This boot camp for activists provides the necessary training to fight revolting developments.
Thursday, February 15, 2001
A developer accidentally wandering into the Prunedale Grange last Saturday might have stopped and pondered whether he''d stepped into his worst nightmare. He would have been greeted by a roomful of environmental and social activists fired up about trophy homes and golf courses. He would have heard the grumbling about lax environmental consultants. He would have seen the writing on the blackboard.
About 70 environmental and social activists attended LandWatch''s seminar to train citizens to fight unwanted development. The crowd was long on life experience: The organizers jokingly noted that the local leader of Fifty-Five Alive was in attendance and faced with a plethora of potential new members. But the ocean of salt and pepper was also speckled with the familiar scruffy-hair-and-Tevas look of the stereotypical enviro-activist. And well represented was a contingent of land assessors, environmental consultants, and Environ- mental Impact Review (EIR) contractors.
The day''s curriculum included the updating of the Monterey County General Plan, the intricacies of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and how to use the Brown and Public Records acts to fight development. An insomnia cure for some, but for the seminar attendees, these laws are tools to protect the lands and communities they love. Boring reading can translate to heavy-duty artillery when it comes to land law.
And the green troops showed plenty of spirit. Throughout the CEQA presentation, they hollered questions and lobbed accusations.
"What if the agency writing the EIR is in the pocket of the developer?" queried one. A particularly rowdy older man kept interrupting throughout the speech, refusing to relent. At one point, the revelation that "Developers sometimes write their own EIRs" (actually, they usually hire out contractors to do it) brought howls of indignation.
New development in Carmel Valley came up repeatedly, as did PG&E''s cutting of trees in the coastal zone (for which they received a small fine, a pittance compared to the lumber profits). Golf courses and trophy homes were particularly common targets, generating a collective groan with every mention.
The Dirty Dozens
One attendee was Darcie Warden, a CSU Monterey Bay graduate who is now the director of volunteer resources at the Monterey County AIDS Project. Though not currently fighting a battle against development, Warden came to the seminar to learn skills for the future.
"I''m into environmental policy," she says. "I don''t currently work in it, but I hope to very very soon. CEQA is huge. I''d like to hook up with LandWatch, maybe work as a representative and go to the meetings."
Others came not so much for new information but to mingle with other activists. Brian Gifford of the Coalition of Homeless Services Providers says that he saw the gathering as an opportunity.
"I came both for the planning and advocacy side of things," he says, "as well as mingling with other activists to make sure housing issues are being taken care of as well."
Gifford repeatedly raised concerns about housing developments in the third-least affordable housing market in the U.S.
"I know there''s a lot of concern about development issues in the county," he says. "We want to include affordable housing with that. People are concerned about both issues, but people often forget to lobby for both sides."
Mari Kloeppel, one of the speakers at the seminar, offered novice activists a measure of hope. In the last year and a half, she and her organization, Friends, Artists and Neighbors of Elkhorn Slough (FANS), have risen to prominence among Monterey''s environmental groups. Only two years ago, though, Kloeppel knew less about advocacy than most of the Saturday''s attendees did before the seminar began.
As a resident of the northern end of the county, she had always had a vague dislike for development. "I saw the subdivisions coming in," she says, "and it''s like, ''There goes another grassy hillside from my childhood.''"
It took a threat to Elkhorn Slough to spark her to action, though. The proposed golf course expansion and housing development of the Pajaro Valley Golf Course proved to be the catalyst.
At a meeting of the North County General Plan Update Citizens'' Oversight Coalition, Kloeppel received encouragement from Carolyn Anderson, the group''s founder and co-chair. Motivated, angry and determined to do something about it, Kloeppel formed FANS.
"Our mission is to oppose this golf course project the way it''s currently designed," she says. "And then create a watershed plan that would protect the entire watershed of the Slough. We saw that there was just a flood of applications coming down the pipe because of its beauty and its close proximity to commuter corridors going up to Silicon Valley."
As it turned out, FANS didn''t have to create the watershed plan. After hearing from the advocacy group, the Monterey County General Plan update staff has already started to work on one. Now FANS is inspiring a whole new group of activists.
One such activist is Charles Paulden, a resident of Santa Cruz who is fighting developers in the Pleasure Point area.
"LandWatch is a real resource for Monterey," says Paulden. "I wish we had something like this up in Santa Cruz. And this meeting is great. Just to talk with these other activists is encouraging."
Sharon Parsons, a former activist now working on the Monterey County Planning Commission, gave the last presentation of the day. She told her story of organizing and then fighting a winning battle against a housing development in the Chualar Canyon.
While her tale was a motivation to the dozens of past and future activists in the room, it was also laced with cautionary advice. As the presentation ran down to its final minutes, she directed a few comments to Charles Paulden, Darcie Warden, Brian Gifford and the rest of the newly informed citizens.
"Don''t focus on the do-able," she said. "Focus on the noble, and the do-able will change."
The developers should be quaking in their patent leather shoes.