Marina protest

Members of Citizens for Just Water assemble outside Marina City Hall, hoping they get to air their grievances against Cal Am.

$1,750. That’s how much it costs to challenge a development permit approved by the Monterey County Planning Commission through an appeal to the Board of Supervisors. The fee is a long-established barrier to entry for prospective appellants.

It’s the amount the citizens’ group Public Water Now paid when it filed on May 16 with the board asking it to reconsider the development permit granted to California American Water for its proposed desalination plant on Charles Benson Road just outside Marina city limits.

California American Water is proposing to establish the plant as a new source of water for the Monterey Peninsula in order to relieve the overburdened Carmel River. The many opponents of the plan say that recycled water offers a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to wean off river-pumped water.

A few days after Public Water appealed, another citizens’ group figured it can also fight the plant’s development permit—without having to pay any fee at all.

On May 20, Ron Weitzman, president of the Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula, composed a letter noting his objections to the desal plant and addressed it to the California Coastal Commission.

Normally, the commission is seen as a last resort, an ultimate arbiter empowered to override local planning decisions affecting the state’s coastline after all other appeals have been exhausted.

Weitzman, who is a policy wonk with years of water advocacy experience, realized recently that there may be a way to bypass the county supervisors and the fee they charge by turning directly to the commission.

Incidentally, it was Cal Am that turned him onto the possibility.

Weitzman watched as company moved to overcome strident opposition in the city of Marina, whose shores would host the intake wells and some pipelines for the desalination plant. He saw the city’s Planning Commission deny Cal Am a permit for the wells. And he wasn’t the least bit surprised when Cal Am appealed that denial to Marina City Council.

Weitzman continued to pay close attention when, at the very last minute, Cal Am withdrew its appeal after leveling the allegation that three of five councilmembers were too tainted by bias to fairly evaluate the permit application.

Disoriented, Marina officials took a week to think about it and then said, essentially, “that suits us just fine.” According to the city's interpretation of the rules, Cal Am forfeited its right to appeal to the Coastal Commission because the company did not first exhaust the city’s appeals process.

But that interpretation was soon refuted by Coastal Commission staff, who say Cal Am possess the right to appeal by virtue of one simple fact: Marina City Council charges a fee for appeals and whenever such a fee exists, the right to a hearing before the Coastal Commission is automatic.

“By looking at what happened, I realize that I could do what Cal Am did,” Weitzman says.

Hearing dates for both appeals are not yet scheduled.

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