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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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New House Building

 

Fifth District Supervisor Dave Potter is abandoning all pretense of caring about good development in his final months of office. It used to be that Potter would shed crocodile tears about always losing on 3-2 votes for projects in his own district, while quietly making sure – wink, wink, nod, nod – that a majority was in place to approve bad developments. Think September Ranch and Ferrini Ranch subdivisions, or the shopping mall at Corral de Tierra and Highway 68. After having been trounced (I wonder why?) in his bid for re-election, Potter is now going all out to fast track the Rancho Canada subdivision at the mouth of Carmel Valley before his terms expires. Apparently he still owes favors to his developer friends.

The Rancho Canada Subdivision (RCS) application is a fraud being perpetrated by the developers with the active collusion thus far by Monterey County, thanks to Potter. The Planning Commission is scheduled to hear the application Wednesday and the Board of Supervisors in three weeks in the mad rush to get it done.

I don’t take the term fraud lightly, so let’s begin deconstructing the application. Years ago, the RCS developers started an application process, but its environmental impact report was so poorly done that the developers withdrew it and the project died. Lazarus-like, RCS is back, and the developers claim that it must be considered under the old general plan, which was replaced six years ago. Here, then, are the first two parts of the fraud: insisting that it must be considered under a long dead but more lenient general plan, and doing so to try to avoid the county’s binding legal commitments.

In 2012, in order to settle a lawsuit brought by the Carmel Valley Association, the county committed to cap new units created in the Carmel Valley Master Plan area to 190. This is a legally binding commitment that the county cannot simply set aside. During the discussions that reached the 190 cap – I was one of CVA’s negotiators – Rancho Canada was specifically discussed as being included under that cap amount.

By accepting a 281-unit subdivision application, the county is acting in bad faith and risks wasting taxpayer dollars in defending what would be an easy case against it. Simply asserting that it is considering the application under a general plan that was replaced in 2010 is nonsense and would never stand up to scrutiny.

But here is the real play that is going on: the 281-unit subdivision application is a Trojan horse, designed to get into the gate and approved instead a 130-unit “alternative” for the subdivision. A reasonable person may ask: why not then just apply for the 130-unit subdivision under the current 2010 general plan as that would fit under the 190-unit cap?

Here is where the fraud deepens. There are at least four reasons that taking this obvious and correct step would probably not work, and thus why the developers – and Dave Potter – insist on considering the application under the long-dead general plan.

First, even at 130 units the numbers might not work for RCS. Of the 190-unit cap, at least 30 units have already been allocated, leaving at most 160. But the 2010 general plan also specifically allocates 24 of those units to a project at the old Carmel Valley airport, leaving at most 136 units available. But we would need to see a full accounting of the allocated units first to be able to say for sure that 130 units were still even available.

If, in fact, 130 units are not available, then the county would need to make a general plan amendment re-allocating some of those airport units to RCS – and that is the second problem. Making general plan amendments under the current 2010 general plan is much more difficult than under the old general plan, and Potter does not have the time to wait. Under no circumstances could the county make a general plan amendment removing the 190-unit cap.

A third (political) problem would then arise: RCS would use up by itself essentially all the remaining unallocated units from the 190 cap, leaving no one else outside of the airport owners the ability to subdivide. Politically, Potter does not want the heat for effectively denying all other applicants outside of the RCS owners, so the fraud about considering RCS under the old general plan got ginned up.

Fourth, RCS is inconsistent in a multitude of ways with the current general plan, as both the Carmel Valley Association and Landwatch have pointed out, thus the developers have pushed for the friendlier confines of an expired general plan written nearly four decades ago.

Hopefully not lost in the fraud surrounding the application is that the 130-unit “alternative” itself is just straight up a bad project. It represents the worst of leap-frog, sprawl development that we have seen too much of in California. As well, the one commendable item in the original 281-unit application – 50% of the units were allocated to workforce housing – has been put aside in lieu of the county’s bare minimum standard of 20% affordable housing. There is nothing compelling about this subdivision application at all once that 50% workforce housing element was removed. It would also violate policy CV 1.6a that gives preference to projects that include “50% affordable housing units.” It is just another run-of-the-mill bad sprawl development with nothing to recommend it.

Potter’s support of RCS will undo his one really good achievement during his time as supervisor: the building of the “climbing lane” on northbound Highway 1 up Carmel Hill. Traffic congestion was utterly horrible at the mouth of Carmel Valley before the climbing lane was built. Part of Potter’s marketing of the climbing lane as found in various county documents is that it would be “no growth inducing” and was meant only to relieve extant congestion. But this was more than a marketing pitch; it had legal consequences. By framing the issue as “no growth inducing” Potter was able to bypass CEQA and not do an EIR for the project. Can anyone imagine RCS being contemplated with the congestion we had before the climbing lane? By considering RCS now, the county is violating its legal and moral pledge to the community that the climbing lane would not be used as an excuse to approve more development.

The Planning Commission should not be party to Potter’s rush to approve RCS. Compel the developer to return with a suitable project that is consistent with the current general plan and the legal commitments that the county has. The Planning Commission would do well not to be complicit in the RCS fraud.

Robinson is a professor who has long been active in Carmel Valley land use issues. See the update on the Rancho Canada subdivision and its clarification on the use of two general plans.

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