Cover Story Not In My Back Yard
A Salinas Valley project promises to test the county's limits for developers.
Thursday, January 15, 1998
If you walk down by the Salinas River just outside the small farming community of Chualar, you will encounter a rank, sulfurous stench that induces watery eyes and gagging. The immediate sources of this caustic perfume are the town''s sewage treatment ponds that are currently operating at 175 percent of capacity. But a closer, more discriminating whiff--one which takes in breezes coming from the direction of the Monterey County Courthouse in Salinas--also reveals the distinct smell of governmental incompetence, with a noticeable hint of good old-fashioned American greed thrown in for good measure. In Chualar these days, it is difficult to distinguish between these official smells and the ones rising from the sewage ponds.
On Jan. 27, these smells, and no doubt a lot of political deodorant will find their way to the chambers of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. On this day the board will decide if Ventura-based developer Priske-Jones can proceed with the second phase of a massive housing development consisting of 843 units in Chualar, a community of 1,000.
That the development will be built on 165 acres of productive agricultural land; that only 12.5 percent of the housing will be set aside for very low income buyers; that some (including the Monterey County Grand Jury) say the developer has a questionable history of not following through on promises made to Chualar residents; and that Monterey County apparently has no competent mechanism for making sure that such promises are kept, leads many to see Rancho Chualar II as a shining example of the type of development Monterey County should avoid at all costs.
"When I saw the map, my first thought was, ''they are going to put 900 houses in this area?''" says Sharon Parsons, chair of Chualar Area Concerned Citizens (CACC), a group opposing the project. "The density is staggering. The actual improbability, the foolishness of it! Chualar is a place so small you can''t even buy a quart of milk that is not out of date."
Others, like District 3 Supervisor Tom Perkins, support Rancho Chualar II (RCII) ostensibly because of the area''s shortage of low-income housing. "There is a dire need [for projects like this] when you have farm workers living two or three families in a house up and down the Salinas Valley."
But whatever the county supervisors decide on RCII will be precedent-setting--if only because the politics surrounding the project encompass a broad range of contentious issues affecting the quality of life for all residents of Monterey County.
Chualar, an unlikely actor in this drama, currently finds itself in the middle of a raging, multi-faceted debate focusing principally upon the county''s efforts to provide desperately needed low-income housing for farmworkers. But the debate also includes ancillary-yet vitally important-issues such as the preservation of ag land and the right of land owners to protect their investments in the face of community-altering development. But the RCII debate also touches on an issue confronting counties all over the state-the ability of local government to competently, efficiently and reliably deal with developers who want to limit their own role, as one anonymous county official puts it, to "building houses, selling them, and getting out of town as quickly as possible."
Add a few allegations of racism and corruption to this mix, and you''ve got what promises to be a lively debate in the supervisors'' chambers on Jan. 27.
"I am sure that the developer has camped in every single supervisor''s office," says Parsons. "I am quite sure he was able to influence certain members to support the project."
"I am not going to back away from this project, even though people criticize me," says Perkins, the frequent target of fire from citizens groups like CACC. "With respect to criticism, I accept that as a kind of honor."
The road leading up to the supervisors'' discussion of RCII is littered with both good and bad intentions, myopia, incompetence, lawsuits and, sadly, simple ignorance on the part of some Chualar residents of the way things work in America.
"This would never happen in Pebble Beach," says Marco Sigala, superintendent of the Chualar School District. "This community is passive. The only time they rise up is when someone rattles their chain and says ''follow me.'' Pebble Beach would never allow itself to be in this kind of predicament."
The "predicament" to which Sigala refers was recently described this way in the 1997 Mid-Year Supplemental Grand Jury Report:
"It could be said that the residents of Chualar are being ''held hostage'' to the approval of the RCII project. In promoting RCI [Rancho Chualar I, the first phase of the development] the developer promised the residents that it would provide, among other things, low-income housing, a new water supply, and an improved sewage treatment system. It is apparently now making similar promises about RCII. That is, the developer is promising to do in RCII things that it committed to do in RCI."
Rancho Chualar I, completed in 1996 by Priske-Jones, is an 84-house addition to Chualar, with single-family dwellings built along narrow, car-lined streets named after American presidents. The residents are all Latino; most are farm workers and their families.
One can almost hear the music swell and see the flags wave as Priske-Jones Vice President Tony Wyman describes the happiness of this new community:
"Drive through it in the evenings when the families are there.You will see nothing but proud people with well-kept lawns. Clean homes with kids playing out front. You will see what the board of supervisors envisioned: home ownership and assimilation into this way of life."
And he''s right. The lawns on Roosevelt, Lincoln and Adams streets are for the most part neat and well-kept. Children do play out front.lots and lots of children. And there are lots of children living in these houses because several families inhabit each single family dwelling.
It seems that the bulk of the houses built in RCI were sold far out of the price ranges of many low-income, farm-worker families, so, resourcefully, several families went in together to purchase the houses. A recent informal, door-to-door survey carried out by Sigala found an average of nine people per home in RCI and, in one case, 16 people living in one house.
Not too long ago, the fragile infrastructure which supports the town and these families began to crack under the strain of serving so many people, and deservedly or not, all fingers began to point at Priske-Jones, the developer of RCI.
The sewage treatment system, damaged by the ''95 floods and replaced by FEMA funds, is currently no larger than it was prior to the construction of the homes-this despite a $174,000 hook-up fee paid to the county by Priske-Jones. As a result, the treatment facility currently operates at 175 percent of capacity, hence the distinct smells near the river.
The Chualar Elementary School, according to its superintendent, is bursting at the seams, with 320 students. According to Wyman, Priske-Jones paid "over $130,000 in school impact fees, even though the school at that time was not filled."
And then there''s water. According to the Grand Jury report, as early as May, 1996 county officials advised Chualar residents that the water coming out of their taps was contaminated with nitrates, and that they should not drink it. Almost a year later, Chualar residents were in a state of panic over their drinking water, having received no assistance from the county, an embarrassing situation brought to light by activists in the community, such as Hilda Valenzuela-Mendez, who worked tirelessly to correct it. The county now actually trucks in potable water, making it available to residents through a tanker truck commonly known as a "water buffalo."
Wyman says Priske-Jones made improvements to the water system such as dedicating a well site, improving an existing well, and adding a 100,000 gallon storage tank and a chlorination facility. But, as the Grand Jury report points out, nitrate levels were hovering near the unsafe mark at the time these improvements were made and only got worse. It appears the county, in its wisdom, required the developer to provide a holding tank and a water system, but not potable water to go through it.
"The RCI developer has done nothing to improve either the quantity or quality of the Chualar water supply," the Grand Jury report says in summation.
Priske-Jones officials maintain that the company completed all the infrastructure improvements required by the county for the first development and that the county is satisfied with what''s been done. But the Grand Jury report questions both the developer and the county on this point:
"In approving RCI, the [Board of Supervisors] imposed 35 specific conditions on the developer.There is no evidence that the county made any attempt to verify, by inspection, that the conditions in fact have been met. There is clear evidence that some of the conditions have not been met. Whether conditions imposed on the developer of RCI were reviewed and approved by the county or not, the fact is the project left unfulfilled necessary improvements in the infrastructure."
But if Priske-Jones was allowed to slide on mandated improvements, this oversight represents considerable bureaucratic bungling on the part of the county and calls into question the entire planning process. "We don''t seem to be to able to efficiently review plans with regard to following up on promises made," says District 5 Supervisor Dave Potter. "I believe there is no point in permitting projects that have conditions which the county has no power to monitor."
At this stage in the game, the developer gets a bit miffed at references to the de facto sorry state of Chualar''s infrastructure. In a summary recently compiled by attorneys for Priske-Jones, the developer declared the issue a dead one.
"Project opponents continue to question the county''s processing of Rancho Chualar I in letters to the editor of local newspapers, and through the court system. It is important to note that Rancho Chualar I satisfied all conditions of approval.Questions regarding the Rancho Chualar I project should be put to rest."
Perhaps they should be, but those questions remain more than relevant when considering Priske-Jones'' next project. It stands to reason that the current infrastructure problems in Chualar would be magnified exponentially if the 843-unit second phase of development is approved and RCII is built.
"There was no opposition to Rancho Chualar I," says Melanie Horwath of CACC. "People didn''t oppose it and it was approved with few conditions attached, and the developer didn''t satisfy those conditions. If you look at what happened with Rancho Chualar I, and if he didn''t follow through with conditions there, why should he with Rancho Chualar II?"
For Richer or Poorer?
If there are currently so many problems in Chualar, then why should the county even consider magnifying them by approving the second phase of the development? The answer lies in the county''s need for housing, specifically low-income housing.
"There is an incredible need for low-income housing based on the kind of industries growing in Monterey County," says Frank Brunings, housing coordinator for Monterey County. "If you take a look at the kind of industries we have, they are all predicated on low-wage workers."
Single-family homes at Rancho Chualar II are expected to sell for $104,000-135,000-this compared to the county''s median home price of $270,000. "For the county, we estimated we need about 700 new housing units per year, of which half would have to be set aside to be for affordable, low and very low income people," says Brunings. "In reality, the total number of housing units produced annually is 500, with less than 5 to 6 percent set aside for low or very low income people." Also interesting to note is that the Salinas Valley-by virtue of its available land-accounted for more than half the county''s population growth between 1980 and 1990.
The Monterey County Housing Authority, which uses federal funds to provide low-income housing, currently boasts a 7,000-name waiting listing for affordable housing.
At the Community Housing Improvement Systems Planning Association (CHISPA), a non-profit low-income housing provider, Interim President Alfred Diaz-Infante confirms the demand for low-cost housing is huge.
"When we solicit applications for housing in Monterey County, we receive five to six times the number of applications for what is being provided," he says. "We have provided 222 units within the city of Salinas, and received 12,000 applications for them."
The problem of low-income housing is exacerbated by Monterey County''s fiscal demographics. Monterey County is a region of extremes, with the very rich and the very poor living in relatively close proximity. This fact, in and of itself, is not unique, except that it wreaks havoc on the guidelines for what the government considers "low-income."
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines low income as half of median income for a given county. The median income of Monterey County is $45,600 for a family of four- a figure no doubt influenced by the presence of so many wealthy people, particularly retirees. To be considered "very-low income" and therefore eligible for HUD housing loans, a family of four in Monterey County would have to make less than $22,800 or half the median income. To be considered "low income," a family of four would make 50-80 percent of the $45,600 median income figure; "moderate income" means 80-120 percent of median.
"Based on statistics from the Building Industry Association, Monterey County generally comes in second behind San Francisco as the most expensive place [to live] in the country," says Brunings.
Monterey County requires housing developers like Priske-Jones to include low-income housing in their developments by offering "inclusionary housing" incentives. When a developer makes generally 15 percent of a development available to very-low or low-income families, he gets priority treatment in processing with county government, plus other incentives.
With Rancho Chualar I, there were several low-income housing units, but, according to Wyman, the majority of houses sold at market prices-hence multiple families per house. Plans for RCII call for 12.5 percent of the 834 homes to be dedicated to housing for very low income families, and another 12.5 percent for low-to-moderate income families. While this does add low income units to the market, critics say it is not enough.
"It is not a matter of bringing low-income housing, because basically this is not low-income housing," says Horwath.
The fear among residents of nearby and more upscale Chualar Canyon is that the 75 percent of houses selling at market value will be beyond the reach of most of the people who need it, thus causing multiple families to live in single houses, creating three times the density.
"They will use this development as a dumping ground for families who do not have an opportunity to buy in other districts," says Parsons.
Anywhere But Here
In the world of low-income housing, there is a name for statements like Parsons'': It is called NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), a term bandied about frequently in any discussion of RCII. Parsons and many other CACC members don''t actually live in Chualar, but in Chualar Canyon, not far from the proposed development site. The families of Chualar Canyon are Anglo, and live in ranchettes that line bucolic hills. They pay taxes in the same county service area as the Latino families of Chualar, but their children do not attend Chualar Elementary School, where Spanish is spoken in early grades. While they are physically close to Chualar, it can be said that the residents of Chualar Canyon live worlds away.
This fact has not escaped the notice of anyone trying to get RCII approved.
"This is NIMBY, plain and simple," says Wyman. "We feel the need for this type of housing project is extreme. The conditions that these folks would live in without a project like this are not acceptable, and we feel the merits of this project are being sidetracked by a vocal group of people that are, in many cases, well-to-do."
"These are just a bunch of people who don''t want ''those people'' living near them," says Perkins.
Though NIMBYism is a fact of political life in Monterey County (Anybody remember Rancho San Carlos? "We don''t want those rich, white people moving in near us!"), and is an acknowledged obstacle to the development of low-income housing, it is not always simply the evil, race-based elitism of a privileged few against the masses as some portray it. In the case of Rancho Chualar II, beyond self-serving accusations of racism and NIMBYism, there is still the little matter of those 834 houses to be built. Any homeowner, no matter what shade or background, would have to be an idiot not to raise an eyebrow at a project of this scope. Were the residents of Chualar Canyon burning crosses or erecting gates, the charges might hold more weight. But let''s face the reality here: Nobody living in open space wants to see that many houses built in their area.
Some suggest that NIMBYism, within limits, is a useful part of the process.
"The NIMBY that says no to everything is being extreme," says Supervisor Potter. "But I think you need a voice of conscience when you permit these projects and the NIMBYs, right or wrong, sometimes provide that voice."
Uncle Tom''s Cabins
That voice comes not only from the members of CACC, but from others in the Chualar Community as well. Chualar Union School District''s Sigala, who professes to be neutral on whether RCII is approved, has nonetheless been openly critical of the developers and their principal supporter, District 3 Supervisor Tom Perkins. Sigala has steadfastly refused to accept less than what the community is due, not only educationally, but politically as well.
A housing project the size of RCII would also obviously impact the one school in town, and Sigala is holding firm on his demands for adequate facilities for the children. "The school they are offering meets the standards for portable classrooms. Give me a break! They are telling the public, ''Look, we are offering them a school and they don''t want it," says Sigala. "I don''t see why Chualar should accept anything less than an adequate school building. We want something that will last past the first wind storm." Negotiations between Priske-Jones and Sigala continue as both parties try to come up with a way to accommodate the estimated 514 children in grades kindergarten through grade eight RCII is projected to add to the Chualar district.
With regard to Perkins, Sigala says the supervisor failed to provide adequate leadership for the area, particularly in maintaining the membership of County Service Area (CSA) 75, the governing body for the Chualar area. "CSA 75 has not been functional because Tom Perkins has not kept up the membership," says Sigala. "That is where Mr. Perkins has fallen short again."
Perkins rejects this criticism saying that it is not his job to micro-manage CSA 75. Perkins also rejects other criticism of Rancho Chualar II, saying that if the infrastructure requirements are met, then it should be approved.
A straw vote of potential support for RCII goes something like this: Perkins strongly supports the project; District 4 Supervisor Edith Johnsen, ever the friend to developers, is expected to fall into the Perkins camp. At the other end of the spectrum sit Potter and District 2 Supervisor Judy Pennycook, both of whom have expressed strong reservations about the project. That leaves District 1 Supervisor Simon Salinas as the swing vote. Salinas is a strong supporter of low-income housing, but has also expressed reservations about Rancho Chualar II.
Other factors will come into play in this decision. Citing "agricultural and farmland conversion" and other issues, the Monterey County Planning Commission voted 9-0 in November to turn down the project-not exactly a ringing endorsement for RCII. But more importantly, in the wake of the damning Grand Jury report and the recent situation where the county apparently dragged its feet in responding to Chualar''s drinking water crisis, the county-specifically the board of supervisors-finds itself with egg on its face in regard to dealing with the residents of Chualar.
The need for precedent on how, where and under what circumstances we as a community will provide low-income housing has never been more pressing. Additionally, the need to insure that developers live up to their promises-an apparent shortcoming in county government-must be addressed.
"One of the things that has to happen is we must make sure that all infrastructure is in place and the quality of life indicators are in place," says Supervisor Salinas. "Also, I''d say that unless we have assurances that we have drinking water for the current and future residents, we should not put anything else in there."
It appears the air around Chualar may soon smell a lot sweeter. cw