Sultans Of Swing
A desperate developer digs deep to secure the swing vote on the water board.
Thursday, November 16, 2000
Jack Farmer is 70 years old, in need of .03 acre feet of water to install a new shower in his home, and stuck at number 74 on the county''s waiting list for water. "I''m not handicapped yet," he says, but the giant step over the side of the tub proves too much for him these days. He needs a shower he can safely enter and exit.
So when Glen Gurries, the owner of the historic Robles del Rio Lodge in Carmel Valley Village, offered some water credits for sale, Farmer pulled out his checkbook. Gurries has sunk his own well and now has 7.8 acre feet of Cal-Am water credits he hopes to sell to 19 hopeful recipients, all residential property owners who want the water to remodel their homes or build new ones. Gurries plans to use the proceeds to restore the lodge.
But a twist in the plot has rendered Gurries, Farmer, and the other 18 hopeful water recipients unwilling players in a bizarre piece of political theater. It all started at the Oct. 26 Monterey Peninsula Water Management Board meeting when two boardmembers, Ron Chesshire and Zan Henson, both of whom had previously supported the transfer, unexpectedly voted to deny Gurries'' proposal, causing the motion to fail 3-4.
The water transfer program was set up to allow relocating businesses to take their water with them, and also to conserve water use; 15 percent of transferred water went back to the district. However, a recent report by the district showed the program may actually be increasing water use, and the board voted temporarily to suspend the transfer program. But the board also voted 5-2 to allow already-submitted transfer applications to be processed, with Chesshire and Henson voting favorably. Robles del Rio was one of those applicants.
After those votes of support from Chesshire and Henson, the Oct. 26 denial was a blow to Gurries. "From our position, there is no reason whatsoever to be denied," he says. "This is their program, not my program. I didn''t invent this."
Developer Ed Ghandour, the force behind the proposed beachfront Monterey Bay Shores Resort in Sand City, wasted no time in trying to capitalize on Gurries'' misfortune. Soon after the denial, he approached the stunned group of water seekers with a plan. As they tell it, it went like this: If they would help convince county Supervisor and water boardmember Dave Potter, who supports the transfer, to change his negative vote on Ghandour''s hotel, he would help rustle up support for their water credit transfers. (Ghandour must gain board approval for a well he hopes to sink into the Seaside aquifer, and Potter holds the key swing vote on the project. At the Oct. 26 meeting, Ghandour''s well failed on a 3-4 vote, but the board is scheduled to reconsider both his project and the Robles del Rio transfer next week.)
"Basically, [Ghandour] said if we can get Potter to support his project, he thought he could get the support we need for our transfer," says Farmer, who talked with Ghandour on the phone.
The week after the board meeting, Ghandour and his attorney met with some of the group. "[Ghandour] said if we can help with his project, he''d see what he can do," Gurries says. "That''s a place where we didn''t want to go... I felt like [Ghandour] was trying to hold us hostage by saying, ''Well, I have your votes and you can help me.'' I don''t want to be tied to him whatsoever."
"[Ghandour] wanted us to lobby on his behalf and he would do the same on our behalf," corroborates Joe Sawyer, a recipient who attended the meeting. "It was implied that somehow he was using our project to get his approved."
In the past, Chesshire has vehemently supported transfers, and his "no" vote has sent the world of water reeling with speculation that he teamed with Ghandour in his effort to pressure Potter. But Chesshire insists he''s not in cahoots with Ghandour. Ghandour did not return the Weekly''s phone calls.
The Man in the Middle
Meanwhile, Ghandour has directly applied pressure on Potter to wield his swing vote in Sand City''s direction. Last month, Potter says attorney and lobbyist Robert Philabosian approached him at a Coastal Commission meeting in an attempt to lobby his water board vote. "He was extremely persistent about wanting to come to Monterey to talk about the project," Potter says. "I said, ''This is a non-discussible item with me.''"
Chesshire says he has his own reasons for opposing the Robles del Rio transfers, and that he''s not involved with Ghandour. He says if water credits are going to be sold, the board ought to set the price, and he''s put off that Gurries had already contracted sale of the water prior to approval. Chesshire has asked the district to send a letter to Gurries'' attorney, John Bridges, asking him to disclose the negotiated price of the water, but Bridges says the terms of the contract are confidential.
Nevertheless, Ghandour''s desperate attempt to win the swing vote and Chesshire''s peculiar behavior underscore a growing tension created by a split water board, and the importance of Potter''s inadvertent emergence as the board''s heavy hitter. Last March''s election of boardmembers Henson, Molly Erickson and Kris Lindstrom, all staunch environmentalists and slow-growthers, shifted power away from boardmembers Chesshire, Alvin Edwards and Dave Pendergrass, who typically tend to support water for development. That left Potter with the seventh vote--and caught in the middle. Environmentalists openly scorn Potter when he migrates from their ranks, yet the other boardmembers begrudge Potter''s opposition to a new Carmel River dam, his support for expanding the district''s authority to regulate wells, and his support of a moratorium on water credit transfers.
In Chesshire''s pro-union, pro-development opinion, the water board is being used as a "socioeconomic stick to beat people with," and in most instances, it''s Potter wielding the final blow. Chesshire says the board''s inability to move forward in its charge to augment the water system has turned access to water into a game only the wealthy can play. In the past six months, board decisions have centered on restricting water availability, not contributing to it.
"When I get cooperation, I''ll give cooperation," Chesshire says. "I''m out after a certain amount of social and economic justice."