Monterey County--at The Crossroads
Thursday, May 21, 1998
Decades from now, when Monterey County is either one of the last habitable coastal areas in the state of California, or the last place to succumb to the effects of rampant sprawl and over development, area residents will look back at May 5, 1998 as the day that forever sealed the county''s fate.
It was on May 5 that Priske-Jones Company Senior Vice President Tony Wyman stunned the Monterey County Board of Supervisors by announcing that his development company was withdrawing its proposal to build the 800-home Rancho Chualar II project.
By most accounts, Chualar II represents a massive political failure by the board of supervisors to create a consensus on how best to accommodate the county''s future growth needs, and provides the clearest indication to date that county planning procedures and policies are in total disarray.
Whether Monterey County and its board of supervisors pulls back from the abyss of poorly planned development and charts a new course that better provides for growth and economic development is the challenge and opportunity provided in the aftermath of the Chualar II debacle.
It is the recognition that Monterey County must chart a new course that forms the basis for LandWatch Monterey County''s State of Monterey County 1998, billed as the first, annual comprehensive assessment of land use, the environment and infrastructure in Monterey County.
Prepared by LandWatch, a non-profit public benefit corporation formed last year to promote better land-use planning, the report compiled data provided by county and city agencies, and provides an integrated overview of population trends, land use patterns, traffic conditions and other elements that affect the environmental and economic well-being of the county.
The report calls on the county and cities to enact an immediate moratorium on any new subdivisions greater than 25 units and not already legally vested, and an end to all General Plan amendments until the cumulative impacts identified in the LandWatch report are analyzed, mitigation measures approved, and General Plans are adopted that are consistent with sound planning goals.
In addition, LandWatch recommends that the county not approve further land annexations until assessments are complete, and that county and city general plans should be updated if existing plans are more than five years old. Based on the information compiled in its report, LandWatch also calls for greater cooperation between the county and cities in future planning and cites the political need to create a consensus for tax increases to generate improvements in existing and new infrastructure.
"What inspired the report was our thought that it was important in our first year to take a comprehensive look at the county," says LandWatch President and local environmentalist Mike DeLapa. "We were astounded by the amount of growth planned in the face of the severe constraints in [infrastructure]. They are really problematic and represent major conflicts between what we can afford and what the plans allow.
"We feel there is a need to re-examine those plans that haven''t been updated and take a closer look at the policies and patterns of growth and ask, ''Are there better ways to accommodate growth?''"
At this point in time, a majority of the county supervisors who could be reached for comment indicated they were reluctant to support any moratorium on new projects as recommended by LandWatch. Still, there appears to be agreement among supervisors that the system in place for approving developments does indeed need an overhaul.
"Chualar II is the catalyst to get us to move, and at a bare minimum we must contemporize all land-use documents," says District 5 Supervisor Dave Potter, an opponent of Chualar II who argues for the county taking the lead in providing for current residents'' needs before embarking on new development projects.
DeLapa says LandWatch hopes county supervisors will respond to the report''s call to action, although he has no active plans to push a mandatory development moratorium.
Still, the LandWatch data makes for interesting reading, if only for its cumulative presentation of how the county has grown in recent years. All in all, the report finds "significant inconsistencies" between population projections, infrastructure capacity, and the general plans of Monterey County and its cities. According to the LandWatch report, if no further development projects were approved today, the county would still add 7,520 residential units, 685 hotel units and approximately 1.5 million square feet of commercial, industrial and visitor serving development.
Based on current projections, Monterey County''s population will increase from its current figure of 386,200 to 537,000 by 2020, a 39 percent increase, with most of the growth occurring in the Salinas Valley.
The study confirms that neither the infrastructure, nor the future funding for infrastructure exist to meet the population projections, and that population growth and housing demand, as witnessed in Chualar, are pushing development beyond the service boundaries of cities.
"It''s amazing no agency has taken a census of all development projects county wide," comments DeLapa. "No single report looked at whether low-income housing needs are being met. In general no one is looking at general plans comprehensively to see whether patterns of growth make sense. My guess is there''s a lot of work to be done."
As if supervisors didn''t feel enough heat from the Chualar II fiasco, the findings in the LandWatch report appear to have convinced the board that the county is at a crossroads and must reevaluate its current growth and planning projections.
"The board was surprised by Priske-Jones'' announcement, and I think it represents a significant shift with respect to development," says District 3 Supervisor Tom Perkins, one of the main proponents of the Chualar project. "I think we have to look deep within ourselves and say maybe we have arrived at a point where our resources are constrained. We need an updated general plan, which is why I tried to force the issue by requesting an ordinance asking any development of 100 units or more go to a public vote and be paid for by the developer."
From Perkins'' perspective, the central political challenge posed by Chualar II and the LandWatch report is how best to provide affordable housing and manage growth without overburdening working families.
"Growth is great, but we as a community must search our conscience and provide housing for people who work for us," says Perkins. "Since 1990, we''ve increased the number of agriculture jobs by 6,800 but in no way provided housing opportunities. We have generally in the county supported subdivisions and those projects that allow marketplace and expensive homes, but done little to take care of working people."
In the absence of a political consensus on funding for infrastructure improvements prior to development, some government officials say the county will never resolve the dilemma of providing for new growth.
"The expectation that everything should be in place is unrealistic," says District 4 Supervisor Edith Johnsen, "and to add the burden of additional infrastructure costs prior to building is also unrealistic."
Johnsen believes the county has little choice but to continue to depend on developers to help provide for infrastructure costs. Without such participation, says Johnsen, "You can throw out future development." It is this dependence on developers to pick up much of the cost for infrastructure improvements, says Johnsen, that accounts for the board of supervisors approving projects without infrastructure in place.
"It makes it difficult for planners and elected officials to say ''no'' because developers have such a huge investment in upfront costs," says Johnsen. "The money almost becomes an entitlement."
Not everyone in the board agrees with that assessment. "You can''t place a project anywhere you want because of a significant need, and you can''t provide new services when you can''t meet existing demand," says Potter. "In a community (Chualar) where the water system failed and the school was overcrowded, we turned to the development community to bail us out. That''s not good government and that''s where the problem lies."
One of the positive outcomes of Chualar II and the LandWatch report, says Potter, is the recognition of a new attitude about development in the county and the need for a reassessment of how the county proceeds with new projects to provide for current and future residents.
"We are forced to become more regional and community-wide in our thinking," says Potter, "and I would hope a developer who is intending to do a very intense development in our area thinks long and hard about doing business contrary to what the community wants."
For Supervisor Johnsen, the downside of Chualar II and the LandWatch report is that an atmosphere could be created in which new, worthwhile development projects will be stifled in the pursuit of a "no-growth" policy.
"The public doesn''t seem to recognize when a project has positive aspects and a legitimacy to it," notes Johnsen. "What I''m seeing is a capping of economic development in Monterey County as a result of the public perception growth is bad, even though it''s continuing.
For District 1 Supervisor Simon Salinas, his constituents'' needs for more affordable housing makes support of an overhaul of county planning problematic at best.
"I think it is time to look at [updating the general plan], but from my perspective I hope we avoid a contentious situation, particularly dealing with housing subdivisions," says Salinas. "People support affordable housing and maybe through a general plan review we can identify areas where most people agree we can develop affordable housing.
"Overall, there has to be a general discussion over whether we are serious about addressing the affordable housing need," adds Salinas. "Do we want to provide for people who can''t pay half a million dollars for a home?"
Recognizing there is a problem and actually solving that problem is the central juggling act of politics. The LandWatch report identifies the scope of Monterey County''s growth problems. But dealing with those problems without scaring off county officials and the public from supporting appropriate growth is the main challenge for Monterey County in the coming decades.
"People are afraid of total build-out and they have a right to be concerned, otherwise you end up with sprawl or worse," concedes Johnsen. "But growth will occur and the questions is, will we be prepared. If overcrowding brings social blight and crime problems then are we better off not addressing growth?" cw