell in 2011 as well as Chris Fritz, who then headed the LandWatch organization. In 2013, Potter’s campaign opponent, Marc del Pierro, received substantial contributions from environmentalists, including more than $100,000 from an environmental trust established from the proceeds of a lawsuit aimed at preventing another major development project.

Contributions such as those to del Piero will help shape the upcoming discussion as the supervisors consider a new proposal to limit the size of contributions. Supervisors Potter and Salinas last week asked the county staff to prepare an ordinance that would mimic the limits set in state races, $4,100 from individual contributors and $8,200 from committees. County contributions here are essentially unlimited, and unlike some jurisdictions the county doesn’t bar supervisors from voting on matters affecting contributors.

Potter said he wants limits because special interests are becoming too important in county races. In the recent sheriff’s race, successful challenger Steve Bernal received at least $165,000 from a relative, helping him outspend incumbent Scott Miller more than 5 to 1.

While Potter will receive public interest points for the move, environmentalists are already questioning whether he is acting out of sincere concern for the process or merely trying to weaken potential campaign opponents. He is up for re-election in 2016 and Potter may be trying to ward off a repeat of the 2013 election when environmentalist money beefed up del Piero’s treasury.

The Monterey County Weekly speculated last week that potential Potter opponents include prosecutor Jimmy Panetta, Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett and United Way executive Mary Adams.

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County supervisors in California are responsible for lots of things, from health care to jails to the potholes on your street. But few people pay much attention to the supes until a big land-use issue comes along.

Even something as relatively small as the Corral de Tierra shopping center proposal last year pulled the citizenry away from the TV and caused neighbors to argue over open space vs. private property rights. Suddenly the five supervisors were receiving the attention they should have been receiving day to day—attention of the sort that detects patterns. It turns out that when the issue is land use and the stakes are high, our supervisors are following a script written years ago.

I bring this up now because an important supervisorial contest is on the November ballot. It’s Ed Mitchell against John Phillips in District 2. It’s about who will represent the north end of the county but it should matter to you no matter where you live, because the script impacts land-used decisions countywide.

Will the script be followed when the supervisors vote on the upcoming Ferrini Ranch development along Highway 68? It depends on who wins in November.

Here’s how it goes:

For most significant development projects, the script gives the developer two votes from the start. Supervisor Fernando Armenta of District 1 and Supervisor Simon Salinas of District 4 are almost guaranteed yes votes. That’s partly because most of the larger development projects are on the Peninsula, a place that doesn’t matter to Armenta and Salinas. They represent parts of the Salinas Valley, so they have nothing to lose by voting for projects and plenty to lose when they vote against. Such as campaign contributions. Lose those and you lose cushy jobs.

Armenta once told a jarring story about how he sees development issues.

It was at a Monterey Herald editorial board meeting. I asked Armenta whether he had ever taken a stand against development interests. He chuckled and said that he had. He explained that it was during the debate over the current Monterey County general plan. Developer types and property owners who hope to develop their land some day were pushing a development-friendly version of the plan while environmentalist types were pushing a new, slower-growth version.

It had turned into a chess game, and the development forces and their buddies on the board thought they saw an opening. They decided to try to pass the development-friendly plan on a surprise vote before the opposition could figure out what was happening.

So at one Tuesday board meeting, then-Supervisor Jerry Smith introduced a surprise motion to approve the developers’ plan. Everyone then looked at Armenta.

Armenta said everyone assumed he would second the motion. Others on the board were ready to vote in favor but didn’t want to second the motion because it would become too obvious that the fix was in.

“I just sat there,” Armenta said, grinning.

I asked him why.

He said it was simply because everyone expected him to second the motion because he was such a pro-development guy. He said he needed to teach “them” a lesson about taking him for granted. In other words, he wanted people to know that if they wanted him to vote for their project, they’d better ask nicely. His support wasn’t automatic. There were conditions. By the way, Armenta did not seem at all embarrassed by what he was saying.

The script continues. Though her vote is not nearly as automatic as those of Armenta and Salinas, Supervisor Jane Parker is a good bet to vote against large development projects of the sort that create traffic and water problems and upset environmentalists. Most developments.

So it’s now 2-1. What about Dave Potter, the cagey one?

If you were to go back through his land-use votes over the years, you might not detect a pattern. Like I said, he’s cagey.

If the development is in his district—maybe in Carmel Valley, Corral de Tierra or the southern coast–and if there is considerable opposition, the script calls for Potter to vote no, but only after making a deal with his co-star, Supervisor Lou Calcagno.

Now it appears to be a 2-2 tie. But remember. Calcagno and Potter have already made a deal. The vote is actually 3-2 in favor of the project. Potter can tell the neighborhood opposition that he did his best to stop it and he can tell the developer about how he and Lou made it happen.

There can be deviations from the script, occasional ad libs. Which is OK with the players as long as the story turns out right.

So why does it matter who wins in November? Calcagno is retiring from the board.

His District 2 replacement will be either Ed Mitchell or John Phillips. If Mitchell wins, they’ll have to write a new script.

Mitchell is the feisty land-use activist, a fixture at board meetings, a longtime neighborhood organizer in Prunedale. He’s the troublemaker in the white cowboy hat. Mitchell worked for years as a contract compliance officer and he’s a detail guy. He has watched as the county for years has made empty promises about providing water to the dry parts of his district. Whenever a land-use proposal goes to the board, he wants to know where the water is coming from.

Phillips is the more polished of the two. He is a retired Superior Court judge who has won great admiration for his work developing and operating the Rancho Cielo youth ranch, which has provided vocational and educational alternatives for hundreds of at-risk youngsters. He’s also much more of a behind-the-scenes guy than Mitchell. For years now, he has played an informal but key role in helping to select local lawyers for judicial appointments.

Phillips is well known and well liked within the upper crust but no so well known to the general public. While Mitchell’s motivations are fairly clear—he wants to solve problems in his district and disrupt the script on land-use issues—Phillips’ intentions are less clear. So are his views on development and land-use issues.

Which brings us back to the point of this missive. This runoff election is important well beyond the confines of North County. While people living in Pacific Grove and Carmel and King City won’t have a vote in November, they still have an important stake. That’s why they should go to campaign forums and ask questions. How would you have voted on the last general plan, Judge Phillips? Have you received campaign contributions from developers? Mr. Mitchell, can you see yourself supporting a large residential development anywhere? How about on farmland? What defines a good project?

The people of PG and Carmel and King City also should make it clear to the media that those kinds of questions need to be asked, and answered.

Voters in Pacific Grove and Carmel and King City who already know which candidate they prefer also should do one more thing. Campaigns, unfortunately, run on money. Voters with strong feelings about the future of Monterey County should be making campaign contributions now if they want a say on how this plot turns out.

If you think the 255-home Ferrini Ranch subdivision would be a good thing to add along Highway 68, you should consider sending a campaign contribution to Phillips, or volunteering to help in his campaign. If you worry about traffic along Highway 68 or other ramifications of what amounts to leap-frog development, you’d be better off helping the Mitchell campaign instead.

No matter where you live.

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