Melanie Horwath And Marco Sigala
True Promise Keepers
Thursday, December 31, 1998
What exactly does the phrase "affordable housing" mean? Beyond the immediate dollar amounts, what are the true human and political costs of building a community where the water is unsafe to drink, where school classrooms are overcrowded and understaffed, where essential public services and amenities like parks and libraries exist only as vague assurances and promises?
These are the questions a handful of community activists like Chualar-area residents Melanie Horwath and Marco Sigala forced Monterey County officials and residents alike to ask themselves during the successful fight to block the Rancho Chualar II development project in South County.
As school superintendent for the Chualar school system, comprised of 300 kids from grades K-8, Sigala had already seen firsthand the pressures placed on his school district from the Chualar I project.
"As a public school system, we have to protect the potential number of students generated anytime a new housing development comes into town," says Sigala, who played hardball with the county and developer Priske-Jones to ensure his school district could accommodate the anticipated influx of new students if Chualar II was built.
"I spoke up and requested that the school district be considered as a condition of approval for any housing development. That threw Priske-Jones and the county administration off because no one objected to anything with Rancho Chualar I."
According to Sigala, 94 new students entered Chualar classrooms in 1995 as a result of Chualar I, and it was estimated that 1,800 new students would need to be provided for as a result of Chualar II.
"Luckily we had some empty classrooms available which immediately filled up," says Sigala of the influx of students in 1995. "Chualar II, however, is what put pressure on me as an administrator. I needed to communicate that loudly and clearly."
Although Sigala did win major concessions from the developer to help with future school construction--concessions that have been obviated by the developer withdrawing the project--Sigala nevertheless feels an important point was made.
"Regrettably, the county really backed off and was pushing for affordable housing instead of assisting in the process," says Sigala, who has mixed feelings about the outcome of Chualar II.
"Where we are talking about low-income farmworker housing, it is difficult for me to say I''m glad it didn''t go through, but you don''t sacrifice everything else to get low-income housing."
As one of many active members with the Chualar Area Concerned Citizens (CACC) working to oppose Chualar II, CACC Chair Melanie Horwath helped lead the successful initiative drive that forced developer Priske-Jones to withdraw its proposal.
Unlike other development projects that have been challenged in the past, the Chualar II project was politically much more difficult to oppose. Because of the project''s affordable housing component (which continues to be debated relative to the actual degree of affordability of many of the homes), Chualar opponents opened themselves up to charges of selfishness and indifference regarding the needs of farmworkers.
"We were just concerned that 1,000 homes were going to be built in the area with no services," says Horwath. "That sent alarm bells to everybody, as did the conversion of farm land, the leap-frogged development, and the fact the developer didn''t comply with the conditions for Chualar I. That was most alarming of all."
According to Horwath, the CACC petition was circulated in just 27 days and garnered about 18,000 signatures. Confronted with the likelihood the project would be defeated at the polls, Priske-Jones pulled the plug on Chualar II while retaining the option to come back with another proposal sometime in the future.
"I think [the petition drive] made all the difference in the world, and [the developer] would not have walked without the referendum," says Horwath.
"What happened to the town was a lack of interest by county officials to do anything," adds Horwath. "When the county allowed the development to go forward, the nitrate levels [in the town''s drinking water] were close to exceeding safe standards. These people were shortchanged."
To the degree that Sigala, Horwath, and other Chualar II opponents forced local officials to rethink the terms by which development should be allowed in the county, Monterey County residents may escape the nightmare of development that has been inflicted throughout much of the state.
"I want to stress that I don''t feel like a hero by any means, and there was a group of people that stopped the development," says Horwath. "A lot of people got involved with the referendum process that didn''t need to, and thank heavens they did. I definitely anticipate the developer will come back. People need to be vigilant or you''ll get problems like this."