No Means Yes
Supes vote against yanking approval of Rancho San Juan—which means voters will get to decide if they want to kill it themsleves.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
<>>In a surprising 3-2 vote on Tuesday, Aug. 16, County Supervisors agreed to allow county residents to vote on Rancho San Juan—the largest development project ever proposed in Monterey County.
Supervisors Fernando Armenta and Butch Lindley voted to repeal the board’s earlier approval of the 2,581-acre project, but lacked the third vote necessary to cancel the November ballot measure.
Opponents of the development fear that if the whole project is simply scrapped, they’ll face a slew of smaller developments at the site just north of Salinas.
A November ballot measure, they hope, will send a clear message that voters do not want the mini-city—which would include 4,000 homes, a golf course, hotels, shops, schools, parks and a town center.
“We’re not talking today about land use,” said LandWatch’s Executive Director Chris Fitz. “Today’s decision is all about the democratic process. It will send a message that you, as a body, care very much about what the people think.”
Prior to the meeting, about 50 of the development’s opponents marched outside the new county administrative building carrying signs that said, “Stop Rancho San Wrong,” and “Don’t Deny Us Our Right To Vote.”
But many of the marchers believed that the Supes would go along with the developer’s wishes, rescind their earlier approval, and cancel the November vote. (Meanwhile, a scaled-back version of Rancho San Juan works its way through the pipeline.)
Pundits and politicos alike predicted that the Aug. 16 decision on Rancho San Juan would come down to a 3-2 vote. It did—but not the 3-2 vote that they had expected.
Supervisors Lou Calcagno and Dave Potter voted to let county voters decide in November. That wasn’t a big shock—the two have consistently voted against the project, and against spending more money to study it. Both have said the project is too big, and they are concerned that it would worsen already bad traffic congestion, as well as the water overdraft situation.
Canceling the November vote, said Potter, “would be disrespectful and insulting to those who circulated the petition and those who signed it.”
Calcagno, however, initially seemed to indicate that he would vote to repeal the board’s December decision.
“I voted against the project,” he said, “And if the project was before us today, I’d vote against it again.”
But he decided against supporting the vote. Between now and November, he said, there will surely be a long campaign during which Rancho San Juan supporters will likely spend big bucks to put a glossy, PR shine on the massive project.
“What happens if the vote goes the wrong way? I’m gonna kick myself all over for that,” he said Tuesday.
“I understand your desire to preserve your vote,” Potter responded. “The public is asking for an opportunity to do what you got to do, and vote on this project. If the project is approved by the public? Then you and I misread our constituents, and that is a political risk I am willing to take. To say we are going to continue this unholy alliance with the developer doesn’t feel good to me.”
Finally, in a role call vote, Supervisor Jerry Smith sided with Calcagno and Potter and voted to let the referendum continue.
His vote came immediately after he voiced pro-development arguments: that project opponents were misleading voters about the repeal-versus-referendum decision at hand.
And then, immediately following the 3-2 vote, Smith lectured a stunned audience in the Supervisor’s chambers that “the project is still alive and well,” and “this is not something to celebrate today.”
“We need to stop putting up these false obstacles to providing housing,” he continued. “You have three veterans up here who put their lives on the line to give you the right to vote even though the information [on the petition] was not correct.”
Late last year, County Supervisors approved the first phase of the huge development, a 1,147-home and golf course subdivision called Butterfly Villages, along with a series of general plan amendments that would allow development on the entire Rancho San Juan area.
During the following three weeks—the holiday season—opponents collected more than 16,000 signatures to force a referendum to stop the development. In early March, supervisors decided to let voters weigh in.
But then, in May, the board voted to spend an additional $325,000 on new environmental studies, which would look at a scaled-back version of the plan.
At that time, opponents worried that once the new environmental reports had been completed, the Supes would rescind their December approval of the project, cancel the November vote, and then approve a smaller Rancho San Juan, or allow the area to be developed piece by piece.
Their worries were confirmed when, last month, the Butterfly Villages’ developer asked the Supervisors to cancel the November vote and consider a smaller development instead.
The developer, Moe Nobari, has been trying to build on Rancho San Juan since the early 1980s. In 2001, his successful lawsuit forced the County to process a Rancho San Juan specific plan—a kind of mini-general plan for the entire area.
Last year, he threatened to sue the County again, but agreed to dismiss his claims of damages if the Supervisors approved the project by the end of 2004.
The Supes did just that—and got slapped with five other lawsuits, including one from the city of Salinas and another from the state Department of Transportation, challenging the project’s environmental report.
In July, when Nobari’s attorney asked the board to cancel the November vote and consider a scaled-back project—which would still include Butterfly Villages—Nobari’s attorney said that this would give Rancho San Juan opponents what they have been asking for all along.
A generally pro-development group of men took this argument and ran with it at a news conference on Aug. 15. At the news conference, organized by 21st Century Solutions Group, spokesperson Brian Finegan—an attorney who usually represents pro-development interests but insisted that his group didn’t support or oppose Rancho San Juan—accused project opponents of lying.
“They really don’t want the Board of Supervisors to repeal the resolution, as requested in their petition,” he said, adding that the “real motive” is to “further their political agenda.”
Julie Engell, who chairs the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, said her group’s real motive is to protect the public’s “constitutional rights and our ability to exercise them.”
She said that the only reason the supervisors were considering rescinding their previous approval of Rancho San Juan was because “they have already spent the money to redesign a plan and put in motion the developer’s interests in this.”
On Aug. 16, following the board’s 3-2 vote to keep the measure on the November ballot, Engell said she was pleased, but added she doesn’t believe that the board will vote no on a scaled-back version of Rancho San Juan.
“Is less better than more? Absolutely, but you have to go back to the initial promise made to the people of Monterey County: That the crisis of water and roads will be solved before development.”
When asked what it will take to win the November vote, she said, “A hell of a lot of work.”