Pushing The Limits
Rancho San Juan could one day connect Salinas to a suburb one-sixth its size. Is this good planning or urban sprawl?
Thursday, December 3, 1998
If you''re traveling north from Salinas on Highway 101 and look to the east, the city seems to stop short at Russell Road. Here, on 2,160 acres of pasture land, where the fertile Salinas Valley floor rises to meet the North County foothills, lies the Rancho San Juan Area of Development Concentration (ADC).
To look at it now, it is difficult to envision that this quiet, nearly barren expanse of farmland is on its way to becoming one of the largest developments in the county in recent memory. But within two decades, if development proceeds as planned, that pasture will be nothing short of a little city, a massive suburb melting rural buffers between urban Salinas and North Monterey County.
Current plans for Rancho San Juan call for a mixed-use development, consisting of residential, commercial and light industrial buildings. Although the site is separated into 10 planning areas, each one corresponding to a different landowner, a comprehensive specific plan guides development for all 10 parcels.
With project''s Draft Specific Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) stacked in the Monterey County Planning Department, anywhere from a few weeks to a few months away from seeing the light of day, it is difficult to find willing souls to discuss the project. County supervisors, planning staff and concerned citizens'' groups declined to comment. "I haven''t seen the plan yet," lamented would-be sources again and again.
However, based on the June, 1996 Administrative Draft Specific Plan and the February 1998 Screencheck DEIR, it is possible to get a good idea of what the suburb is shaping up to be. Coast Weekly offers a sneak preview of the plan, and its expected impacts on the surrounding community.
What is Rancho San Juan?
On a map, Rancho San Juan looks like an awkward piece of pie wedged between Salinas and Prunedale. The butt of the disproportionate quadrangle backs up against Harrison Road to the west. To the south, a short edge borders Russell Road, with San Juan Grade Road creating the eastern border. and Crazy Horse Canyon Road running along the northern border.
The 2160-acre site--about one-sixth the size of the entire incorporated city of Salinas--is split up into 10 planning areas ranging from three to 659 acres.
As plans currently stand, the development will consist of 2,893 residential dwellings; 283 acres of light industrial, commercial and office buildings; 493 acres of parks and open space, including a golf course; 52 acres of schools and public facilities; and 96 acres set aside for the proposed Prunedale Bypass, which they anticipate will run through the heart of the development.
At full build-out, the area slated for development will house an estimated 9,200 residents, employ 6,700 people on-site and create 8,200 off-site jobs. Residents and workers will consume up to 1,950 acre-feet of water per year, and an estimated additional 30,000 automobile trips will augment traffic daily.
The population that will live within the Rancho San Juan ADC will require a new library, two elementary schools, and a middle school. New wells and a wastewater treatment plant will be needed to serve residents, as well as a fire station and additional sheriff''s deputies. A number of roads, both within and outside of the development area, will have to be built or improved to handle added traffic.
Prudent Planning or Growth-Inducing?
Areas of Development Concentration are those portions of the unincorporated area within which development is to be concentrated in order to better achieve other aspects of growth management such as preservation, enhancement and expansion of agricultural lands and the protection of other natural resources.
--The Monterey County General Plan.
The ADC concept was born in 1981 when the Monterey County Board of Supervisors amended its county growth management policy, establishing areas of development concentration. A year later, the supervisors adopted the current Monterey County General Plan, which designates Rancho San Juan as an ADC. The concept was further ingrained in planning policy when, in 1986, the Greater Salinas Area Plan was adopted, again designating Rancho San Juan as an ADC and outlining specific principles and guidelines for development.
"The concept of the ADC was to facilitate the delivery of services in areas that were being developed," says Marc Del Piero, a former Monterey County Supervisor representing the North County who now sits on the State Water Resources Control Board. "The intent of the ADC was to require proper studies prior to approval and to provide comprehensive planning in determining the level of development to be allowed, if any."
By concentrating development within predetermined areas, ADCs are designed to prevent piecemeal development of suburbs throughout the county. The idea is to prevent isolated communities that lack proper infrastructure, leaving residents stranded without adequate services, and leaving the county to pick up the tab for poorly planned developments.
"I think they [the supervisors] were trying to, instead of doing piecemeal development, trying to look at a bigger picture," says Maryn Pitt-Derdivanis, a county planning commissioner whose district includes Rancho San Juan, "and ask, do you have the infrastructure and the support mechanism? So you don''t end up with Chualar, with kind of a lost soul out there with no infrastructure. Chualar is the perfect example of what just doing a smaller development will do."
The ADC also tries to direct growth into the foothills and away from the Salinas Valley in an attempt to divert development away from prime agricultural lands and discourage urban sprawl throughout the Valley floor.
"The dilemma is, when you are trying to balance population growth and preserving ag land, you have to look at where you can tolerate a loss," say Candace Ingram, community relations consultant for Moe Nobari, one of the landowners and the principle developer behind the project. "In this case, Monterey County felt like it was in the foothills."
Although the ADC concept sounds reasonable enough in theory, there is little evidence to support that it works in reality. For instance, 600 acres within the Rancho San Juan is considered to be prime soil, the very land that the ADC is supposed to protect.
Moreover, the ADC designation does not seem to be curbing development in other parts of the county. According to a study conducted by LandWatch Monterey County, the county and its cities are currently considering 7,880 new dwelling units, 61 percent of which are proposed to be built on farm land.
And, limited by water availability to 1.85 units per acre, the relative low density of the Rancho San Juan project is considered by critics to facilitate sprawl, directly opposing the county''s general plan.
In a January 1996 letter to county planners, former Salinas Mayor Alan Styles wrote: "...The planning philosophies of Monterey County are summarized in one sentence which states that rural character will be maintained while restricting sprawl. It is a curious definition of sprawl that would not include a project that spreads 2,900 homes over 1,175 acres...and that leapfrogs 1,000 feet from a community of 120,000 people."
In the Driver''s Seat
Ingram touts the development as a county project in which the landowners and county planners are working together to accomplish county goals.
But others are saying just the opposite. In fact, the ADC designation may have inadvertently spurred development plans by sending a green light to landowners anxious to break ground.
"This is not a county project at all," says Monterey County Planning Commissioner Carol Lacy. "All [the supervisors] said was if there is any growth in the county, then this is where they wanted it to happen. The developer has come along and taken the steps and developed the plan and is not being aided by the county at all.
"The supervisors were thinking longterm growth plan, 20 or 30 years," she continues, "but what I see has happened is that a developer has taken that plan and gone out and done it all at once. I don''t think that''s what the supervisors had in mind."
But Andy Hollenstain, who owns a 245-acre parcel of Rancho San Juan, explains how that happened. It was the landowners, he says, who first approached the county with the idea to develop the site.
"Instead of going in there individually, we went to the supervisors and said, this is the only reasonable thing to do," says Hollenstain. "Land was built up all around us, it made sense to design this one big development as a community."
And Hollenstain found the man with the plan: Moe Nobari.
Nobari, a real estate developer from Mill Valley, was brought in by the landowners to create a comprehensive plan for the site, says Hollenstain. Nobari has also fronted $366,000 to pay for the DEIR and the specific plan, and has purchased 671 acres through his HYH Corporation. Nobari is now the largest landowner in the ADC and stands the most to gain from the project--more than 40 percent of the planned residential units will be built on his land.
Hollenstain says that increasing property taxes prompted him and the other landowners to develop a plan which will guide development over a 15-20 year period. While receiving $6,000 a year to lease his land to the Sala Dairy, he says, the taxes on his land are $9,500 a year.
"It''s not that anyone is trying to be greedy," says Hollenstain, "but something has to be done. You can''t just keep shelling out money every year."
The Road More Traveled
By and large, critics agree that traffic is the single most potentially significant impact that Rancho San Juan will have upon the surrounding community. Within a county that is already struggling to accommodate burgeoning traffic on substandard roads, the extra trips generated by the huge development will be adding fuel to an already raging fire.
To a large extent, the development of Rancho San Juan depends on the construction of the Prunedale Bypass. Most of it cannot be built without the new road. As currently planned, the proposed new stretch of Highway 101 would originate at the intersection of Russell Road and North Main Street, and extend northward to Crazy Horse Canyon Road, cutting directly through the heart of the suburb.
But with the failure of Measure N at the polls last month, which would have provided funding for the bypass, the future of the proposed road is uncertain. "When is [the bypass] going to be built?" Styles asks rhetorically, "or is it ever even going to be built?"
However, even with the bypass, North County traffic problems are not necessarily solved. "There are some real issues of whether the bypass itself is going to be the solution to the North County area," says Styles. "If you build it, with Rancho San Juan, the bypass is going to be full."
The February 1998 Screencheck Draft DEIR filed with the county planning department confirms that, even with the bypass built, traffic created by Rancho San Juan will negatively impact the area.
While the bypass may ease some potential congestion on the existing Highway 101, the DEIR predicts that by 2015, the new development will significantly impact road segments outside the ADC, lowering Caltrans Level of Service (LOS) ratings for four stretches of Highway 101: south of East Laurel Drive, between East Laurel Drive and Boronda Road, between Boronda Road and Russell Road and north of Martines Road.
Assuming the bypass and the development are in place, the DEIR for Rancho San Juan projects that all of these segments would be reduced to F status (the worst rating on Caltrans'' A through F grading system), down from projected D or E status without the development. By 2015, Rancho San Juan is expected to produce an average of 14,650 additional daily trips on those four highway segments on top of predicted increases that will occur without the new development.
Even so, according to Ingram, around 400 homes could be built before construction of the proposed Prunedale Bypass. Informational material distributed by Ingram states, "As required in the Greater Salinas Area Plan, the ADC will mitigate traffic impacts such that the site construction can begin prior to construction of the 101 Bypass."
To help ease the pain, traffic mitigation fees to build new roads and to improve existing ones will be required before construction can go forward. But, even with road upgrades, new construction could translate to added congestion on an already problematic Highway 101.
Furthermore, the county has no standard traffic mitigation fee, and there is no guarantee that the price that the county charges developers will significantly offset impacts.
In a December 1995 letter to the county planning department, Styles wrote, "The county has no comprehensive traffic mitigation program to ensure that as development of this [Rancho San Juan] area occurs, adequate levels of traffic service can be maintained on the affected city, county and state roads."
Those impacts could become even more problematic if the county fails to commit the developer to adequate infrastructure. According to Mike Weaver, a member of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC) citizens'' advisory board and founder of the Highway 68 Coalition, Monterey County consistently undercharges developers for road construction.
"The problem with this county," says Weaver, "is the lack of follow-up."
Critics also question whether traffic impacts brought on by Rancho San Juan can be mitigated at all. "It''s a huge question mark whether or not the [traffic] impacts can be resolved," says Styles.
According to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute released last month, building more roads doesn''t necessarily result in decreased traffic. Of 70 cities studied, researchers concluded that only two experienced decreased congestion through road construction.
In a Nov. 14 San Jose Mercury News article commenting on that study, "Road building a dead end for congestion," James Corless of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in San Francisco said. "If you want to add lanes and add lanes, that''s like loosening your belt to cure obesity. And if you really want to look at the end of the road, it''s called Los Angeles."
To say the least, Salinas would be greatly affected by the Rancho San Juan development. Land-wise, the ADC is one-sixth the size of incorporated Salinas, and represents a potential population that is 8 percent of Salinas'' current population.
"I visualize [Rancho San Juan] as a city outside the city of Salinas," says Styles, "that will have major impacts on the city of Salinas."
According to a Memo of Understanding (MOU) between the county and the city, Salinas could annex the Rancho San Juan ADC by 2004. Nevertheless, the city''s involvement in the project has been forcibly reactionary, limited to responding to certain steps taken along the way. Because the project is technically a county project, day to day planning activities are handled through the county planning department.
"Rancho San Juan could tremendously impact the city, but it''s two separate turfs," says Lacy. "There is no vehicle for the city and county planning staff and commissions to get together, and it definitely doesn''t happen on the council and supervisor level."
Lacy also says that, today, she would question the wisdom of designating an ADC in such close proximity to the city of Salinas. "The city," says Lacy, "Likes to have control over its own destiny."
Because the city and county have different sets of standards for development--city standards tend to be higher--the lack of involvement leaves frustrated Salinas city officials helpless in trying to mitigate future impacts on their city.
If the development is built with inferior infrastructure and inadequate mitigation measures in place, Salinas could ultimately be left with the check when the area is annexed. But deciding not to annex the city would mean that Salinas has no control over an area that would directly affect it.
As long ago as 1995, Styles wrote in a letter to the county: "Based on on-going discussions among city-centered growth principles...it is subject to question whether the county should even proceed with the development of an urban area like Rancho San Juan directly adjacent to Salinas."
"There are a number of issues that the city is concerned about," says Charmaine Geiger, director of Salinas Community Development.
The MOU between Salinas and the county does state that the project "shall be planned and enveloped to a high standard at least commensurate with the standards used for similar development in the city."
"The ADC is required to be self-sufficient," says Ingram. "The infrastructure has to be in place before each parcel can be developed."
The development will also be subject to scrutiny by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO)--a commission made up of elected representatives from all over the county--before annexation can occur.
"We look at the potential impacts on all existing service levels for the annexing city," says LAFCO Director Jim Colangelo. "LAFCO is concerned about a development containing a lesser standard of services, or that by annexing, the whole level of services will be brought down [for the entire city]."
At some point after the DEIR and the specific plan are released to the public, the project will go before the County Planning Commission, a process that could dramatically change the plan, if it''s approved at all.
One thing is a safe bet: Rancho San Juan''s developers will have a tough row to hoe before the bulldozers roll in.
"This is definitely not a foregone conclusion," warns Lacy. "There is no doubt about that." cw