The Board of Supervisors has a chance to put the brakes on development in North County.
Thursday, September 14, 2000
Things are turning upside down as North County runs dry. A community leader who advocates a moratorium on development insists she''s not anti-development. Attorneys opposed to the moratorium say killing it is the environmentally conscious thing to do. County supervisors, who once green-lighted every North County development idea that came down the pike, actually consider passing the measure.
Pigs are flying, all right. The proposed ban on development in the North Monterey County hydrogeologic study area is full of surprises, not the least of which is that it''s come this far.
"It''s a big deal," says Monterey County planning commissioner Carol Lacy. "It''s the first time the county has ever taken any concrete steps toward saving water or anything. They''ve talked about it on the Peninsula and in the Salinas Valley, but nothing''s ever happened before this."
If the Monterey County Board of Supervisors passes the ordinance on Sept. 19, it will ban for 18 months all new developments that require water within a prescribed part of North County. The 588 new lots that were in the pipeline as of August 9 will continue through the process, and people who own plots of land and want to build single homes on them will be permitted to do so. But no new subdivisions. No new strawberry fields. No new wells.
The hydrogeologic study area--roughly bound by the ocean, the Santa Cruz and San Benito county lines and Blackie Road--gets its name from a report completed in 1995 that revealed a grim truth: The human inhabitants of North County were sucking twice as much water out of the aquifer as was soaking back into it by rainfall.
As dire as the situation was, the study didn''t affect planning policy much. Subdivisions slid merrily through the approval process--until two months ago, when the planning commission voted 9-0 to nix a 26-lot subdivision called Rancho Roberto that had the misfortune of sitting atop a "zero recharge area." In areas such as those, water seeps back into the aquifer so slowly as to be imperceptible; once the water''s gone, it''s gone. At first blush, planning staff had recommended that Rancho Roberto be approved. But, Lacy says, the planning commission decided that "Enough is enough." Planning staff drew up the ordinance and the commission approved it on August 30.
North County resident and moratorium supporter Carolyn Anderson is just one of many people who will be crossing her fingers at the supes'' meeting this Tuesday, Sept. 19. "If they continue to put more straws in that punch bowl, we''ll all be at risk," she says of the depleted aquifer. "We could run out of water, and we don''t know when that will happen. The county has an obligation to provide for the people who are already here."
Anderson, who insists she''s not anti-development, heads an advisory group called the Citizens Oversight Committee. Its task is to provide feedback to the county as it revamps its general plan. She says the group''s formation indicates that changes are afoot in North County. "We''ve been sort of a sleeping giant, I think, and now we''re waking up," she says. "We''re the folks who in years past got the wrecking yards and dumping grounds. But things have changed and we''ve become a more upscale area. We''re not hillbillies anymore."
Pro-development attorneys are, predictably, attacking the ordinance. They would like to change the language so it prohibits only projects that would "intensify" water use, not all projects that would use water, period. Because agriculture uses far more water than housing, that change in wording would allow ag land to be converted to subdivisions--precisely what Anderson''s group is trying to prevent.
But the argument in favor of changing the language sounds as green as the fields as it rolls off the tongue of John Bridges, an attorney for Fenton & Keller who plans to petition the board of supervisors on Tuesday. It''s all about ecologically sound planning, to hear him talk about it. "If you have a five-acre parcel to grow strawberries on, if that''s residentially zoned land and the owner decides he wants to build two houses, those houses would use a lot less water than strawberries," he says. "If what you''re concerned about is water use, then why would you oppose something that would decrease water use?"
Not that simple, says Anderson. "The ag community does use a lot of water," she concedes. "However, taking ag land out of production and converting it to residential is a grave mistake, because once families are there they''ll be thirsty no matter whether there''s water there or it''s a dry year. You can fallow a field; you can''t fallow a family."
Fran Farina, a land-use attorney who has fought on the conservation side of several county water issues, says that language is code for "laissez-faire." "Having language about ''no intensification'' means ''maintain the status quo,''" she says. "And ''maintain the status quo'' should be an unacceptable solution to the situation."
The board of supervisors is probably closer than it''s ever been to approving such an ordinance. Last week the supes voted unanimously to pass an ordinance requiring developers to show proof of water before even beginning the approval process for a subdivision. As Anderson says, "We''re all in this together, and we all have to find a solution."