Cottage of Cards
Carmel Valley assisted living project nears completion, despite legal challenges.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
After a nearly decade-long planning and permitting process, a 78-bed assisted living facility in Carmel Valley faces a new legal battle over environmental rules.
The lawsuit, filed June 1 by Save Our Peninsula Committee, follows a February complaint alleging the county showed a “callous disregard” for the California Environmental Quality Act in approving the project.
The complaint calls to reinstate mitigation conditions under the original Cottages of Carmel permit, first granted in 2004, requiring Alta Land Company developer Don Houpt to install a graywater system and underground cistern to supply irrigation water.
“When you use the water district’s standard rate for the amount of water per bed for this type of facility, it exceeded the allocated 4.8 acre-feet. If you did the math backward, you could only have 56 beds,” says Carl Holm, assistant planning director, of the 2004 assumption.
But a 2007 analysis by Axiom Engineers of Monterey found the project could stay well within the 4.8 acre-feet at 78 beds, even without a graywater system.
“When you use bad science and bad predictions and baloney assumptions, which is what we see in this project, then you have to ask questions,” says Richard Rosenthal, the Carmel Valley-based attorney representing Save Our Peninsula. “They’ve been gerrymandering to come up with these ridiculous rationalizations for deleting the mitigation measures.”
The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District issued a water permit based on Axiom’s report, though it was inconsistent with the conditions of the planning department’s permit. “So planning initiated the public hearing process to determine: revoke the permit because they’re not in compliance, or modify the permit to bring it into conformance with the conditions?” Holm says.
Rosenthal says the county doesn’t come down hard enough when writing and monitoring permit requirements.
A 2000 settlement with Rosenthal in favor of Save Our Peninsula required the Planning Department to hire a consultant to help develop a compliance monitoring system for all county projects. That system is still in use today.
Even then, as now, the county maintained it did nothing wrong, and acted in compliance with CEQA.
But Rosenthal says the county has not been following the terms of the 2000 settlement agreement.
The Planning Commission voted 5-3 in March to eliminate the graywater requirement. Carmel Valley Association appealed that decision to the Board of Supervisors, which voted in April to move forward without graywater.
Under the amended permit conditions, the development still must stay within its 4.8-acre-foot water allocation.
“The only one really at risk here is Mr. Houpt,” says Tony Lombardo, Houpt’s attorney. If the project exceeds its allocated water use, he’ll be forced to keep beds empty.
As to why Houpt won’t simply build a cistern to store rainwater, Lombardo says: “Well, the buildings are almost finished. It’s virtually impossible to install it at this point. I wish I could tell you why it wasn’t put in to begin with.”
Houpt has borrowed $22 million for the project. Estimated costs of the graywater system were unavailable.
A preliminary injunction hearing in Monterey Superior Court is scheduled for July 1.