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The collapse of the huge Monterey Downs project is good news for those of us who support sound land-use planning. It is also a personal defeat for outgoing Supervisor Dave Potter, who was a critical “mover and shaker” for the project, mostly behind the scenes.

Will we see a similar defeat for Potter’s other big project, before he is shown the door at the end of the month? Probably not, at least not next week when it comes before the Board of Supervisors. Potter has put the Rancho Canada subdivision proposal for the mouth of Carmel Valley on a fast track for approval before he leaves office, and has made sure to line up the votes to get it done. By a 4-3 vote, the project cleared the Planning Commission, “bypassing any substantive discussion” as Jim Johnson in the Herald aptly described the proceedings.

The rush to push the project through to the Board of Supervisors was most clearly seen in the treatment of the “draft” final environmental impact report, which was distributed to planning commissioners less than a week before the hearing. Martha Diehl’s common sense motion to delay the hearing until January to give the commissioners a chance to read the report and the various new conditions of approval was defeated. Commissioners had even less time to digest other important elements of the proposal, which were presented the day of the hearing.

Diehl subsequently wrote to the Partisan that “the first time I saw some 55 or so of the 119 proposed Conditions of Approval was at the hearing, and I for one had no opportunity whatsoever to read them, much less review them.”

Is this any way to deliberate over important land use decisions?

An earlier article I wrote on the Rancho Canada subdivision prior to the Planning Commission hearing stated that the application was being considered in part under the old 1982 general plan. This claim is true, although county staff specifically (albeit falsely) maintains that the application is consistent with the current 2010 general plan. Specifically, the county maintains (Planning Commission staff report page 3, and Board of Supervisors report Exhibit A, page 1) that a 2004 application “deemed complete” in 2005 under the old plan is still acceptable. Thus, it would seem applications made years or decades ago under a long expired general plan may be resurrected instead of requiring a new application and a new process. In the words of the county, an application more than a decade old was simply “put on hold” and evidently may be considered at any time in the future with no expiration date.

That said, county staff’s assertion that Rancho Canada is consistent with the 2010 general plan is false. As the staff reports to both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors make clear, the application from 2004 was for 281 housing units and that has not changed. Yet, a legal settlement with the Carmel Valley Association, reflected as an amendment in the general plan — and noted in the staff reports – caps development in the Carmel Valley Master Plan to 190 units. So county staff is trying to say with a straight face that 281 units somehow fits into a 190-unit cap.

This is the purpose of allowing the application to be considered just “on hold” from the old general plan rules because the application obviously is not consistent with the new general plan’s cap of 190-units. Without that sleight of hand to maintain that an application may be revived decades later instead of needing to be resubmitted in conformance with the new general plan, this application would have been rejected a priori (or, at least, should have been). As I argued before, the Lazarus-like revival of the 281-unit subdivision from 2004 is in reality a Trojan horse to get a 130-unit “alternative” subdivision approved.

Richard Stott gave a thoughtful response to my earlier article that essentially argued that the flood control elements to the Rancho Canada subdivision application are worth the price of the subdivision itself. I thank Dick for his considered response. Allow me to respond in two ways. First, reasonable flood control measures ought to be undertaken to protect citizens regardless of consideration of this or that subdivision. Good land-use planning would consider responsible flood control projects on their own merits.

Second, and to put it bluntly, be careful what you wish for: flood control in the hands of the Rancho Canada subdivision developers has a tainted history. Please recall the former “blister” along the south side of the Carmel River, the removal of which was considered important for flood control purposes. The blister was an illegal dump for rubble from an old hotel in Monterey demolished decades ago. Over the decades, others added lord-knows-what to this illegal dump. Several years back, in preparation for the subdivision, the Rancho Canada developers applied for a permit to build an “agricultural road” on other lands they owned, specifically on the nearby Odello East artichoke fields. Like bridges in Alaska, this was a “road to nowhere” that served no obvious purpose.

Two Carmel Valley residents happened to stumble on the real purpose of the “agricultural road:” a huge elongated pit into which the contents of the “blister” were being dumped. Alerted, the county immediately issued a red tag to cease the activity, but ultimately allowed the developers to finish covering the rubble with dirt. County staff told the Carmel Valley Association that there was nothing they could do to prevent the construction of such an agricultural road, as if the illegal disposal of construction waste was a normal part of dirt road construction. I suspect, but cannot prove, that Mr. Potter twisted some arms to make sure the red tag was lifted and the disposal proceeded.

I shudder to think of what might be percolating into the Odello East artichoke fields these days, and what future floods might bring to the whole of the flood plain and residents nearby. Some of those Odello lands were donated to the Big Sur Land Trust earlier this year.

That is the track record of the Rancho Canada developers when it comes to flood control.

There is no compelling argument to approve the Rancho Canada subdivision and to allocate virtually all remaining units in the general plan. It is just more leapfrog, sprawl development in an environmentally sensitive location, not to mention a looming eyesore in a beautiful area dependent, in part, on eco- and recreational tourism. The 130-unit alternative loses the only positive element in the old application: reserving 50% for affordable and workforce housing (as called for in the general plan); the developers are proposing the bare-minimum 20% required by the county on all big subdivisions.

The subdivision violates numerous other provisions of the current general plan, and will create unmitigated traffic congestion. Indeed, Rancho Canada will undo Dave Potter’s only real accomplishment as supervisor: getting the climbing lane built on northbound Highway 1 over Carmel Hill to relieve traffic congestion at the mouth of Carmel Valley. We will be “back to the future” when it comes to traffic congestion.

Like Monterey Downs, the Rancho Canada subdivision is a pet project of Dave Potter, and like Monterey Downs, Rancho Canada will collapse at some point given its obvious defects. But that has not prevented Potter from trying to rush the project through to approval by the Board of Supervisors before he leaves office. Potter will likely get his way next week, but his victory will certainly be ephemeral. Before wasting taxpayer dollars defending this poor project, the supervisors would be wise to slow down Potter’s train.

Robinson is a professor who has long been active in Carmel Valley land use issues.

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CORRECTION ADDED BELOW, IN BOLD

I didn’t have any strong opinions on the proposed canine sports center that the Monterey County Board of Supervisors rejected this week. Ultimately I guess I think it was a cool idea that would have worked better in a more discrete location.

I was bothered, however, by some of the speechifying by two of the supervisors who voted against the project. Dave Potter and Fernando Armenta.

Potter was critical of his longtime friend and political supporter Keith Vandevere, a member of the county Planning Committee that had endorsed the project. Vandevere recused himself from the proceedings because of his longtime friendship with project principal Martha Diehl, who also serves on the Planning Commission. Potter said he thought Vandevere should have set his conflict aside and found a way to be impartial.

Vandevere got it right. People are influenced by their friendships. Even if Vandevere didn’t consciously favor Diehl, he almost assuredly would have granted her more credibility than project opponents. And if had voted against her, might it have been a case of bending over too far to prove his impartiality?

Potter’s criticism makes one wonder if the supervisor really believes what he said or if he was  trying to justify some of his own actions. At the moment, for instance, Potter is taking an active role in the Pebble Beach controversy over disputed plans to tear down an architecturally significant house and replace it with a much larger structure. The next-door neighbor and most vigorous opponent or the larger house is cotton tycoon Sam Reeves, who has made campaign contributions to Potter on several occasions. Reeves is represented by lawyer Tony Lombardo, who represented many of those opposing the canine sports center. By the way, a couple of decades ago Potter bought a house from Lombardo’s mother, a purchase that was partly financed by Lombardo.

CORRECTION ADDED NOV. 2, 2015: In an email to the Partisan, Lombardo said he was not involved in financing the purchase. Based on previous accounts in the Monterey Herald, it appears that Potter borrowed money for the down payment from Lombardo’s mother, not Lombardo himself. According to those accounts, Potter was to mail payments on the Lombardo loan to Lombardo’s law office. He soon got behind on his payments on the first mortgage, held by Bank of America initially, but Lombardo said at the time that the supervisor remained current on the smaller loan. Potter later lost the property to foreclosure. The Partisan apologizes for the error.

Over the years, Potter has had numerous opportunities to find a way to be impartial while considering developments promoted by Lombardo, who specializes in land use issues. I’ve been looking for an example of any times when Potter was impartial enough to vote against Lombardo’s interest. I’ll let you know if I find one.

As for Armenta, he said he was upset with the Planning Commission, which supported the dog park project. He said some of the commissioners had unanswered questions about the project but voted for it anyway. He said after reviewing a video of the commission hearing on the project, he wondered “what was the decision based on.”

Armenta may be onto something. Perhaps some of the commissioners believed as commissioners often do that it is their job to approve controversial projects so the decision is left up to the politicians, the supervisors. But for Armenta to question whether the facts supported the commission’s recommendation might create the severe misimpression that Armenta has ever let the facts stand in the way of his votes on development projects.

Armenta has proudly declared that he has never opposed a development proposal. The dog park doesn’t count because it isn’t really a development. In other words, Armenta has boasted that he has voted for every subdivision, every construction project that has come along no matter whether it was a sound project or a dud, no matter what the Planning Commission or planning staff recommended. And here he is questioning whether the planning commissioners had done their homework before supporting a project.

In the end, the canine sports center will not be remembered as one of the great land-use controversies of our time, but students of government and process should take note of it and the proclamations of Potter and Armenta for consideration when future controversies arise. If Potter persists on voting on issues involving friends and supporters, someone should ask him at what point is he able to recognize a conflict. And when Armenta votes for another leapfrog development, someone should ask him “what was the decision based on.”

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Monterey County supes tell enviros to pound sand

Businessman discouraged and saddened by his failures

Maybe this fellow is downhearted because he just learned that the county supervisors consider the general plan a business plan, not a land-use plan. Or, he’s simply a model in a stock photo.

Anyone who doubts that a political and cultural war is being waged in Monterey County would have been disabused of the idea at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

The issue on the table was approval of a settlement agreement that county staff had negotiated with the government watchdog group Open Government Monterey and the environmental group LandWatch Monterey County. The agreement was meant to end litigation in which those groups spelled out their concerns about the impact and legality of the county’s 2010 general plan, which is heavily weighted toward the wants of developers and agribusiness.

Everyone in the room knew there was no chance that the supervisors were going to publicly ratify language taking back any of what the business interests had won five years ago, but the session provided them with the opportunity to talk tough in front of various benefactors.

“We can’t strangulate this county,” said Supervisor Fernando Armenta, according to a report in the Monterey County Weekly. Armenta said he had recently enjoyed a drive along Napa Valley’s vaunted wine trail and wished Monterey County could be more like that, green and relatively lacking in contentiousness. He mentioned without making his context clear that he had not seen any of the endangered species that are issues in Monterey County planning matters.

Much of the discussion was about Monterey County’s wine corridor, which the wine industry envisions as a series of wineries and tasting rooms along River Road on the western edge of the Salinas Valley. Although county officials have expressed nothing but support for the idea, little has materialized there.

(In a meeting with Monterey Herald editors several years ago, vintner Kurt Gollnick was asked what benefits a wine corridor would provide to those outside the wind industry. He couldn’t come up with an answer at the time.)

Specifics of Tuesday’s discussion included what can and cannot be planted on steep slopes susceptible to erosion, what can be done to accommodate the passage of wildlife through farms and fields.

The advocacy groups and the county had reached a tentative agreement in January but it could not take effect without a majority vote of the supervisors. It didn’t come close. Supervisor Jane Parker was the only supporter. She noted that the county’s legal bills are adding up quickly as the discussions continue and court proceedings loom.

By a vote of 4-1, the supervisors agreed to continue the discussion for another couple weeks, but the chances of a negotiated settlement appear to be growing slimmer.

Supervisor John Phillips voted for the extension but was dismissive of the general plan opponents.

“We all know the plaintiffs here live by litigation and that’s how they support themselves,” said Phillips, who supported himself by working as a lawyer and then a judge before joining the board

The supervisors were being cheered on by the county Planning Commission, several farm and business groups, the mayors’ association and the cities of Gonzales, Soledad and even Sand City, which is almost entirely unaffected by anything that goes into the general plan.

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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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