UPDATE: The Coastal Commission voted 9-2 in favor of the appellant, finding that changing the deed retraction does constitute a "substantial issue." This means a future hearing will be set to deliberate over the substantive issues.
When the California Coastal Commission meets today in Santa Cruz, they'll take up a procedural matter on affordable housing in Monterey County.
The commissioners will be tasked with answering one very specific and technical question, but they'll also be determining the end of a story that began in the early '90s.
That's when nonprofit developer CHISPA (Community Housing Improvement Systems and Planning Association, Inc.) built the 175-home Moro Cojo subdivision in Castroville.
Neighborhood and environmental groups appealed and took CHISPA to court over the project, alleging environmental harm. The terms of a settlement agreement included a pledge for the homes to remain affordable units in perpetuity.
Fast forward to 2009, when a group of Moro Cojo homeowners sued CHISPA, claiming they'd been misled and didn't know about the deed restriction.
Their case went nowhere (the statute of limitations had run), but in November of 2015, CHISPA itself came forward with a request to Monterey County asking to modify the deed restriction.
The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Jan. 26 to approve those changes, meaning 161 Moro Cojo homeowners can sell their homes for market rate as early as 2020. (The current deed restriction sets the maximum resale value for a three-bedroom house at $291,750.)
Retired attorney Jane Haines represented two groups back in the '90s who sued, and although she isn't working anymore—this time around she says she's just representing herself—she filed an appeal to the Coastal Commission March 1, arguing the county supervisors had erred.
"Either you're helping the first wave of buyers, in which case you take off restrictions and let them sell it for a lot of money, or you help the second, third, fourth wave of buyers," Haines says.
"I once needed affordable housing myself," she adds. "I know what it feels like to have a bunch of kids and not be able to find affordable housing."
The Coastal Commission will vote today on a narrow procedural question: whether the county's approval of the project raises a "substantial issue." Coastal Commission staff recommend commissioners vote no, upholding the county's choice to lift the deed restriction. (If the commissioners agree, Haines says the issue is over; there's no interest or money in going to court.)
Haines hopes the commissioners disagree with their own staff, in which case they'd call for a new hearing on the issue.
When the county supervisors approved the project back in 1994, they chose to override major environmental impacts of the development, partly relying on this determination: “North Monterey County and Castroville, specifically, suffers from an acute need for affordable housing.”
Back then, when Haines was representing environmental groups, environmentalists opposed the project.
The Sierra Club appealed to the Coastal Commission, arguing the development violated environmental regulations. In 1995, the commission voted 8-2 to allow the project to proceed.
One of those yes votes came from former Monterey County Supervisor and former Coastal Commissioner Sam Karas, who said, "There’s never been one affordable housing unit in North Monterey County in the 11 years I have sat on the board and by God we now have the opportunity to do it, so let’s do it,” according to Coastal Commission records.
That divide is evident again as the commission prepares to decide on the fate of Moro Cojo again in 2016.
Letters of support for Haines' appeal came from the League of Women Voters, the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club and land use watchdog nonprofit LandWatch.
Opponents—who support lifting the deed restriction—came from the North Monterey County League of United Latin American Citizens and Center for Community Advocacy.
CCA Director Juan Uranga is blunt in his letter to the Coastal Commission, urging them to find "no substantial issue."
"[CCA supports lifting] a restriction which was imposed 15 years ago under threats from people who did not want farmworkers living close to them (NIMBYs) and a restriction which has proven to be inequitable and unfair," Uranga writes.
"The commission is faced, on one side, with a community of 165 farmworker families…On the other side are a handful of folk and organizations whom all reside on the Monterey Peninsula, who have never worked in the agricultural fields and who have tenuous connections, if any, to the farmworker community and to the affordable housing sector."