Salinas v. Monterey County
City is ready to fight in court against sprawling Rancho San Juan subdivision.
Thursday, April 1, 2004
Salinas city officials don’t want Monterey County to build the Rancho San Juan development, a sprawling proposed mini-city of 4,000 homes on 2,581 acres between Salinas and Prunedale. And to that end, they’re willing to ask a judge—or the voters—to stop the huge project.
“I’m convinced we’ll take it to the courts,” says Salinas City Councilwoman Jyl Lutes.
These Salinas officials have vocally opposed Rancho San Juan, and have repeatedly told their counterparts in County government that if necessary, they will sue to stop the development.
“And now,” Lutes continues, “speaking for the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, we’re hoping to take it to the voters.”
Alexander Urciuoli, a member of the Salinas-based Citizens For Responsible Growth and the newly formed Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, predicts that “it will be another Measure E.” He’s referring to the anti-sprawl law passed by Marina voters in 2000, which created an urban growth boundary and severely limited a development at Armstrong Ranch.
In addition to thousands of houses, the Rancho San Juan plan, which would be built over a 20-year period, also includes five schools, a mixed-use “town center” with 373,000 square feet of retail space, an employment center with more than 2.4 million square feet of light industrial and business park use and nearly 243,000 square feet of office development.
The plan also details “community amenities” such as 600 acres of open space with a trail system, and about 75 acres of parkland.
But the first pieces of the Rancho San Juan puzzle slated to be built are 1,077 homes (of which 55 would be affordable) and a 196-acre, 18-hole golf course.
Lutes and other Salinas officials say Rancho San Juan will overburden Salinas’ roads, health and safety services, schools and libraries—which are already cutting back hours because there isn’t enough money to keep library doors open.
City and county planners both expect that one day Salinas will have to annex Rancho San Juan.
Lutes, who last year chaired the Board of Directors of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC), says the county already needs about $1.4 billion for present transportation needs and has less than $500 million to spend. Initial projections for Rancho San Juan roads and other infrastructure costs put its needs at about $226 million.
Lutes feigns pulling her hair out: “Good God, where are we going to get this money?”
Says Urciuoli: “Salinas is going to be stuck with the check and we don’t even get the benefits of what’s going to be built there. What do we get for our own community out of the deal? Nothing.”
Urciuoli’s watchdog group formed in ‘99 to oppose the Salinas City Council’s approval of the 853-home Mountain Valley development in East Salinas. Lutes and the rest of the council supported the project, which, four years later, ultimately won approval.
But now, Urciuoli and Lutes are playing for the same team. They’ve recently formed a new group, called Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, made up of Salinas and Prunedale residents as well as slow-growth groups like LandWatch. They say they’ll fight the county’s huge development to the death.
“We’re both vehemently opposed to the project,” Urciuoli says. “And we both feel it is absolutely detrimental to Salinas community centers.”
“And to the future of Salinas,” Lutes adds. “We were very much on opposite sides when it came to the Mountain Valley project and we were talking about 800 homes. This is 4,000 homes. We realized we better bury the hatchet when it comes to a…new city. It’s growing in a direction that nobody really wants to grow in.”
County planners recently released a new draft plan for Rancho San Juan, located along Highway 101 on what is now primarily rolling pastures, oak trees, and strawberry and lettuce fields. High atop the 2,581 acres sits the Hebert Ranch, also known as the Red Pony Barn, purportedly the setting for John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony.
The Rancho San Juan environmental impact report is slated to be released in early April.
Although opponents call it “poor planning” and “urban sprawl,” county officials consistently paint Rancho San Juan in smart-growth hues, and use words like “sustainable development” and “new urban village” to describe the project. They also say many units will be affordable to low-income and moderate-income families, and will be targeted to accommodate the Salinas Valley workforce.
In fact, 20 percent of the homes built in Rancho San Juan would be required to be affordable.
“The Rancho San Juan Specific Plan is a blueprint for the development of a ‘sustainable’ new urban village,” reads the County’s Web site. “When fully developed, over a period of approximately 20 years, Rancho San Juan will be a thriving community of nearly 13,000 people enjoying the advantages of a highly livable, environmentally friendly and socially inclusive community.”
But the thing about new urbanism, say members of the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, is that it needs to be connected to an urban area, not plopped down in the middle of thousands of acres of rural lands. “They can show all these beautiful pictures of new urbanism,” Lutes says. “But city-centered growth is new urbanism.”
Alana Knaster, chief assistant director for the county planning department, did not return calls seeking comment.
Rancho San Juan has been on the county’s map in some shape or other for more than 20 years.
In 1982, the county’s general plan identified the land as a “future growth area.” Since then, however, the plan—and project area—have continued to grow.
A proposal in ‘98 that called for about 3,000 homes on 2,100 acres sparked protests from the city of Salinas, environmentalists and local historians. Their concerns sound similar: They said the subdivision would strain Salinas’ roads and services, and questioned 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 same year, county planners tried to put a specific plan for Rancho San Juan on hold until the General Plan Update was completed. A lawsuit by one of the property owners, HYH Corp., accusing the County of illegally stalling the project, forced the County to start the process again.
A new, bigger plan emerged in 2003. Since then, county planners have been concurrently working on the General Plan Update, a specific development plan for Rancho San Juan, and HYH’s development application, to build 1,077 homes and a golf course.
The County will hold hearings on the project and environmental impact report once the latter has been released.