The Long War
We can have a say about the future of Monterey County.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Has it turned into a civil war? This is the question of the week. It’s in every newspaper and on every news-talk program on TV and radio. It’s everywhere. My sweetheart even asked for my opinion on the topic at the breakfast table this morning.
I hadn’t had my second cup of coffee yet, so I was groggy. Plus I was cranky because I was worrying about work—thinking about an article in these pages. I was thinking about the General Plan.
“Civil war?” I said. “No. It’s an invasion. Sure, everyone is calling it a civil war—Rich Environmentalists against Regular People Who Need Houses. But that’s a crock. This is a fight against an invading army of Suburbanites From Somewhere Else who want to build a gazillion ugly tract houses here, who don’t care anything about Monterey County except that the weather’s better than Texas or Michigan or wherever.
“And the developers who want their money, and the politicians who want the developers’ money…”
I paused to take a sip of coffee. I looked up from the newspaper. My sweetie was gone. I was sermonizing to an empty chair. Oh well. She’d heard all of this from me before.
I could hear the shower running. I shouted toward the bathroom: “Civil war? Hell no! This is an attack by colonizers who want to turn the Salinas Valley into Bakersfield!”
I could hear that she was singing.
I do not blame her. I do not blame anyone for being bored sick or frustrated to tears with local land-use politics. I do not blame anyone whose eyelids become heavy when they espy a story dealing with Planning Commissioners or inclusionary housing or LandWatch or “supes.”
And I understand why any loyal Weekly reader might violently cringe at the words “General Plan.” I understand that better than anyone.
Over the past five and a half years, I have edited something like 1,327 stories about the General Plan Update. I have closely followed three full-blown year-long efforts, each of which involved many, many meetings, documents as thick as the Bakersfield phonebook, hours and hours of labor by bureaucrats and volunteer activists, offers of compromise (some sincere, some phony), thousands of promises, hundreds of lies, millions of dollars—and more meetings. And each of those massive efforts produced diddly squat.
Time and again, the majority of the Board of Supervisors refused to follow the will of the people who want to keep Monterey County from being overrun with sprawl. The supes would not accept any plan that created real limits to growth—limits that distressed the powerful elite, who stand to reap obscene profits from unbridled development. Instead of forging a compromise, the supes demanded “consensus,” and the powerful pro-growth forces refused to bend.
Watching this undemocratic display year after year has been disheartening. Only once, two years ago, was there a glimmer of hope. Perhaps worn down by years of battle, the slow-growthers made numerous concessions to the go-go-growthers. A compromise plan, General Plan Update 3, won the unanimous approval of the Planning Commission; County staff green-lighted it for passage; everyone who had worked for years on this thing crossed their fingers and held their breath—and the supes killed it.
The supes killed it because a handful of powerful landowners and developers weren’t satisfied with it. And soon thereafter, the supes began working with those same powerful landowners and developers on a new plan—GPU4.
Meanwhile, anti-sprawl activists gathered 15,000 signatures to get their own plan qualified for the ballot as a voters’ initiative. But the supes refused to place the General Plan Initiative on the ballot—claiming to believe that it violated the Voting Rights Act because it was not circulated in Spanish.
That was the low point in a years-long story that is suffused with cynicism and rank arrogance. This Board of County Supervisors is going to do what it wants to do. Screw democracy.
So I understand wanting to go hide in the shower and stick your fingers in your ears and sing a little song, “Fa la la la la!” But this is the wrong time to do that. (No offense, honey.)
• • •
The County Supervisors have vowed to adopt a General Plan Update before the end of the year. To meet this self-imposed deadline, they are rushing through the legally required procedures of disclosure, review and hearings.
Opponents have complained that because of this accelerated schedule, they are not being given adequate time to study the GPU4 document and prepare responses. Predictably, their complaints are being ignored.
The supes have not given a credible reason as to why they are in such a hurry to shave a few weeks or months off a process that has taken eight years. Several explanations spring easily to mind.
For one, the supervisors know it is likely that a judge will order them to schedule a public vote for the General Plan Initiative. They may well believe that putting their own General Plan on the books will create a barrier to the citizens’ initiative. (Last week, a court ordered that the General Plan Initiative be reconsidered, and the Voting Rights Act argument has been dismissed in several similar cases.)
Or perhaps the Board wants to ensure that GPU4 comes to a vote before Butch Lindley leaves office at the end of the year—the lame-duck South County supervisor is an ardent supporter of the pro-growth plan. Simon Salinas, the termed-out State Assemblyman, who returns to the Board to take Lindley’s seat in January, had a mixed voting record on environmental issues during his previous tenure as a supervisor in the 1990s.
Whatever the reasons for rushing the vote on the General Plan, there’s nothing particularly devious about this strategy. This is politics, after all, and scheduling a vote on a controversial measure to ensure its passage is smart politics. But it’s bad governance.
A General Plan is supposed to codify a community’s values in order to guide future growth. The process of writing a new General Plan creates an opportunity to make some big decisions that, down the road, will make countless smaller decisions easier.
If the supervisors succeed in passing this General Plan Update, steamrollering a large segment of the community, it will be no victory. Nothing will have been resolved. One big fight will be over, and hundreds of smaller fights will follow.
Meanwhile, the leaders of our County government will have dealt another rude blow to their constituents’ faith in local democracy.
• • •
Three weeks ago, many of us got to feel what it’s like when democracy works the way we want it to work. We longed for change, we voted for change, and we can now believe that we might just get it. We can feel some hope that things will get better in important ways, and along with that hope a sense of empowerment—a belief that we can in fact have a voice in deciding our nation’s future.
In the next few weeks, another big decision will be made that will affect the future, but we will not have much of a say in this decision. The General Plan process has none of the drama and weight of a national election, and yet it will make a big difference in our lives, because it could change the face of Monterey County.
Last Sunday, the Herald ran a courageous editorial calling on everyone in Monterey County to demand that the County Supervisors put the General Plan Initiative on the ballot for a public vote. The editorial ended with a terrific line: “It’s time for everyone who believes in fair play and democracy to remind the supervisors that they were elected to listen and lead, not to dictate.”
There will be two public hearings on the General Plan next week: Tuesday, Dec. 5 at 9:30am, and Wednesday, Dec. 6, at 1:30pm. Both take place in the Supervisors’ Chambers, 168 W. Alisal St., Salinas. Send letters to that address.
E-MAILS should be addressed to individual Supervisors: Fernando Armenta, email@example.com; Lou Calcagno, firstname.lastname@example.org; Butch Lindley, email@example.com; Jerry Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org; Dave Potter, email@example.com.