Lutes vs. Calcagno
District 2 will be the battleground of a fight for the future.
Thursday, June 1, 2006
Lou Calcagno describes himself as a dairy farmer. He may also be the most powerful man in Monterey County. He’s served on the Board of Supervisors for eight years, and sat on the county planning commission for 18 years prior. He’s played the political game in Sacramento and Washington, DC, serving as Gov. Pete Wilson’s appointee to the California Coastal Commission as well as the state and national milk advisory boards. Under the Reagan Administration, he worked as chairman of the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board for four years.
This list of accomplishments translates into influence, and his power is evidenced in his campaign literature: He’s been endorsed by most of Monterey County’s state, county and city elected officials, including Assemblyman Simón Salinas, who shot a TV commercial in support of Calcagno’s candidacy. Four Salinas councilmembers who have worked with Lutes for years endorsed Calcagno.
Calcagno owns land all over the county. He estimates his net worth between $6 million and $8 million. He doesn’t participate in the county’s pension plan or medical insurance, and he gives his raises to the Prunedale Senior Center and Rancho Cielo, which offers vocational training for at-risk kids.
He doesn’t want the $91,000-a-year supervisor seat for the money.
“I’m not in this business to get rich, or to get nothing out of it,” he says. “In fact, I’d probably do it for nothing.”
His friends in the agriculture industry—or people who want the supervisors to pick up the phone when they call—give him more money every time he runs for office. Shipping-processing company Mann Packing Co. gave Calcagno $5,000. J. Lohr Vineyard owner Jerome Lohr gave him $1,000. So did D’Arrigo Brothers, American Farms, Ocean Mist Farms and San Bernabe Vineyards.
On the Web site smartvoter.org, Calcagno—whose challenger is a prominent environmentalist—lists his occupation as county-supervisor-slash-conservationist. And he has bona-fides to back that up.
In 1982, Calcagno co-founded the Elkhorn Slough Foundation. Two years later, he co-founded the Monterey County Agricultural & Historical Land Conservancy. Both are solid conservation efforts. Both would be considered radically environmentalist in some circles: they buy up huge pieces of property in order to prevent developers from building on prime farmland or wetlands. Together the organizations have protected 20,000 acres.
“With the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, their principle goal is to protect and secure the environment around the Elkhorn Slough. The pieces of property that have direct bearing, habitat, wildlife, water corridors leading to the Elkhorn Slough, are the key pieces of land that [we] are interested in purchasing,” he says. “Now the Land Conservancy, they’re interested in buying productive farm ground—the most productive farm ground near a city, to try to direct a city to grow to the least productive ground. In King City, exactly to the east. In Salinas, northeast, and Gonzales, directly to the east.”
Calcagno likes to bring these facts out during campaign season, just as he likes to remind voters that he was born and raised on the banks of the Elkhorn Slough, and that he’s a salt of the earth kinda guy.
But somewhere during his last couple of terms in office, according to his political foes, he’s lost touch with the common folk, and fallen out of step with the conservationist community.
Jyl Lutes is a schoolteacher. She owns a home in North Salinas and serves on the Salinas City Council, a post she has held for the past seven years. She’s a former chair of the Transportation Agency of Monterey County. She got into the race late, but she’s raised $85,491, which includes $10,200 in loans, compared to Calcagno’s $74,227, to date.
Lutes has been an outspoken advocate of “smart-growth” policies, and is as well-versed as she is passionate about land-use policy that discourages sprawl. Her efforts have paid off well in Salinas. Thanks largely to her, the City now has a visionary growth plan that protects the most valuable agricultural land to the south and west of the existing city limits, while providing housing and employment for the future.
The leadership she provided to make this happen, she says, is exactly what the County needs at this point in history.
The Salinas plan gives developers incentives to build high numbers of affordable homes, and sets policy to ensure “walkable communities”—a mix of single-family homes, apartments and condos near services, parks and transportation routes.
It’s not a matter of being anti-growth, it’s a matter of smart planning, Lutes says.
“We’re not going to grow any more land, but somehow we have to balance preserving the land and the growth that we are going to experience,” she says.
The Salinas plan is a progressive document. But Lutes also lists it as a success for another reason: She brought anti-sprawl group LandWatch Monterey County and the development group Creekbridge Homes to the table, and they were able to reach consensus on the City’s General Plan.
“I said to Creekbridge and LandWatch, ‘Let’s sit down together and figure out a plan,’” Lutes says. “We weren’t threatened by LandWatch, nor were we threatened by developers.”
Creekbridge has donated $5,000 to Lutes’ campaign, and several LandWatch staffers and board members, including Executive Director Chris Fitz, have written checks to Lutes.
Lutes isn’t afraid to challenge Calcagno—she was slated to debate him before Calcagno withdrew from the event. Still, she’s got a tough fight ahead.
Sprawl is the defining issue of this election. On the other issues—transportation, Natividad Medical Center, public safety and fighting crime—the candidates are not far apart. Development pressure makes this a watershed election, and on this issue, the candidates are profoundly opposed.
Right now, Supervisor Dave Potter is the only consistent anti-sprawl vote on the Board of Supervisors. If elected, Lutes would be a second green vote. Assemblyman Simón Salinas, who is returning to his old job as county supervisor after being termed-out of the state legislature in Sacramento, will likely replace Butch Lindley, a consistent pro-development vote.
For the first time in more than a decade, go-go-growth supes might not make up the majority of the five-member body.
During his tenure on the board, Calcagno was a swing vote—sometimes perplexingly so. On occasion he voted with Potter, but not always.
Calcagno says his votes are inconsistent because he believes in the elusive middle ground. “I see myself as a consensus builder,” he says. “I don’t see my vote as an environmental vote or a development vote.
“I’ve learned you can’t have two sides. Some are going to have to give and some are going to have to take.”
His opponents, including Lutes, see Calcagno’s votes as a calculated way to hold on to his environmentalists credential by voting green when it doesn’t matter. When it counts, they say, he finds reasons to abandon the cause.
Calcagno voted against Rancho San Juan, a 2,400-acre, 4,000-home development north of Salinas. But he voted for Butterfly Village, a smaller project within the Rancho San Juan boundaries.
Notoriously, that vote came a day before a voter initiative decided—by a landslide—to kill Rancho San Juan.
The supervisors’ action elicited an angry response from the thousands of voters who signed petitions, walked precincts and voted to see the subdivision stopped. Calcagno says he had no choice but to vote for Butterfly Village, because the developer threatened to sue.
Local enviros were reluctant to believe him, because, they say, he had already burned them.
Three years ago, when enviros and developers were at odds over the County’s General Plan, Calcagno proposed the now-infamous refinement committee, made up of special interests on both sides, intended to hash out their differences and reach consensus on a plan for future growth in the county.
It didn’t work out. The conservationists and the developers could not agree on anything—not even on what time the meetings should begin and end. Neither side would give an inch, and, as a result, the slow-growth interests—the ones who weren’t being paid to attend the meetings—got pushed out.
Earlier this year, when slow-growth proponents collected enough signatures to put the General Plan Initiative on the ballot, Potter endorsed the measure. Calcagno didn’t. At a subsequent board meeting, Potter made a motion to place the measure on the June ballot. Calcagno refused to second it, and Potter’s motion died.
Supervisor Butch Lindley made a subsequent motion to kill the initiative. Supervisors Jerry Smith and Fernando Armenta joined Lindley. The initiative was killed 3-2, with Potter and Calcagno dissenting. So while Calcagno didn’t cast a vote intended to keep the measure off of the ballot, neither did he support Potter’s motion to let county residents weigh in on the anti-sprawl plan.
Calcagno admits that he doesn’t support the General Plan Initiative. He says that development in rural areas—particularly near the eastern foothills—is necessary to protect prime farmland.
“City-centered growth would probably work well in states like Nevada, maybe Arizona,” Calcagno says, “But when you come to California, particularly the Salinas Valley, it doesn’t work.
“The Salinas Valley is the most productive agricultural land in the world. There is no place else in the world you will grow $12,000 an acre. San Joaquin only goes for $1,000. This ground has to be protected, and when you start looking at the Salinas Valley, and where the cities are, they are in the heart of the valley. The perimeter of the Salinas Valley cities is basically the best agriculture ground.”
He says city-centered growth will eventually connect Prunedale with Salinas with King City as cities continue to grow outwards.
“I’m not the guy who wants to build houses on every speck of land,” Calcagno says. “I want to build them on the least productive land. The cities are surrounded by agriculture ground. Monterey County is going to grow, let’s face it. At least direct the growth through the least productive ground.”
But he also says that the County’s latest version of the growth document, nicknamed GPU4, is flawed.
“What we need is something in the middle,” he says.
Calcagno points to the failed refinement group and points to his yes vote on an earlier, more conservation-friendly draft of the General Plan. He says he tried. But residents are left with nothing.
When it comes to city-centered growth, Lutes says Calcagno just doesn’t get it.
“He thinks that growth and development is happening the way it has happened for the past 50 years,” she says. “That’s the whole point of New Urbanism. It’s saying, ‘Stop, we’re not building any more of these ranch houses on half of an acre.’ That’s what Lou doesn’t get: new principles and policies of planning.
“I agree with him on one thing: if you go down to Greenfield, where they are building out, out, out, that’s not what we want to see. We want more compact communities. Infill.”
These new principles and policies are actually old ideas, pre-WWII ways of designing neighborhoods and communities with front porches, sidewalks and narrower streets.
“That’s what New Urbanism is,” Lutes says. “It’s not building houses on top of each other. Build them next to each other and provide a commons, open space, a park area, so people don’t just hide out in their backyards all the time. People are involved in their communities, they are walking up and down the streets, greeting their neighbors. There are more eyes on the streets.
“Lou doesn’t get that—a lot of people don’t get that—but we’ve got to have this new way of thinking.”
Lutes says New Urbanism also makes sense from a social justice point of view. Mixed neighborhoods with condos and apartments and homes bring in a mix of ages, and people from different income levels. “People learn how to live together better,” she says.
Lutes supports the General Plan Initiative because it encourages affordable housing, and jobs and services near where people live.
“But whatever your feelings on the General Plan Initiative,” she says, “the fact that more than 15,000 Monterey County residents signed the petition to put it in the ballot should be enough to warrant its placement on the June ballot.”
She says the latest draft of the County’s growth document is a bad idea. It’s too vague, and it doesn’t set clear policies about where and how the county should grow. She also says GPU4 doesn’t do enough to protect the Elkhorn Slough or agriculture. It doesn’t limit overdrafting of the aquifers, and it allows traffic congestion to get worse. It doesn’t include a plan to pay for new infrastructure.
Lutes says new growth needs to be directed into existing urban areas. Rural areas should remain rural. It costs more money to build in rural areas because they don’t have existing roads, sewer and water systems. Plus, these developments mean that police, fire and medical services have further to drive in case of an emergency.
“If we build sprawl, we need to build the infrastructure to support sprawl,” she says. “That’s terribly expensive and terribly short-sighted.
“If we don’t have to spend our money on that infrastructure, we get to spend it where it is needed—the hospital, public safety, services.”
General Plans 1, 2, and 3 were headed in the right direction, Lutes says. The three earlier plans designed more walkable neighborhoods with a balance of jobs and homes, and pedestrian access to stores and schools, which also means more people on the street—a proven crime deterrent.
But big landowners and pro-development interests hijacked the plan.
This got us to where we are today: The community general plan versus the county’s GPU4, and Lutes versus Calcagno.
Like Lutes, Calcagno supported the planning document effort that died in 2004, GPU3. “I thought it was a middle-of-the-road document, but we didn’t have three votes,” he says.
He says he wishes the conservation community would have participated more in GPU4. “They should have been players,” he says.
But after spending the past five years working on GPU1, GPU2, the refinement committee and GPU3, most are fed up.
“The conservation community has been actively involved in the General Plan Process since its inception,” says Julie Engell, who chairs the Ranch San Juan Opposition Coalition. “GPU3 was, to most members of the conservation community, a huge compromise plan, and the supervisors scuttled it. They took six years of our work, they took $6 million in taxpayer money, and they threw it out the window.”
This is why thousands of people singed petitions to place the General Plan Initiative on the ballot, Engell says.
“Talking to the board is like talking to the wall, and until we change that board and until we take control of our own future in land use, we’ve got nothing. The Board has had a wear-them-down strategy of attrition from the very beginning. Why play their game? We’re playing our own.”
Lutes agrees that GPU3 was a compromise plan. “It’s too bad that [the supervisors] threw that out,” she says.
The County Planning Commission and all of the area land-use committees supported GPU3.
While Lutes was able to bring enviros and developers to consensus on Salinas’ General Plan, Calcagno didn’t have any luck with the refinement committee. And despite his years of successfully lobbying the state and federal governments, he wasn’t able to convince just one additional supervisor to vote yes on GPU3.
Lutes thinks she has a shot to get the process right again.
“The first thing I would do is go to the trashcan and pull put GPU3,” Lutes says. “I’d put it on the table and say, ‘How can we make this work?’ It truly can work, which is what makes it so frustrating. Start with GPU3, and go from there, build something that urban planners and planners throughout the nation will look at and say, this is a real model. It has to work.”
It could work, but there is a lot of money and powerful interests pushing against a smart-growth plan. It’s a long shot. But so is Lutes.