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The Hilltop Ranch vineyard sits above East Carmel Valley Road in a neighborhood of large lots and vineyards.

“The spectacular Hilltop Ranch & Vineyard where lush Pinot Noir is grown and educational tours, seminars, culinary experiences and more can be arranged. It is a wonderful setting for creating many special events with unlimited possibilities. The vistas are beyond belief!” – Cima Collina winery advertisement

So, you’re all set there in your little piece of paradise. Your place is on a hillside overlooking Carmel Valley, perhaps, or in one of the canyons of Corral de Tierra or out there along River Road or the North County hills. You’ve got an acre of unincorporated property, maybe more. Life is good.

And because you’re a smart one, you checked on the zoning before you bought. You were comforted to see that all the neighboring property is zoned “low-density residential.” That means large parcels, nice houses, maybe a few chickens or horses and a promise that none of your neighbors is going to open a store or a machine shop or a party barn where people hold weddings and the like. All is well.

Well, maybe not.

According to the paperwork and correspondence underlying a controversy winding through the hallways of the Monterey County planning bureaucracy, it appears that “low-density residential” means just that unless your neighbor is in the wine business and wants to be in the events business. Once upon a time, that exception wouldn’t have mattered much because not too many folks hereabouts were in the wine business. But the next time you drive down Carmel Valley Road, take a close look at the vines and the signs. You’ll see that it is becoming a little Napa Valley with wine shops and tasting rooms blooming like pinot vines in the spring.

At the center of this land-use fight is the Hilltop Ranch vineyard at 62 E. Carmel Valley Road. You may have noticed the little sign there on your left as you head east out of the village, just past Rippling River and Holman Ranch. Despite the Carmel Valley Road address, the entrance to the property is actually off a private road that branches to the north from the public thoroughfare. Monterey County’s chief planner, Carl Holm, decided without any open public input that although the vineyard is zoned for low-density residential, it would be OK for it to host special events such as commercial wine-tasting dinners, partly because the property is owned by the same people who own the Cima Collina tasting room in the village.

Holm opted to allow the traffic-including and noise-creating use, without any specific limits on frequency, without public notice or hearing, by issuing what he calls a director’s interpretation. That’s where he rather than the general plan or the county’s zoning ordinance decides how property can be used.

What it boils down to is that Holm believes it is OK for Hilltop to hold an unlimited number of events because vineyards are allowed in low-density residential neighborhoods, wine-tasting is closely associated with vineyards and gatherings, and wine-tasting sometimes leads to fairly large events.

Holm says he hasn’t done anything unusual, even though he granted approval for the special events after the vineyard had been denied permits for such uses on three occasions. In one of those applications, the vineyard operators proposed entertaining 250 guests at a wedding.

Under Holm’s ruling, the crowd would be limited to 75 at a time but there would be no set limit on how often events could be held. Attorney Tony Lombardo, representing a dozen or so Hilltop neighbors, notes in his appeal letter that 75 people can easily become 90 or more.

In another appeal to the county, a lawyer representing the Carmel Valley Association argues that Holm’s ruling essentially rezones the property without public hearing and allows a list of allowable uses far more generous than what is spelled out in the county codes — all because the 20-acre Hilltop property includes some four acres of grapes.

Entrance to the vineyard is along a road shared by neighbors who don’t seem eager for company

Holm maintains he acted within his authority.

“Staff interprets codes every day with every customer and every project,” he told the Partisan in an exchange of emails. “Codes cannot be completely exhaustive since new ideas present new challenges not addressed in the code.”

Holm noted the low-density residential designation, LDR, allows for farming as well as “stands for the sale of ag products,” which presumably means those little structures from which family farmers sometimes sell cherries and apples.

He said he also determined that some type of marketing events were typically held in vineyards and that he reported that to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors last winter. It wasn’t clear whether he mentioned during that report that most of the vineyards that hold marketing events are in agricultural zones, which accommodate more commercial uses than what are contemplated in residential zones.

Lombardo wrote that Holm grants Hillside too much leeway. He noted that the zoning ordinance allows “viticulture” in residential zones, which means the cultivation of grapes, but it does not allow for wine production or commercial wine tasting.

Lombardo also noted that the county’s painstakingly constructed 2010 general plan allows for a “wine corridor” of wineries and tasting rooms along River Road overlooking the Salinas Valley but conspicuously does not create such a corridor along Carmel Valley Road.

Late last year, Holm told the Board of Supervisors that his staff is working on a new set of policies to regulate event spaces in unincorporated areas, language that would clarify to what extent commercial gatherings would be allowed in residential and other limited-use zones. It is a growing issue countywide but particularly in Carmel Valley with its abundance of commercial and backyard vineyards. Holm said last week, however, that the board later instructed him to focus first on completing policy language on short-term rentals in the county.

Holm’s stance is being challenged separately by Lombardo’s clients and the Carmel Valley Association, represented by attorney Molly Erickson.

In a note to its membership, the Carmel Valley Association argued that Holm’s interpretation violates state law and county code.

“It provides an incentive for everybody in the low-density residential zone to plant a vineyard so they can have special events. It corrupts the public process,” the association offered. “If allowed to stand, the Holm Letter will cause serious long-term land use and environmental effects and will harm the public’s trust in Monterey County government.”

In the association’s appeal to the Planning Commission, Erickson suggests Holm provided special treatment to Hilltop by providing significant guidance to the vineyard’s lawyer, John Bridges. (The Partisan invited a response from Bridges early this month but has not received one.)

Erickson noted that Holm had sent three emails offering advice to Bridges and his decision ultimately “rewards the applicant for private lobbying and private meetings with Mr. Holm.”

“The applicant’s representatives repeatedly peppered Mr. Holm with various arguments and claims as to why the proposed special events use at the Hilltop Ranch site should be approved. Mr. Holm repeatedly communicated directly with the applicant representatives, attorney John Bridges, land use consultant Joel Panzer, and Cima Collina events coordinator Michele Gogliucci. Mr. Holm communicated privately with them to come to a private agreement as to special events uses at the site. Mr. Holm did not inform the public or the Planning Commission of the private communications.”

Erickson continued, “On February 11, 2016, Mr. Holm wrote to Mr. Bridges giving ‘guidelines’ for special events on which Hilltop Ranch LLC could rely ‘until we get to the commission.’ Mr. Holm’s ‘guidelines’ recommended a limit of 20 visitors at a time, allowed the use of a shuttle to bring visitors to the site, and stated ‘no weddings,’ ‘no advertised events’ and ‘no portable toilets.’ He recommended that the property owner not make long term investment plans, and suggested that Hilltop Ranch amend its application to include any issues Hilltop wanted to include in its special event operations. Mr. Holm promised that if Hilltop operated within the ‘guidelines,’ the county ‘will not view it as a violation (even if we receive a complaint) and the current [code violation] case will be placed on hold until the permit process has been completed.’”

Despite the cautions from Holm, Hilltop “did hold weddings and publish advertisements for special events as shown in the county files, including mass emails inviting the public and county employees to events,” Erickson wrote.

According to Erickson, Holm repeatedly urged the applicant to make a request for a “private administrative interpretation instead of going through the public review process. Mr. Holm wanted to accommodate the special events use and proposed to go about giving permission in a nonpublic forum.”

Allowing Holm’s directive to stand, Lombardo wrote, would set a precedent allowing an unlimited number of vineyards to become commercial events spaces without consideration for the neighbors or the impacts on traffic, water and other resources.

Hilltop seeks “to create highly intensive commercial uses in a residential neighborhood,” Lombardo wrote. “If allowed to proceed, any resident could most likely justify becoming an ‘event center’ so that they too could make money from their property investment no matter how large or small. The serene rural nature of particularly Carmel Valley would be permanently destroyed. Therefore, to maintain the serene rural nature of Carmel Valley’s and Monterey County’s residential areas, the interpretation should be vacated.”

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The case for campaign contribution reform grows with each passing election.

Take the city of Monterey, for instance, where a reform-minded city councilwoman, Libby Downey, was knocked out of office in November by an opponent who raised nearly six times as much money, much of it from a segment of the business community that Downey had tangled with.

The successful candidate was Dan Albert Jr., son of the longtime Monterey mayor. In a three-candidate race for two seats on the council, he pulled in $53,365 compared to $9,411 for Downey and $8,549 for Alan Haffa, who retained his seat.

Downey and Haffa have led the city’s efforts to reform leasing practices at city-owned Fisherman’s Wharf, where some longtime tenants who negotiated sweetheart lease deals with the city decades ago are allowed to sublease the space to other businesses at greatly increased rates without the city receiving any share of the additional income.

The effort to change that and other practices has been met with furious resistance from wharf tenants, who have repeatedly  accused city officials of attempting to turn the wharf over to chain restaurants at the expense of local, family-owned operations. With Downey’s departure, the city has softened its approach to negotiating more taxpayer-friendly leases at the wharf. The city’s resolve weakened further when Councilman Timothy Barrett, previously in the Haffa-Downey camp on the issue, was somehow persuaded to switch sides. Haffa is now expected to be outvoted 4-1 on wharf matters, so the established wharf interests appear to have regained their grip on  city leasing policy.

Albert’s contributors listed in the most recent campaign spending reports include the Monterey Commercial Property Owners Association, $2,500; and two closely related entities, the Monterey Bay Action Committee and the Monterey Hospitality Association, $5,000 apiece. The $5,000 contributions came after the election and were presumably intended to help Albert build his treasury for a re-election effort. He also took in contributions from Monterey Fish Co., Randy’s Fishing Trips, the Cannery Row Co., Portola Hotel, Marriott Hotel and lawyer Tony Lombardo, who represents the Shake family interests on the wharf.

Incidentally, or not, in his previous role as associate superintendent of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, Albert was an active participant in the pay-to-play system of awarding school bond contracts to companies that provide most of the financing for school bond measure campaigns.

The Monterey district was not alone, of course. School districts throughout California and beyond traditionally financed bond campaigns with contributions from bond underwriters and construction companies that would directly benefit from the resulting school construction contracts. In California, the state Treasurer’s Office only last year enacted regulations that prohibit contracts from being awarded to the firms that financed the corresponding bond measures. Bonding companies can still contribute to bond measure campaigns but they cannot then recover their investment directly by receiving contracts in the same communities.

No one has accused Albert of any illegal or unethical activities. The connection between school bond campaign financing and subsequent contracts has been so clear for so long that the built-in conflicts of interests were widely viewed as a necessary cost of getting schools built or repaired.

While Albert was the local school district’s chief business officer, his wife, Sharon, ran the successful Measure P campaign that raised more than $100 million in 2010, and she received considerable and justifiable praise for her efforts. With district officials barred from direct involvement in bond campaigns, companies that went on to receive sizable construction or finance contracts contributed the bulk of the money needed to persuade voters to approve the MPUSD bond program. A sizable share of the resulting construction work went to campaign contributor Harris Construction of Fresno, now under investigation for a bid-rigging scheme in Fresno. Others contributing to Measure P and then benefiting from the construction program included the Piper Jaffray and Stone & Youngberg bond firms, Keygent Advisers, a San Francisco bond counsel and a Fresno architecture firm.

Efforts to limit campaign contributions locally have surfaced from time to time but most have sputtered as local political action committees such as the Monterey Bay Action Committee and the Salinas Valley Leadership Group have stepped up to support the most commerce-friendly candidates. At the moment, however, momentum appears to be growing for new, tougher rules that would affect candidates for the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.

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This photo of Dave Potter comes from Mary Adams’ website, potterfacts.com

I’ve always greatly enjoyed Mary Duan’s columns in the Monterey County Weekly, and I enjoyed most of her farewell column this week. With her husband’s lottery winnings tucked into a mattress, she has stepped down as editor after a productive and sometimes grueling six years.

Thursday’s column was about politics and Mary’s decision to enjoy life for a while. The part I didn’t love was the little section where she sort of lost her way  while writing about Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter and his effort to fight off a challenge by a strong candidate, Mary Adams.

She wrote about how the Weekly had endorsed Potter, setting off some serious groaning from the left side of the political divide, which constitutes a good share of the paper’s readership. I have it on good authority that Duan argued mightily for an Adams endorsement but was outmuscled by her bosses, who got on the Potter train long ago and stayed onboard while others departed. (I’ve always suspected it has something to do with Potter being a good source, especially when he needs to divert the attention of journalists looking too closely at his affairs.) The result of the internal debate at the Weekly was an endorsement editorial that made note of Potter’s “integrity” issues. You won’t find that part quoted in Potter’s campaign mailers.

Here’s the portion of Duan column that I found, well, exasperating.

“There’s a heated level of vitriol being thrown our way because of the Potter endorsement – progressives, it turns out, can be a hostile bunch,” Duan wrote. “I don’t think we’ve been called stupid, but we have been called inept and corrupt.

“Potter gets called corrupt a lot, by the way. He’s done some dumb stuff, but in terms of outright corruption, I haven’t been able to prove it (and boy have I tried) and neither has anyone else. My message to the angry progressives is this: Prove it. Prove what you think you know.”

I would be surprised if I didn’t enter Duan’s thoughts at least fleetingly while she wrote that last paragraph. And here’s why. While I don’t have a file of documents that a prosecutor could take to a grand jury and get Potter thrown in jail, I have been involved in covering Potter for 16 years now and I believe it has been proved several times now that if not outright, damnably corrupt, he is ethically challenged to the point that he should not be in office. Corrupt is a pretty big word. One of the Merriam-Webster definitions is a good one, “Doing things that are dishonest or illegal in order to make money or to gain or keep power.” Ms. Duan, I think it has been proved that the definition applies to the fellow your former employer endorsed. (It should be noted that my former employer, the Herald, has endorsed him as well.)

The publisher of another weekly paper in the area, the Carmel Pine Cone, has accused me over the years of being out to get Potter, though he has never explained why. The truth is that, like most people who know Potter, I like the guy. He can be a real charmer and he knows more than anyone else about two of my favorite topics, local politics and governance. Even when he has been beyond irritated at something I had written about him, he and I have managed to have pleasant and even constructive conversations. For instance, he was the one who explained to me why former Supervisor Lou Calcagno is endorsing Supervisor Jane Parker instead of her challenger, Dennis Donohue. It’s because Donohue has signed onto a plan to let the city of Salinas spill over onto some of the wonderful farmland south and west of town.

So, back to the point. What has been proven about Potter, his method of operations and his integrity? I can only tell you what I know, which is a fair amount.

Two examples make my point about Potter’s integrity, and I’ll go into some detail about those. For now, let’s not worry about the house he bought from the land-use lawyer’s family, the building and coastal permits his construction company forgot to obtain before starting projects, the time he was using campaign money to pay his construction company rent, the time he bought a car from a dealer who was seeking a coastal permit while Potter was on the Coastal Commission or the time he tried to arrange free property at Fort Ord so his company could build a hockey rink there. The list of troubling but not indictable acts goes on.

Let’s focus instead on the Nader Agha campaign contribution and the forgery allegation.

Agha, of course, is the local developer and antique dealer who has been pursuing a desalination plant in competition with Cal Am’s. He is well known for his generosity, both to charities and to politicians.

You can read a Monterey Herald article about the issue here and get the details but I’ll summarize the key points.

In January 2004, Potter asked Agha for a $10,000 campaign contribution. But rather than have him make the check out to his campaign fund as legally required, he asked Agha to make the check out to a business associate, Russ Carter, one of a group of San Jose investors who have repeatedly lent money to Potter over the years.

Much later, then-county Supervisor Lou Calcagno told Agha that the money had gone toward a vacation rather than campaign expenses. To make a long story short, Agha then sued Potter for return of the money and – and this is key here – included a copy of the canceled check to Carter along with the legal filing.

Potter denied everything and insisted that he had been exonerated through an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission. It’s true that the FPPC didn’t take any action. It seldom does. But Potter was never able to explain why Agha had written a $10,000 check out to a close Potter associate with whom he had no connection of his own.

Agha at one point said he would pursue the lawsuit vigorously to prove that Potter was lying. Unfortunately for those of us who care about facts, Potter did everything he could to keep the matter out of public scrutiny. Monterey public relations man David Armanasco went to Agha on Potter’s behalf and arranged a settlement. Rather than pursue the litigation, Agha agreed to settle out of court for an unreported amount and agreed with Potter’s request to have the settlement details sealed.

“I’m kicking myself,” Agha said later.

It is true that Agha’s assertions were never proved in court and that the FPPC didn’t charge Potter. But in the court of public opinion, the one in which Potter and Mary Duan and the Partisan reside, the canceled check to Carter is both persuasive and damning.

The forgery matter also made it into the courthouse but, like the Agha matter, was not resolved there. Still, in the court of common sense, Potter loses.

Again, there is a long Monterey Herald story that spells it all out, so we’ll only summarize here.

In 2012, Potter’s ex-wife, Patricia, said in court papers that Potter had forged her name on home loan documents after their estrangement so he could take out another mortgage on their Monterey home.

(The home, by the way, was one Potter had bought from the mother of land-use lawyer Tony Lombardo, with partial financing from the mother, but that’s another tale.)

Anyway, in court papers, Patricia Potter alleged that her former husband surreptitiously signed her name to the paperwork so he could obtain a second mortgage of $193,000. She said that $168,000 of that went to pay off loans that Potter had received from three San Jose investors, including Russ Carter (the fellow who had earlier cashed the $10,000 check from Agha.)

The paperwork was processed in San Jose, at a meeting Patricia Potter did not attend, and the signatures were notarized by a Silicon Valley real estate agent who is a business partner of the investors who received the $168,000.  Patricia Potter alleged that her ex-husband then recorded the documents without her knowledge, something that her ex-husband’s lawyer actually verified in court papers.

The allegations went away without landing Potter in any real trouble. That’s because Herald reporter Jim Johnson, who wrote the story on the allegations, called Dave and Patricia Potter for comment and they got their heads together before returning his calls.  By then, before the story came out, they had come to terms about disputed spousal support and agreed to say that the forgery allegation was the result of a simple misunderstanding.

The headline on the resulting Herald article said Patricia Potter had retracted the allegation. The last time I checked the court record, she had not done so in court papers.

To my way of thinking, Potter could have been prosecuted but the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office concluded that there was no case since Patricia Potter had changed her story. Some tough questioning of the real estate agent who notarized the signature might have produced a different result, but who knows.

Does this prove Potter is corrupt? His supporters won’t think so but many of those supporting Mary Adams will argue that the case has been made. That’s how it goes in politics. Those folks over at the other local weekly, the Pine Cone, are so blind to Potter’s failings that they may try to hold Adams accountable for the words on these pages. The ferocity of the Pine Cone’s repeated attacks on Adams, combined with its historic unwillingness to examine Potter’s record, suggests another form of misfeasance.

As I wrote above, Potter is an exceedingly knowledgeable politician. His understanding of the ins and outs of local governance is without parallel. He has done some good things and I do not believe that, deep down, he is an evil fellow. I believe that he has struggled financially at times, for reasons I do not understand, and that he has routinely cut corners and done worse to get by. Corrupt? You be the judge.

The Potter strategy in the current campaign is to portray Adams as inexperienced, incapable of stepping in to deal with the difficult realities of county government. My counter is that she is highly experienced in the equally complicated world of non-profit social services, that she is smart and quick, and that she carries absolutely none of the type of ethical baggage that causes even neutral observers of Dave Potter to question his sincerity in almost everything he does.

The election is June 7.

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Illustration depicting a large number of directional roadsigns in a chaotic arrangement. White  background.After careful contemplation and the expenditure of countless hours of staff time and other resources, I have come to the conclusion that the two biggest problems facing the Monterey Peninsula are quite closely related.

Problem No. 1, of course, is the declining water supply, which should have been addressed decades ago before we decided that strawberries and grapes were good choices for desert cultivation. The leading proposed solution at the moment involves a possible desalination plant near Marina and an assortment of smaller efforts involving conservation and recycling.

Problem No. 2, almost as obviously, is that just about every element of Problem No. 1 seems so complicated, complex and confounding that there are only a handful of people who understand any of it. On top of that, most of those who do understand it don’t care that you don’t. In fact, some are glad you don’t and there are even those who are being paid to make sure you don’t.

Why so complicated?

First, complexity makes things more expensive,  and when you’re on the receiving side of “cost plus,” there’s a lot to be said for expensive. Second, with all of that cost plus to be spread around, there are many players willing to participate in the search for solutions. Too many.

That starts with the misleadingly named California American Water Co., which has as much to do with California as the autobahn. It is supposed to be playing a lead role in solving Problem 1 but it spends most of its time wading around in the swamps of Problem 2, creating complications and looking for trouble. The company likes to portray itself as a helpful fellow in boots going out into the community, patching leaks and coaching Little League teams when the truth is that the bean counters in the home office depend on those very leaks in order to keep the bottom line above water. Way above water.

Then there’s the Public Utilities Commission, which technically is in charge of solving Problem No. 1 even though it has absolutely no experience in problem solving and even less in desalination. The Public Utilities Commission apparently was put in charge of this process because our state legislators wanted to keep it away from all aspects of gas pipeline safety. You might say that the PUC is Problem No. 3.

A key concern of those involved in the effort locally is that if the PUC ever approves a timeline and a production schedule, it might as a matter of routine order them confidential and put them under seal, effectively killing the venture.

Then there are the local agencies. For instance, the mayors’ authority, a quasi-government agency made up of the mayors of the Peninsula cities. It was set up because the first local agency given an oversight role, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, couldn’t figure out how to convert desalination progress into campaign contributions. The supervisors are hoping to get involved again when construction seems imminent and quite a few construction contracts will need to be awarded.

The mayors’ committee was hoping to jumpstart the process because the hospitality industry pretty much decides who gets to be mayor in these parts and it needs water for hotel rooms occupied by tourists who won’t have to pay for the project. The mayors have gotten off to a slow start, however, because the Del Rey Oaks mayor is busy building ammunition bunkers throughout his community and the Sand City mayor is napping.

A water district in Marina has some role in all of this, but for now its leadership seems to be in a sort of bureaucratic penalty box and won’t be allowed back into the game until the second overtime period. It is a shame because some of the district’s leadership has demonstrated to interested members of the public that you don’t have to have a clue to get involved.

Part of the problem has to do with the news coverage but it isn’t what you might expect. In this age of shrinking newspapers, it hasn’t been a lack of coverage. Just the opposite. In the last decade, the Herald has published nearly 173,500 articles mentioning Cal Am, 62,600 articles containing acronyms for non-existent water agencies, the same number of articles in which Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Steadman says, “We’ll get back to you about that,” and some 20,000 articles in which County Counsel Charles McKee says documents are being sealed in the interest of full disclosure.

Some of the confusion is, of course, the public’s owned damned fault. For instance, believe it or not, there are those in the community who can’t seem to grasp why   a desalination plant designed to take water from the ocean and convert it into drinkable fresh water needs to drill a series of inland wells in order to take already fresh water from Salinas farmers and, through a process invented by the Coastal Commission, convert it into cash to be used to pay consultants to declare the existing water supply more than adequate as an effective hedge against the 180-foot aquatard. Do the math, people. Sheesh.

Cal Am isn’t the only game in town, of course, which makes things that much more complicated.

Peninsula wheeler-dealer Nader Agha has the property and the plans to build a better and cheaper desalination plant in Moss Landing but Cal Am keeps telling people that Agha and former county Supervisor Marc del Piero are the same person, which violates a county ordinance requiring desalination operators to front only for seated supervisors.

Then there’s Deepwater Desal, a creation of Monterey PR man David Armanasco, who has been sidelined because his core clients have hired him to paint murals of wharf pilings to installed over the actual pilings at Fisherman’s Wharf.

And speaking of the wharf, let’s not forget the lawyers. Every lawyer in California who ever lived in a house with a low-flow shower has been declared a water expert for purposes of this feeding frenzy. For convenience and efficiency, each seems to have brought on Tony Lombardo as local counsel. Those who have been around a while will remember him. He wrote the previous general plan while representing most of the supervisors and many of the businesses at Fisherman’s Wharf, including the two warring fish houses that both claim to have invented cioppino Monterey, which consists of a handful of saltwater taffy, samples of five kinds of clam chowder, a couple of restaurant pagers, Sal Cerrito’s will, a half loaf of Armenian pita bread and a half pound of Bubba Gump shrimp but, alas, no sardines.

And let’s not forget the environmentalists, the “no-growthers” who, we are constantly told, are busily working against the interests of the community to reverse all the  progress on the desal front.

Next: Sheriff Bernal’s plan to patrol the waterfront.

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Saving the world, one red fence at a time

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Some readers of the Monterey Herald will glance at this column and mutter, “Oh no, not that damn fence again,” and who can blame them. The dilapidated red fence along otherwise scenic Highway 68 and the otherwise lovely Laguna Seca golf course became a rather tiresome subject in the venerable daily some three years ago, and the attention did nothing to correct its sorry state.

But that fence—let’s come right out and call it that ugly fence—deserves attention. Depending on one’s perspective, it is either an eyesore or a neglected artifact worthy of repair and preservation. I write about it here because a letter to the editor of the Herald a couple weeks back resurrected the issue, and because I have an idea, one that may satisfy both camps.

As it is, it’s a mess. In all, it amounts to a little more than a half mile of fencing, some upright but much of it toppled and tangled with the brush. There are gaps, many of them quite large. If there were a beauty contest for fences, it would be disqualified early for lack of integrity.

During the last round of attention, no one stepped up to take responsibility for the fence. As it is along Highway 68, a state highway, a case could be made that it is the state’s responsibility. Calls to state highway officials three years ago, however, resulted in nothing more than perplexity and empty promises to “look into it.” A case also could be made that it is the responsibility of the landowners along the route. A section of the Monterey County ordinances suggests strongly that county officials can and should require said landowners to remove or repair eyesores. Significant sections of the fence may reside on the golf course property, but the manager there made it clear three years ago that he had no sense of responsibility. For the fence, that is. Could the county force the issue? It could but it won’t.

After the Herald opined about the sorry state of the fence, readers responded with observations, memories and theories about its origin and purpose. The most definitive account came from Julie Work Beck, a Corral de Tierra resident, whose grandfather owned ranch land on one side. Here is a piece she wrote at the time, slightly abridged.

The red fence definitely dates from the 1930s, if not earlier. It extended from York Road past the current Laguna Seca area. It was built by Esteban (Steve) Field on property owned by him and his sister, Maria Antonia Field. The two inherited the property from their father, Tom Field, who married Maria Munras. Maria Antonia Field kept her residence across the highway in the hacienda, now a horse ranch with a watering hole close to the highway.

The entrance to Lady Field’s home was gated, as it still is, and to the left, was a box with a phone one would open to call the house to ask for admssion. I remember doing this as a child on the occasion of visits to Lady Field.

Lady Field as she was called for short, was given the title of Her Excellimentissima Maria Antonia Field in the 1930s or the 1940s by the then-pope (Pius XII?) for her work and support of the restoration of Carmel Mission and her help to Father Ramon Mestres. Lady Field and Steve Field were the children of Tom Field and Maria Munras of Spanish Rancho land grant times.

Tom Field was a clever Scot, as was my grandfather, T.A. Work, who owned the ranch lands on the other side of the road. These two Toms were known countywide for their skill and perceptiveness and had great influence in the county on land matters. My grandfather assembled the ranch on the south side of the road from different sources, but mainly from purchase from David Jacks, also a Scot. My grandfather’s ranch lands were enclosed by barbed wire ranch fencing to keep his cattle on his property. But Steve Field erected a beautiful decorative fence — the red and white fence still remaining in differing states of repair or disrepair.

My grandfather told him the fence was a huge waste of money and a frivolous piece of vanity. T.A. Work was not wrong about much in the realm of property and money, but I have to say he was wrong about this. For this fence to be still standing, even in its state of disrepair after close to 100 years, is a tribute in its own right.

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Until Beck and others weighed in about the history, I was all for tearing the fence out. But she and they have convinced me otherwise.

So here’s the idea. Unfortunately, it will require a committee, but that is not always a guarantee of failure. It also will require a work crew. Beyond that, it gets simple: We tear out the worst sections of the fence, the parts flattened against the ground, the really ugly parts. We leave the rest of it alone to be enjoyed by history buffs for at least another few decades. Unless we decide to paint it, which isn’t really all that hard.

Why not restore the fence, either all the portions that remain or the whole thing? Because that would require capital in addition to labor, and as much as I dislike the fence in its current condition, if I’m going to be involved in fundraising, I have more important fish to fry and so do you.

If the fence really is the responsibility of the state, we might be informed of that early on, and if the golf course operator accuses us of trespass, we’ll have another useful answer. Fine, we’ll say as we walk away, you fix it.

Consider it a test. There are many larger issues that need attention, of course, challenges that seem exceptionally daunting. Our water issue, for instance. Already I know that we’ll be told that it is foolish to worry about a fence when there are children starving anywhere, but the same could be said about just about any idea, couldn’t it? If we could find a measure of success with the fence, maybe it would restore our confidence in our collective ability to solve bigger problems.

So what do you think? And who wants to chair this committee? I’m tempted to nominate Julie Beck and Mike Weaver of the Highway 68 Coalition. Surely there are other potential candidates for both the talking and doing parts of the mission. I’ve got some work gloves somewhere and am prepared to stand by for assignment.

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New House BuildingMonterey County officials did the Ferrini Ranch developers a favor by allowing them to rely on the county’s 1982 general plan rather than the stronger 2010 plan, but they managed to fumble the process anyway by allowing the project to skirt even the less stringent provisions of the old plan. That is a key contention of a lawsuit filed Friday by LandWatch Monterey County, legal action that complements a suit filed the day before by the Highway 68 Coalition.

Seeking to block the Highway 68 development, the new suit faults the county on numerous fronts, saying the environmental impact report on the project failed to properly consider impacts and mitigations on traffic, sensitive habitat, visual impact, water supply and other areas.

The EIR couldn’t properly address many of those issues because the design of the project, including the location of lots and various traffic features continued to change even after the county Planning Commission had approved the venture, according to the litigation. It was filed on LandWatch’s behalf by San Francisco environmental lawyers Mark R. Wolfe and John H. Farrow.

It challenges the county’s decision to get around the law requiring developers to present proof of a long-term water supply. Instead, county officials simply declared that the existence of the Salinas Valley Water Project constitutes such proof even though has no concrete plans in place to augment the valley’s dwindling water supply.

Supervisor Lou Calcagno, in one of his last official acts, voted for the project but only after announcing a public relations gesture. Though there had been no public discussion, Calcagno announced that the developers, the Kelton family of Southern California, had agreed to contribute money toward a possible wastewater recycling facility, which theoretically would help address the Salinas Valley groundwater shortage.

Later, in an end-of-term interview with the Monterey County Weekly, Calcagno said he took pride in how he had handled negotiations over the Ferrini venture – negotiations that the public was not privy to until they were a done deal.

The project consists of 185 lots on 870 acres along Highway 68 on both sides of the Toro Regional Park entrance. The development would run from near San Benancio Road to near River Road. It would require removal of 921 oak trees and would see construction of houses on slopes steeper than 30 degrees. Each of the supervisors who voted for the project—Calcagno, Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas—had received campaign contributions from the developers.

 A sidenote about an email, snarky but inconsequential:

After the supervisors approved the Ferrini Ranch project, the Partisan filed a public records request with the county, seeking access to any emails between the developers and the supervisors. County officials responded this week, saying they had found only a handful of emails.One of the more interesting communications, at least in the Partisan’s view, was a copy of a Partisan article about the approval along with comments from numerous Partisan readers attached.

Builder Ray Harrod of the development team had emailed the article to project spokeswoman Candy Ingram, developer Mark Kelton and project attorneys Tony Lombardo and Brian Finnegan. Harrod mentioned in the email that one of the original reader comments had been deleted. He added, “Guess Royal (Partisan proprietor Royal Calkins) does not want anyone to see what type of followers he has.”

I’m not sure, but I think I’ve been insulted, at least a little. And if you’re reading this, you might have been as well.

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Some stories stand alone. Others aren’t quite long enough to justify all that precious cyber space, so the Partisan hereby initiates “Shorts,” an occasional column about politics, public affairs and whatever else is cooking.

SCORE ONE FOR MILLER

The Bernal for sheriff camp was landing quite a few punches against Sheriff Scott Miller, mostly low blows, but Miller left the Bernal team dazed and confused with a flurry of jabs over the last few days.

For some reason, deputy Bernal’s handlers, led by Brandon “Tricky” Gesicki, thought it would be a good idea to get an endorsement from UFW icon Dolores Huerta even though she is about as popular as mildew among the grape growers and other agriculturalists who are the base of his support. I’m guessing they were hoping to capitalize on an earlier Miller misstep, hiring a retired DEA agent as his campaign spokesman despite the agent’s not-so highly evolved views on immigration and related issues.

Speaking of missteps, the Bernal people breathlessly announced the Huerta endorsement late late week. On Huerta’s behalf, Sen. Bill Monning announced the next day that it was a mistake. And Miller announced Tuesday that he now holds Huerta’s endorsement. Miller is hard to categorize politically but if you look in your neighborhood, you might notice that the Rush Limbaugh listeners on your street aren’t putting up Miller signs.

Gesicki went ballistic over the news coverage, of course. He does that. This time, he accused the media of lying, lying, lying. That’s because Huerta mistakenly said it was Bernal adviser Chris Marohn who had misled her about the candidates. The misleader was actually Bernal adviser Chris Schneider. Late Tuesday, it could not be determined whether Gesicki had calmed down.

 DRAMA IN THE DESERT

In a field of strong Monterey City Council candidates, retired police officer Ed Smith has escaped much notoriety but he has one out-of-town critic who’s hoping to end that. The critic is Dean Gray, who edits a watchdog-oriented website in Desert Hot Springs, the Palm Springs neighbor where Smith worked after leaving the Monterey Police Department.

Starting late last year, Gray’s Desert Vortex News published  several stories critical of Smith for his association with Tony Clarke, the would-be promoter of what was to be the Wellness and World Music Festival in Desert Hot Springs. Here is a link to the most complete article, which he sent to the Partisan over the weekend. Its a safe bet that others in the race are well aware of it by now.

Monterey City Council candidate Ed Smith

Monterey City Council candidate Ed Smith

The gist is this: While working as a police commander in the desert town–a “well-respected police commander,” Gray wrote at one point—Smith was assigned to assist Clarke, largely because Smith had had considerable experience with large events in Monterey. The city also forwarded $265,000 to Clarke to help with the effort. After Smith retired from the Desert Hot Springs Police Department, he went to work with Clarke to try to finish the job. It turned out, however, that Clarke was not a music promoter as he claimed to be and they only thing he was really good at was spending the city’s money, Gray reported. Smith made presentations on Clarke’s behalf but he told the Partisan this week that he never reached a formal agreement with Clarke and never got paid for his work.

To give some context to it all, Smith noted that Desert Hot Springs is a troubled town, with more than its share of scandal and controversy. It has had eight police chiefs in just 11 years.

“I’m glad to be back in Monterey.”

RILEY RESPONDS TO CAL AM SABER RATTLING

 When California American Water formally accused water activist George Riley of illegally breaching a settlement agreement by speaking up on a key desalination issue, the utility might have figured he would shut up and go away. Cal Am has a kennel full of lawyers and seems to enjoy unleashing them.

But Riley isn’t backing down. In a letter to the company on Monday, he denied breaching anything and made it clear he will continue exploring ways to make the proposed desalination project more effective and less expensive. Here’s the letter: Breach Response

The accusation from Cal Am was that Riley had publicly declared that slant wells are not feasible for the project and that he would attempt to prevent a test of that technology at the Cemex cement plant site near Marina. In one of the several legal proceedings associated with the desal project, Riley was among the folks signing agreements not to disclose this or that. In Riley’s view, the agreement didn’t and doesn’t prevent him from speaking out about his concerns.

(Slant wells are drilled slightly inland but angled so that their intakes are in the sand and stone under ocean water. The design of the intakes is a critical component of each desalination plant as engineers seek to minimize the amount of damage to aquatic life.)

Riley wrote, “I treat your letter as a soft form of a SLAPP suit, intending to intimidate or censor me. You refer to comments before the Mayors Authority and the Water Management District, neither of which are in the permit track for the test well. You did not quote me. You did not summarize my comments. You did not show evidence of the impact of my comments. You have not identified any permit or easement hearing that I even participated in …

“I will continue to look at ways to support a water supply at the lowest possible cost, and on a schedule that meets local needs. And I will continue to seek reasonable discussions of a fast track that may have higher risk and cost, and may have unintended consequences. In my opinion, the pressures of the compressed schedule are driving out rational discussions. This is my focus these days.”

MAYBE THEY WERE TRYING TO SAVE ON LEGAL FEES

Speaking of Cal Am and slant wells, the company spent much of 2014 seeking approval from Marina officials to install a test well at the Cemex cement plant property on the Marina shoreline, but the request was denied. Later, Cal Am acknowledged that it had no formal agreement with Cemex but it is going to court to try to force a Cemex to cooperate.

Here’s an interesting sidenote that might explain how things went sideways. Local land-use lawyer Tony Lombardo has been representing Cal Am in its effort to find a location for the desal plant and I’m told by people who should now that Cemex has been using Lombardo for some time to represent its local interests as well. It’s a Mexican company.

Was Lombardo negotiating with Lombardo? Who knows. Lombardo hasn’t returned my calls in years, including the one I made Monday.

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