A Democratic Plan
Thursday, May 10, 2007
American politics experiences its greatest seismic shifts when citizens respond to the misuse or abuse of power. In Monterey County, the earth is shaking. There’s a growing revolt in response to a county Board of Supervisors that has made some awful decisions that appear downright hostile to the public. No supervisor is up for reelection, but the board’s power is being challenged in this month’s watershed election. Business-as-usual may never be the same.
One of the supervisors’ principal roles is to update the county’s general plan—to create a long-range strategy for how and where we should grow. During a tumultuous seven-year process, the supervisors repeatedly failed to produce such a document.
So now, after hundreds of community meetings, voters will finally get to weigh in on which plan will better shape the community for the future, better control urban sprawl onto farmland, protect open space, contain traffic, and support the economy.
Voters will answer these essential questions:
Should the public have direct control of land use and development decisions, or should local citizens leave their fate in the hands our five elected county supervisors? Which is the best land-use plan for the county: the citizen-sponsored General Plan Initiative, GPI, (Measure A), put on the ballot when more than 16,000 voters signed the initiative, or the supervisor’s GPU4 (Measure C), adopted by the county supervisors last month?
Here’s some background.
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The population in California and Monterey County is growing fast. Our state—and particularly Monterey County—has both the wealthiest and the poorest communities under one jurisdiction. Those who can afford steeply rising prices seek to live closer to the coast, pushing the cost of real estate higher countywide while the lower- and middle-class residents are pushed inland.
The rise in coastal real estate prices coupled with a rapid population increase, both from internal growth and new immigrants, is creating a host of problems: lack of affordable housing for workers; lack of infrastructure to handle the population growth; increased traffic on all county roads; over-drafting of limited water reserves; and, due to specific decisions, conversion of farmland to urban use, otherwise known as sprawl.
Thus, there are more pressures on government to provide adequate services to meet the community’s needs. Economically-strapped state and local governments have been cutting funds for higher education, child care, social services, health care, libraries, and the arts—programs that help make a community strong. And there’s little money for the county to address our growing infrastructure needs. For example, congestion on the Highway 68 corridor between Monterey and Salinas has been a daily problem for years, but a plan to resolve the gridlock emerged only recently.
By and large our local and state governments—as a result of a tedious political process and the way that politics works in general—have not responded to the changes fast enough, nor with visionary leadership. Not that the solutions are easy.
The lack of affordable housing impacts Monterey County when wages for workers in the county’s leading industries (agriculture and hospitality) are at the low end of the scale, while our housing costs are at the top end nationwide. How best to address this complex issue?
Should the community subsidize homes and offer them to low- and moderate-income residents? Can our government set aside money for loans for first-time homebuyers? What about rental assistance programs? When housing development projects are approved, what percentage of the new housing stock should meet the affordable housing standard?
CHISPA, one of the leading advocates for affordable housing in the county, has built 2,000 homes in its 27-year history. The Housing Authority has added more. Despite these efforts, it’s questionable whether we will be able to keep up with the growing need—due to either a lack of money or political will. The Association of Bay Area Governments (AMBAG) estimates we will need around 4,000 new affordable homes in the next decade.
While this election is not specifically about affordable housing, it allows voters to decide what percentage of new developments should be mandated as affordable, and where they ought to be located. It’s really about sprawl, the hidden taxes that will be required to pay for growth, and what the future of this county looks like.
AG AND OPEN SPACE
Take a look at places like Orange County or Santa Clara County, and you’ll see what happens when landowners cash in, and how the community loses. Without visionary planning, some way to constrain the power of money, and some agreements on what’s best for the community versus the individual property owner, agriculture-based economies can be overrun by housing developments, traffic and a lower quality of life. The orange groves and plum orchards are gone from those two counties, replaced by acres and acres of houses.
We believe that California’s agricultural-based economies are worth better protection, particularly our agricultural economy.
The long-term sustainability of Monterey County agriculture could be jeopardized at the rate we’re going. We may never look the same as San Jose, but haphazard development will encroach on our farmlands.
The county’s elected leaders have not shown much respect for protecting ag land—or open space in general. Over nearly 20 years, since this newspaper has been covering county government, there has been growing distrust of elected officials when it comes to land-use decisions. That distrust proved to be justified seven years ago, when it came to light that a developer’s attorney was ghostwriting documents for the county planning department, and even using the county seal to stamp documents written by his law firm. That case cost the county more than $500,000 in fines and legal fees, and made it clear that developers and their representatives had special access to our county government.
Several recent projects have fueled public distrust: the approval of the Rancho San Carlos high-end housing development in Carmel Valley, which was scaled back thanks to public referendum; the approval of the Tehama and Monterra Ranch high-end development, controversial due to water and traffic issues; the approval of September Ranch’s proposed housing project, which has incited two lawsuits, one now in court; the approval and construction of the Pasadera housing and golf project, even though the traffic on Highway 68 was already over capacity.
And then there was the mother of them all, Rancho San Juan, 2,500 acres of open space and grazing land north of Salinas near Prunedale.
THE TIPPING POINT
In 2005, the board approved Rancho San Juan (RSJ), a development of up to 4,000 homes—a decision that may have stirred the hornet’s nest.
There was general agreement the project didn’t have enough water, that the additional 70,000 daily car trips would overwhelm an already busy corridor on Highway 101, that neither golf course nor golf villas were suited for that part of the county. So a group of citizens exercised their right to call a referendum on the supes’ vote by gathering more than 16,000 signatures in 28 days. It qualified for the November 2006 election.
Rancho San Juan went to a vote and was defeated in a landslide—rejected by 72 percent of voters. But a funny thing happened on the way to the voting booth.
Just before the election, the supervisors withdrew their approval of the project, making the vote moot. Then, thumbing their noses at voters and the democratic process, the supervisors did a really devious thing: They approved a section of RSJ known as Butterfly Village, which included 1,147 homes, 80 villas and a golf course, undermining all that democratic activity.
The supes claimed that pending litigation forced their hand, but there’s a great deal of disagreement around that assumption. Did the developer even have a legal right to build on the property as he claimed?
They feared a lawsuit from the developer. Instead they got one from the citizen-activists that had worked to stop RSJ, who sued to overturn the approval of Butterfly Village.
At around the same time, three Latino citizens filed a lawsuit against the County, claiming that the Butterfly Village referendum violated the Voting Rights Act because the petition was not circulated in Spanish. In fact, Monterey County does have a history of disenfranchising Latino voters. Because that was proven in a successful lawsuit more than 15 years ago, the County’s voting practices are overseen by a federal court.
At any rate, the County declined to fight the Voting Rights Act lawsuit, and so the anti-RSJ group had no choice but to fight it at their own expense. They argued that the law does not require initiatives to be circulated in Spanish (although ballots must be presented in both English and Spanish).
Ultimately the 9th District Court concurred. After all the expense, distrust and division caused by the Board of Supervisors’ actions (and inaction), the Butterfly Village portion of Rancho San Juan will finally be voted on in this election (Measure D).
SAME STORY, DIFFERENT DAY
The public’s disdain for the county board has been growing, year by year, project by project, bad decision by bad decision, lawsuit by lawsuit. If the electoral process wasn’t so cumbersome, if the public had the time and resources to really understand how bad it is, these county officials might have been tossed out long ago.
Our board started the project of updating the general plan in 2000. They’ve had several drafts under scrutiny, and more than $7 million of taxpayer money has been spent. Seven years later, most involved in the process are deeply divided. Outsiders can see that the issue has been highly politicized, that agreements were made and then retracted, that both sides are deeply entrenched.
It’s yet another failure of leadership in government— too common these days—only this time we can’t point our fingers towards Washington, DC. The buck stops in Salinas at the county offices.
After the third revision (GPU3) failed, some citizens involved in the process, led by LandWatch Monterey County, decided that the community’s best interests seemed doomed. As a nonprofit community watchdog, LandWatch has no financial interest from a general plan, so it was a call worth heeding.
So LandWatch went off and built its own coalition and wrote their own general plan (Measure A), modeled after an initiative that passed in Ventura County. They circulated the General Plan Initiative (GPI) and gathered more than 16,000 signatures. The board of supervisors approved the GPI for the June ballot.
And concurrently, the board of supervisors finally passed their own general plan, called GPU4.
In their wisdom—or arrogance—they decided the voters should be able to vote for both of the plans at once.
YES YES NO NO
So Measure A is the General Plan Initiative, put on the ballot by the force of over 16,000 signatures from locals.
Measure B asks if you want to repeal the supervisor’s General Plan measure (GPU4). (A “No” vote is really a vote for the supervisors’ plan.)
Measure C asks if you want to adopt the supervisor’s plan (GPU4). (In this case, a “Yes” vote is a vote for the supervisors’ plan.)
Measure D is a referendum on Butterfly Village, a subset of the monstrous Rancho San Juan project. (A “Yes” vote is a vote for the development.)
By deciding between Measure A and its counterparts (B and C), voters get to say whether the existing process for approving development projects and subdividing land in our county—now exclusively in the hands of the board of supervisors—is the process that the community wants. Measure A would require a community-wide vote for major development projects and subdivisions outside of five “community areas,” which are located near cities and close to existing infrastructure.
Measures B and C keep the status quo, with control for growth and planning in the supervisors’ hands.
Most developers, of course, don’t want to ask the public for approval, a process requiring time and expense to build collaboration and work with open decision-making. They’d rather persuade three supervisors—this old-fashioned way has worked pretty well for them.
It’s important to recognize that both the GPI and GPU4 will allow for significant growth. The GPI focuses the development in the five community areas: Pajaro, Castroville, Fort Ord, Boronda and Chualar. GPU4 has a much broader area for development, less contained and less restrictive. On top of more than 40,000 new homes already approved for development in the county, the GPI would allow 10,620 addition units to be built, compared to the supervisor’s 21,517 units. Both of those numbers exceed the growth forecast needs of AMBAG, according to the League of Women Voters.
Under either plan, the traffic in our county will worsen, but the differences between the plans are significant.
Under the GPI daily car trips on our county roads will increase by about 130,000 per day; if GPU4 is adopted, we will see an increase of 250,000 daily trips, according the League of Women Voter’s analysis.
And while GPU4 does require new development to pay for construction of roads, the experience of Rancho San Carlos and Pasadera tells us that the county may not strictly enforce these requirements, nor ensure the mitigations work. After all, the county had a “traffic trigger” in place in Carmel Valley to curtail new development until the traffic congestion was mitigated, and even though the trigger went off years ago, the county has not acted.
In addition to traffic congestion, all of these extra cars will cost taxpayers money. The expected road costs if Rancho San Juan is approved would approach $600 million.
Each general plan has an affordable housing element, and their differences are complicated. The General Plan Initiative requires that a higher percentage of new units be permanently affordable, requiring that at least 30 percent of new homes built in four of the designated community areas be affordable, and 40 percent in the Fort Ord community area. GPU4 requires that only 16 percent of new units be affordable, including 20 percent in its designated community areas.
Another key difference between the two plans is that agricultural farmland will be better protected under GPI—an issue that is critical for our economy, for job preservation, and to maintain the quality of life here in Monterey County.
The county has more than 300,000 acres in crop production today with a production value of over $3.3 billion annually. But our prime farmlands are at risk. We have the worst ratio in the entire state for converting farmland to urban uses, according to Ed Thompson, the California director of the American Farmland Trust.
Only 10 percent of all the farmland in the Central Coast region is considered high-quality (prime, unique and of statewide importance), and most of it is in the Salinas Valley. Unfortunately, it’s this very land that has the worst conversion rate from farming to urban uses.
Between 1990 and 2004, Monterey County has lost nearly 9,000 acres of land (farmland and open space) to urban uses—and 44 percent of this land was considered prime agricultural land by the California Department of Conservation. The statewide average during the same period was 28 percent.
It’s important to realize that the average density of every developed acre in Monterey County is 6.8 people to the acre; in Ventura County the density is much higher—9.2 people to the developed acre (affordable housing advocates, take note).
It’s easy to understand why farmland is at risk when considering the economics. The approximate value of an acre of farmed land in the county, when one farmer sells it to another, is about $20,000. In comparison, an acre of farmland sold to a developer, who converts it into a residential subdivision for housing, is at least $200,000, and can fetch up to $400,000.
We can celebrate the fact that 12,230 acres of farmland has been permanently preserved through the Monterey County Agricultural and Historical Land Conservancy over the past 16 years through conservation easements. But without significant policy changes and stricter protection, our prime ag lands are under siege, and could be paved over parcel by parcel.
The loss of farmland to housing is not temporary—it’s forever. With haphazard leapfrog development in the undeveloped unincorporated area, the net result is a greater loss of farmland and increased urban sprawl.
Again, this election gives the community a choice. According to the League of Women Voters, the General Plan Initiative would result in an estimated loss of 600 acres of agricultural land while the supervisor’s plan would convert over 4,900 acres. A “yes” vote on Measure A is a vote to protect and preserve prime farmlands.
We are also a county dependent on the tourist trade, so it’s fair to consider how these measures will impact the hospitality industry.
The wine corridor that was part of GPU3 (the compromise plan unfortunately killed by the board of supervisors) would have made it easier for vintners to build wineries, as well as tasting rooms, bed-and-breakfasts and other facilities to draw tourists. Partly because it was not included in the citizen’s general plan, the Hospitality Association has actively opposed the GPI.
However, current farmland zoning allows vineyards to build accessory structures, support facilities, and processing plants. And Measure A does not change existing land-use designations or zoning provisions. These uses allowed now would be allowed under the GPI. So, as long as the zoning doesn’t change, wineries ought to be able to add tasting rooms and crushing facilities, without having to hold a countywide election to ask for voters’ approval. The outstanding reputation of our county’s wines will only continue. As to whether bed and breakfasts or wedding facilities would be approved, that would depend on the existing zoning of the parcel in question. Our growing wine and hospitality industry will continue to flourish under the General Plan Initiative.
BUSINESS AND COMMUNITY
It’s a fact that most of the elected Latino leaders in the county oppose the General Plan Initiative. That’s unfortunate, because it’s clear that GPI provides more self-determination for all voters. Groups like the Center for Community Advocacy (CCA) and Community Housing Improvement Systems and Planning Association (CHISPA) have long fought for these rights, and we can hope they’ll become supporters of the General Plan Initiative once it’s in place.
Bill Melendez, an important long-time Latino activist and past president of the state LULAC, has endorsed GPI. Since GPI reduces the power of the elected supervisors, it’s not surprising that supervisors Salinas and Armenta strongly oppose it; no politician likes to lose his or her power. But that’s exactly the motivation of GPI—to shift the power back to the community-at-large, away from a system that is failing us.
We can also hope that the community’s business leaders, including representatives of the Realtor’s Association, will come to see the benefits of GPI, a plan that better contains sprawl, minimizes traffic increases, and protects open space and prime ag land. The beauty of our open spaces, relative ease of travel on our roads (compared to the Bay Area), and lack of sprawl are the reasons that our tourist industry is so strong, and why so many visitors want to live here.
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DON’T BE FOOLED
One final note: The fact that the supervisors put two competing and conflicting measures (B and C) on the ballot is telling, and shows their true colors. They know that historically, when voters are confused, they vote “no” on ballot measures. They want you to be confused in the hopes that you’ll vote no on Measure B, thereby adopting GPU4. It’s trickery at its worst, and we believe the voters are smarter than the supervisors know.
The story of Monterey County’s land-use policy is one crazy tale; it’s sad and disheartening. But that story can have a good ending.
It’s estimated that only about 40 percent of registered voters will vote June 5. Here at the Weekly, we wish that number were higher, and encourage you to vote. Measure A may not please the supervisors, but it will serve this county best for many years to come.