Salinas and the County are finally moving together—in the wrong direction.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Forget about the legalistic details: Yes—the agreement struck this week between the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and the city of Salinas was made behind closed doors and in secret, as critics are saying. Yes, the elected officials were supposed to be negotiating a lawsuit (that’s why the public was excluded); they were not supposed to be executing a broad Memorandum of Understanding on future growth. And yes, plans such as the one that emerged this week are supposed to be made in public. There will undoubtedly be opportunities to discuss the legality of this closed-door process. But without getting into the legal issue, it’s still clear that plenty about this deal stinks.
The decision that was ratified Tuesday, though far-reaching, deals most immediately with the controversial plan to build a huge development in the Rancho San Juan area just north of Salinas. That project would covert a vast tract of land—4,500 rural acres—into what has been correctly described as a small city. It would include 4,000 homes, retail outlets, an office park, a golf course and a water treatment plant.
The County passed the Rancho San Juan plan in December 2004. The city of Salinas sued two weeks later, calling it “a project with dozens of significant and unmitigated impacts,” and claiming that it “ran roughshod over the California Environmental Quality Act.” With this week’s decision, Salinas is withdrawing its lawsuit—without any evidence that these issues will be resolved.
In return for dropping the suit and endorsing the project, the City received promises that the County will not block Salinas’ future development plans, which include annexing County lands outside the City’s boundaries.
In another venue, it would be heartening to see the City and County agree to “pursue action to assure orderly and appropriate land-use development.” Sadly, this agreement represents bad planning and damages democratic ideals.
The Rancho San Juan plan was put to a public vote last fall and was crushed. More than 75 percent of voters elected to kill the plan—for the very reasons cited in Salinas’ now-abandoned lawsuit. The voters agreed that the plan would cause too many traffic problems, use too much water, strain government services and induce further growth. By making this decision to move the development forward, the city of Salinas and the County affirm their commitment to ignore voters’ wishes.
In voting to support the new Memorandum of Understanding between Salinas and the County, Salinas City Councilman Sergio Sanchez attacked the plan’s opponents for ignoring the plight of his constituents. He pointed out that in his district, people are “living on top of each other.”
Although his vote is unfortunate, Sanchez is to be commended for once again calling attention to the most pressing problem in Monterey County—the desperate lack of affordable housing. If only the Rancho San Juan plan would address this problem. But it is difficult to see how a development built around a golf course is going to help people in East Salinas.
This is not the first time that the need for housing has been cited to justify a plan to built houses that average local residents will hardly be able to afford. Time and again, the fight against sprawl is portrayed as a class war, with environmentalists pitted against poor people who need homes.
This past Sunday, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the anti-sprawl fight in Monterey County that perpetuated this false myth. “On one side are farmers, developers and immigrant advocates, who want to see more housing built,” the Journal reported. “On the other are environmentalists and residents, including those in the upscale coastal towns, who want to preserve open space and their quality of life.”
The Journal piece goes on to describe a place where workers can barely afford to pay rent, much less buy a home—this is an accurate picture of the place where we live. But it misses an important fact—that the vast majority of the homes that have been built here over the past decade are not within reach of locals of modest income.
One would think, reading the Journal piece, that developments like Rancho San Juan were devised by local leaders passionate to “see more housing built” for their constituents. If that were the case, we would be singing its praises.
But this deal paves the way for more mini-mansions and golf courses and shopping centers. Worst of all, regardless of the legality of this kind of back-room process, it tells citizens that our leaders intend to ignore their opponents, avoid public debate, and shun compromise.
If any good is to come of this plan as it moves toward completion, our elected officials will need to create a more open process