Building Rancho San Juan
Rancho San Juan rises from the ashes of controversy-bigger and buffed to a New Urban sheen.
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Celia Perez Martinez, a planner with the County of Monterey, and project manager for the Rancho San Juan development, looks out over 2,500 acres of rolling pastures, oak trees, strawberry fields between Salinas and Prunedale, and envisions a shining community, modeled around the precepts of New Urbanism, a community the size of Carmel and Pacific Grove combined. Martinez sees neighborhoods of single-family homes and low-income condos, all surrounded by parks and within walking distance of a community center. She sees apartments on top of stores and cafes, and new, high-paying jobs brought into the area by technology and other clean industry.
She looks 15 or 20 years into the future, at what could become one of the largest developments in Monterey County history: "See where those cows are standing? Housing will go in there-interspersed with inclusionary housing. That''s the first thing the developer asked: ''Can we pay a fee to build the inclusionary units somewhere else?''"
She told the developer no.
"The golf course is going to fall in those vales," she continues, pointing to the valley floor, "because we''re not going to let them do a lot of grading. And that whole wooded grove over there will be an oak preserve.
"We started from the General Plan-sustainable community, jobs-housing balance, New Urbanism, responsible growth-we took all the buzz words and we said we''re going to build the best community we can."
Martinez stands next to an old barn on the historic old property known as the Hebert Ranch. She-and most of Monterey County-call this spot the "Red Pony Barn," because it is purportedly the site where John Steinbeck was inspired to write The Red Pony. It''s the highest point on the project site. On a clear day, you can look out and see the ocean. It''s foggy today, so we look down at farms and hilly grazing fields. According to developers'' plan-which still has several hurdles to jump-within, two decades, about 15,000 people will live here. The mammoth project will include 4,000 homes, ranging from studios to Craftsman-style houses. The community, as envisioned, will also boast five schools, libraries, parks, a 150-room hotel, an 18-hole golf course and resort with 30 "guest villas," open space and millions of square feet of commercial and industrial uses. And 543 acres reserved for further development in the future.
The new Rancho San Juan draft plan and environmental report will be released to the public in April. But if the current project follows the lead of previous chapters in the area''s controversial history-fraught with protests, lawsuits and the like-the project''s proponents don''t have an easy road ahead of them.
Julie Engell, a former North County planning commissioner, hates the plan-she says the county is creating a "megalopolis" stretching from Salinas to Prunedale.
The city of Salinas opposes Rancho San Juan. Mayor Anna Caballero calls it "poor planning," and says that if the county proceeds with the build-out as planned, Salinas will fight the development in the courts.
"We''re opposed to the development of unincorporated urban centers on the outskirts of cities, and we question why the city that has done the most to provide affordable housing ends up with a construction plan right outside our boundaries," Caballero says. "The County is not in the business of creating urban development. I''m hoping we will be able to resolve this short of litigation."
LandWatch''s Gary Patton says county planners are stretching the term by calling the project a "New Urbanism" development. "And the reason for that is that it is not connected to an urban area," Patton says.
At a meeting last week designed to give the public some say in what the new environmental study should examine, a couple dozen Rancho San Juan landowners and neighbors told project planners that the development would cause traffic problems and flooding.
"The court order told us that we had to process a specific plan for Rancho San Juan," responded Jim Colangelo, who is in charge of the General Plan. "We tried to take pieces of the previous plan for Rancho San Juan, and take what we''re learning with the new General Plan and go forward. We''re saying if we have to do this let''s put forward the best plan possible."
So call it New Urbanism or old-fashioned sprawl, the County of Monterey will continue to process a new plan for Rancho San Juan.
On a map, traveling north on Highway 101 from Salinas, the project area looks like a wedge, or a "Pac-Man Mouth," as Martinez calls it. It''s bordered by Harrison Road in the west and Russell Road in the south. San Juan Grade Road creates the longest boarder to the east, and the northern boundary backs up against Crazy Horse Canyon.
Monterey County officials designated Ranch San Juan a "future growth area" more than 20 years ago. Since then, however, the plan-and the project area-have grown.
A 1998 proposal calling for about 3,000 homes on 2,100 acres sparked protest from the city of Salinas, environmentalists, local historians and cultural preservationists. They said the development would strain Salinas''s roads and services, and asked why the environmental impact report failed to mention historical sites, like the Red Pony Barn, Native American settlements and the site of the Battle of Natividad. The report didn''t discuss which parcels would remain open space.
"The original ''98 plan was flawed," Martinez says. "It was extremely flawed. It generated about 400 comments, and they weren''t ''Save this farm.'' They were legitimate concerns about the EIR from state and federal agencies."
That same year, county planners tried to stop the process until the General Plan Update was completed. A lawsuit by one of the property owners, HYH Corp., charging the county of illegally stalling the project, and forced the county to start the process again.
The result is the new Rancho San Juan proposal-400 acres bigger with almost 1,000 more homes.
"What the valley cities have tried very hard to do it to build in tight, concentric circles," Caballero says. "[Rancho San Juan] is not tight. It sprawls out to Crazy Horse. They have adopted some New Urbanism principals that we think are good, but the emphasis is on ''urban.'' So if in fact they are creating an urban center, there are two options. One, it should become a part of Salinas. Two, it should become another city entirely." Caballero makes it clear she''s not a fan of this option.
"What we have tried to do on the Valley floor is not build city next to city next to city. It urbanizes a rural community. It''s poor planning, and it''s the beginning of proliferation of cities along Highway 101."
North County Supervisor Lou Calcagno supports the development-first of all because he believes the lawsuit says he must.
"The County is stuck between Salinas and a Court ruling," Calcagno says. "Judge Silver ruled that we had to do a specific plan for Rancho San Juan."
Calcagno also points out that the region needs the housing, and the state wants to Monterey County to build 3,500 new homes. "You know the housing number we had to come up with," Calcagno says. "And when we started looking around at where we could build housing, two places really stood out-East Garrison, and Rancho San Juan.
"Salinas will be a problem, and rightfully so. They have some legitimate gripes. Surely the County doesn''t want to see a lawsuit, and neither does Salinas. We both represent the same people. We will work together and try to come up with some consensus."
Martinez remains confident that the city and the county will get past their differences, and that the end result will be an example of what new development should-and can-look like.
Ashe even envisions her ideal job, 20 years down the road, in the newly completed Rancho San Juan: Park Ranger, at what Martinez hopes will one day become the Hebert Ranch regional park.
"It''s just beautiful," she says, looking out at the rolling hills and oak groves. "I came to this all fresh and excited about the possibilities. This really could be a model for the county."