Back to the Future
Looking back on the June 2007 election, and how Measure A saved the county.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Her leopard-print ballet flats clicked woefully up the US Supreme Courthouse steps. The girl reporter felt as if she had been here before—and written these same words. Covering the ongoing legal battles over the Monterey County general plan made her nostalgic for the good old days of land-use battles in the Salinas county courthouse. Things were much simpler then, with LandWatch’s Chris Fitz and Plan for the People’s Juan Uranga attacking each other verbally in the press and in front of the county supervisors (as opposed to actually discussing policy, of course) and the occasional smart-ass quip from supervisors Dave Potter or Butch Lindley. Ah, yes, she thought with a smile, twirling her curls, those were happier times, before the June 2007 election and the ensuing court fights.
Two years earlier, on June 5, 2007, the general plan war took a bizarre turn because of a rare election result. Initial results showed that exactly 50 percent of county voters approved the slow-growth Community General Plan Initiative, and 50 percent approved the supes’ GPU 4. (As many readers will recall, 89 percent voted “no” on the Butterfly Village golf-and-residential plan.)
A subsequent recount, loudly demanded by both sides, revealed that the citizens’ initiative had in fact won—by exactly one vote. This nearly dead-even tie shocked local residents (or, at least the 8 percent of them who voted). But it didn’t shock the girl reporter. Perhaps this was because she was smarter and more cynical (not to mention cuter, and in possession of a much keener fashion sense) than the rest of the land-use aficionados on the Central Coast. Or perhaps it was because she had been following the process for so long that she was quite sure about two things. First: Most voters want to preserve open space and agriculture land and allow farmers to build homes for their workers or sons and daughters on their Salinas Valley lots. And second, they were sick of the constant bickering and name-calling between the two sides.
Hmmm, on second thought, it could have been the June 4 party, hosted by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, at which winemakers promised discounts for locals in exchange for approval of the wine corridor provision of the general plan, which would allow processing facilities and onsite tasting rooms. Because if there’s one thing that enviros and Realtors both love, it’s a glass (or five) of Monterey County Chardonnay. Yes, that was some party, from what the girl reporter can remember. Measure A supporter Paula Lotz and attorney Brian Finegan doing the limbo…Monterey City Councilman Jeff Haferman skinny dipping…wait—did the girl reporter kiss Jennifer Aniston that night? She has a vague memory of the kiss. Or maybe she’s confusing herself with that former Friends star who now plays a tabloid TV reporter on that other TV show, Dirt.
Whatever the reason, the following day, voters approved both growth plans. And then the lawsuits started flying.
LandWatch immediately asked the Monterey County Superior Court to throw out GPU 4 because, according to the court papers, it violated the California Environmental Quality Act. Plan for the People immediately asked the Monterey County Superior Court to throw out the Community General Plan Initiative because, according to the court papers, it violated the California Environmental Quality Act. Butterfly Village developer Moe Nobari sued the County for $100 billion in lost revenue for the decades of delay on his project. The Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition asked the judge to grant Monterey County a restraining order against Nobari, sending him back to Marin County. LandWatch sued to force the supes to enact the anti-sprawl initiative; Plan for the People sued to force the supes to enact GPU 4; both sides countersued. Political consultant Carlos Ramos then sued…the girl reporter can’t remember why…he probably just wanted in on the action.
Anyway, when the dust settled, there were some 256 legal challenges to all of the June 2007 ballot measures and still no growth plan for the unincorporated parts of Monterey County.
Of course, nobody was happy with Judge Robert O’Farrell’s rulings in any of the lawsuits. And so, all parties appealed all of the decisions to the US District Court in San Jose. Again, no one liked Judge James Ware’s decisions, so they all filed appeals with a three-judge panel of the court, and then to an en banc panel of the court. And now, two years later, the girl reporter finds herself in Washington, DC, clicking up the marble steps of the US Supreme Court, prepared to witness attorneys for all sides tear each other’s eyes out—and make Monterey County famous as the site of the most contentious land-use battle in the history of the United States. Or maybe the world.
At the top of the courthouse steps, the girl reporter hears folk singing and twangy banjo noise. Why, it’s “farmer” Chris Bunn, Jr., and Common Ground’s Tom Carvey, wearing work boots, Wranglers and lots of plaid flannel, and singing about 2 million acres and no place to build a home, and Supervisor Lou Calcagno’s dead bull. Next to the singers, CHISPA’s Alfred Diaz-Infante sits on a hay bale and nibbles arugula and broccoli. Semi-hiding behind a conveniently-placed marble pillar, Lindley and Potter swig Monterey County wines straight from the bottle.
Then the girl reporter notices Supervisor Jane Parker and LandWatch’s Lupe Garcia standing silently, holding up a huge sign that says “Approve GPU 4 and we’re going to shoot this puppy.” A whimpering beagle lies at their feet. A little farther back, Carmel Valley incorporation proponents Glenn Robinson and Karin Strasser Kauffman hold signs demanding the right to vote on creating a town of Carmel Valley. Huh? Last time the girl reporter checked, their lawsuit was stalled in Monterey County Superior Court.
Finally, it’s time to enter the courthouse. After removing her coat, shoes, belt, handbag, and silver cuff bracelet, the girl reporter makes it through the security gates and guards, and into the building to wait for the fight to begin.
~ ~ ~
Despite the famously popular Weekly series, “Sex and the County,” the girl reporter’s hopes for a feature film didn’t go as planned. Other aspiring locals also saw their Hollywood dreams dashed. Cattlemen Association’s Jay Brown got skipped over for the lead in The Assassination of Jesse James. The producers cast Brad Pitt instead. Clint Eastwood never returned calls from LandWatch’s Chris Fitz about starring in Flags of Our Fathers. It turns out Clint figured Ryan Phillippe was the better choice. Legal thrillers are so 1990s, so it looks like attorney Christine Kemp is flat out of luck. And the girl reporter still waits for Mr. Big. As in: Oscar. Surely her brilliant performances deserve a nod from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies—if not the Academy. But because the movie never got made, the entire cast of characters sit here today, inside the US Supreme Court, awaiting the fate of the Monterey County General Plan.
We all rise as the justices enter the chambers, which, by the way, look just like the movies. Attorney Fred Woocher, representing LandWatch, talks first.
“Your honors,” he begins, and then he’s cut off by Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Why didn’t your clients stick it out, first with the Refinement Group discussions and then with the GPU 4 hearing process?” Roberts says.
Woocher: “Your honor, the process in Monterey County is broken. County supervisors have made a mockery of the democratic system. LandWatch participated in the community workshops and the first three rounds of hearings, in front of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. But unfortunately, the supervisors have been bought by big-moneyed landowners, and no longer listen to the will of the people. My clients had no choice but to take their smart-growth plan directly to the voters.”
Justice Antonin Scalia: “Plan for the People represents a broad coalition of Monterey County residents—farmers, ranchers, hospitality workers, affordable housing developers, Realtors, union organizers, every single Latino elected in Monterey County and most of the local Republicans. If the Community General Plan Initiative is such a good land-use constitution for the county, why do all of these groups oppose it?”
Woocher: “Your honor, they’ve all been bought by big-development interests…”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Or is it NIMBYism in Monterey County? Your clients all own houses in Carmel Valley or on the Peninsula, do they not? They’ve got theirs, and they don’t care if poor people or small family farmers are forced out.”
Woocher: “Your honor, some of my clients live in Prunedale.”
The justices’ questioning doesn’t get any easier for attorney Tony Lombardo, hired by Plan for the People, primarily because they figured his dashing smile would charm the steely judges.
Justice Stephen Breyer: “Mr. Lombardo, is it true that your clients have pumped millions of dollars into the supervisors’ election campaigns?”
Lombardo: “My clients have a constitutional right to dole money to political campaigns. So does LandWatch.”
Justice Samuel Alito: “Don’t developers and Realtors have a financial interest in promoting a land-use plan that allows rampant development in virtually every unincorporated parcel in Monterey County?”
Lombardo: “Your honor, my clients have a financial interest in preserving Monterey County’s lettuce fields, and grape vines and magnificent coastline. My clients don’t want to pave paradise.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy: “But isn’t it true that the landowners in the Salinas Valley would make more money subdividing their farms and ranches, and selling the land to developers who want to grow houses instead of lettuce?”
Lombardo: “Your honor, my clients want to remain in farming, which is why we need to protect private property rights and save ag land from LandWatch and let farmers—the best stewards of their own land—decide what they want to do with their farms.”
The justices are all scowling. Murmurs of disgust echo through the courtroom. Somehow the BS that people in Monterey County have grown accustomed to sounds petty and cynical in the hallowed chambers. People on both sides are beginning to fear that they each could lose if this farce is allowed to play out.
Suddenly, from their seats in the back of the courtroom, Carvey and Fitz leap into the air, clasping their hands together. “Wait!” Fitz yells. “We did it! We agreed on a general plan!”
“We all compromised a little, and we’ve created a 20-year plan for growth in Monterey County that doesn’t have any unintended consequences!” Carvey adds. “It’s good for farmers and farmland.”
The shock in the courtroom is palpable. Jaws drop while bodies strain to turn and stare at the two men, smiling and hugging each other in the back of the courtroom. It’s difficult to hear what they’re saying from where she sits, but it sounds to the girl reporter like the two men are now planning a group vacation, a Caribbean cruise or something. This, thinks the girl reporter, is the biggest thing to happen inside these hallowed walls since Bush v. Gore. But how, in fact, did it all happen?
~ ~ ~
Some relationships are doomed from the start. But in Monterey County, maybe the farmer and the cow man and the enviro can be friends. Maybe it is possible to put the past behind you, kiss and make up.
While waiting for the US Supreme Court to hear their cases, all sides in the general plan wars had months to consider their arguments—and the very real possibility that the court may not give any of them what they really wanted in a land-use document. So they sequestered themselves in some old, abandoned Army barracks on Fort Ord, and without any assistance from outside political consultants or Armanasco PR flacks (but with some assistance from several bottles of Monterey County wine), Plan for the People and LandWatch decided to give it a go.
Months later, outside the US Supreme Court, with court watchers still reeling from the events inside the chambers, the girl reporter decides it’s cocktail time. She wants to have a drink with new BFFs, LandWatch and Plan for the People, and find out how the consensual compromise came to be. If only they all could break free from the TV crews.
“Don’t leave yet!” screams KSBW’s Felix Cortez, flanked by assistant producers all standing on step-stools, touching up Cortez’ camera-ready makeup and spraying his thick, black hair, to produce that authoritative-yet-slightly-tousled look. Once his hair and makeup is done, Cortez strides over to Carvey and Fitz. (It takes the camera crew twice as long to make it over to Carvey and Fitz. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with Cortez unless one is also 7 feet tall.)
Cortez turns and faces the camera, a serious look on his face. “After 10 years and $10 million, the general plan saga ends here. In a historic moment, LandWatch and Plan for the People have agreed to put aside their many, many differences, and work together on a growth document.”
He turns to Carvey. “Tom Carvey, you probably used to despise this man standing next to you.” Cortez gestures to Fitz. “Now, you’re planning an island getaway together. How do you feel?”
Somehow, between the courthouse steps serenade, the legal proceedings themselves and the present, Carvey managed to change out of his hoedown garb, and into khakis, a blue blazer and a monkey tie. The girl reporter is quite impressed.
“Thank God for Measure A!” Carvey exclaims. “It made us all realize that voters were serious about taking control of land-use policies in Monterey County.”
Suddenly, Lombardo jumps into view. (He probably didn’t want to see Carvey hogging the camera.) “Chris Fitz is my hero!” he yells, flashing his gleaming white teeth. The girl reporter thinks he had them bleached for the occasion.
“LandWatch worked alongside builders and affordable housing advocates and Realtors to develop the city of Salinas’ affordable housing policies,” Fitz says to Cortez. “Once we got rid of political consultants Tom Shepard and Andre Charles, we realized that we all value farmland and clean air and water and affordable houses that will remain affordable in perpetuity and are built near transit routes and schools and shopping centers so that people don’t have to drive everywhere, congesting our roads and highways and polluting our air.”
Cortez looks choked up. He says he needs a drink. We invite him to join us at the bar. “Wait! Can I come, too?” A man with curly brown hair and glasses, wearing black slacks and Burberry (or at least Burberry-inspired) sneakers runs over. There’s an audible groan. It’s Plan for the People’s political consultant Andre Charles. The huge group—now it truly is representative of all the diverse interests in Monterey County—ignores the poor man and marches toward martinis.
~ ~ ~
Too many cocktails can lead to many compromising positions. But it turns out that it didn’t take much to push both sides in the general plan debate closer together. There’s a little something for everyone in the new, compromise general plan—kinda like those fish-bowl margaritas with 20 straws and as many different types of alcohol, popular with the 21st-birthday crowd.
“Remember when, during the first Refinement Group meeting, we all couldn’t even agree when to start and end the meetings?” laughs Planning Commissioner Nancy Isakson, who also works with the Independent Growers Association and Salinas Valley Water Coalition. “And that silly fight we had over the thumbs up, thumbs down and thumbs sideways hand signals?” Isakson, a brunette with great cheek bones, wears a vintage rhinestone broche on her tweed jacket. She reaches into a bowl of bar fare Chex mix she’s sharing with Jane Parker. Parker wears a forest green suit that complements her porcelain skin and red hair.
“Who’d have thought that we would end up agreeing on future growth areas?” Parker says, sipping a cold beer. “The Community General Plan Initiative planned for future growth in five community areas; GPU 4 planned for growth in seven community areas, nine rural centers, 26 property owner requests, 16 special treatment areas, eight study areas, 576 new units in Carmel Valley and 1,200 units outside the community areas and rural centers. What was so hard about going back to GPU 3, and allowing urban development in eight unincorporated community areas: Boronda, Castroville, Chualar, Fort Ord, Pajaro, San Lucas, Pine Canyon and Rancho San Juan?”
“CHISPA wants to build affordable housing in San Lucas,” says Diaz-Infante, CHISPA’s CEO, wearing a smartly tailored charcoal suit. “So we’re glad to see San Lucas—and Pine Canyon—included in the general plan. And we never understood why LandWatch deleted the 100 percent affordable housing overlay zone in rural areas from the initiative. That was the only thing that we all agreed upon in the Refinement Group meetings. These changes will make it easier for CHISPA to build affordable housing in the Valley.”
The love-fest continues around the table as once-bitter adversaries discuss what Monterey County will look like in the future: Prime farmland will be preserved and farmers will be allowed to ask county supervisors for a permit to allow them to build extra onsite homes for farmworkers and family members.
“And the new plan doesn’t block construction of processing and storage facilities for wine growers,” says Pessagno Winery’s Steve Pessagno. “Now our grapes won’t have to ship out on trucks to be processed in Napa. Plus artisan wineries aren’t restricted to a 40-acre minimum. If they’re in the Wine Corridor, they can carve out five acres.”
“Just so long as they go through the environmental review process,” adds Jan Mitchell, of the Prunedale Neighbors’ Group. Mitchell speaks in a southern drawl and wears her platinum curls piled on top of her head. “I don’t want to see River Road become another Highway 101.”
The girl reporter can’t help sighing. It’s so romantic. Kinda like that Mexico vacation with Mr. Big. Well, almost like that.
Finally, these crazy kids have all realized that they are meant to be together. They finish the cocktails and exit to the waiting jets, which fly them back to Monterey County. They’re ready to begin the next phase of their relationship, and write the next chapter of the county’s bright future.