Planning Commish blocks MST expansion plan in defense of the trees.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
It’s cliché to name subdivisions after the habitats they pave over. But in the case of Whispering Oaks, a proposed 58-acre business park on the former Fort Ord, the name’s irony didn’t go unnoticed. On March 9, the county Planning Commission unanimously signaled its intent to reject the Redevelopment Agency project, which would mow down up to 4,400 oaks.
The vote dampened Monterey-Salinas Transit’s plans for a 24-acre maintenance and administrative facility on the site. Proponents say the project would cut greenhouse gas emissions by expanding bus services and consolidating MST’s operations, now spread between three maxed-out facilities in Salinas and Monterey.
County Redevelopment and Housing Director Jim Cook emphasized plans to mitigate the tree loss with one-to-one replanting. He also noted the financial perks of the project, including the potential for a $30 million low-interest federal loan and the creation of almost 1,000 local jobs.
“They’re bringing a $100 million construction project to Monterey County at a time it’s desperately needed,” he said.
MST CEO/General Manager Carl Sedoryk says ridership has grown at twice the pace of the county’s population over the past two decades, and service routes have likewise expanded, but the agency is increasingly cramped in aging facilities. “I don’t have room to add another bus to my fleet because frankly, we’re out of space,” he says.
During public comment, five people argued against the tree cutting, and the commissioners were on the same page. It’s difficult for private developers to get permission to cut even a few trees, Keith Vandevere noted; allowing a county project to hack thousands “raises something of a red flag in terms of fairness.”
“I really believe MST needs to grow,” added Cosme Padilla. “I was hoping they would pick a better site than this.”
The commissioners indicated they’d be more sympathetic to the project if it were located on one of Fort Ord’s already blighted areas. But project planners said they’re merely following the Fort Ord Reuse Plan: The former Army landfill site is zoned industrial, with existing water allocations and a habitat plan.
Sedoryk worries the rejection will stall MST’s growth. A delay means fewer opportunities for federal funding, he says, and $4 million lost on project planning. “There is no more money left.”
The commission will vote on project denial April 13. An appeal would head to the Board of Supervisors, but Cook says his agency is pausing to consider the apparent new policy direction.
“When you read between the lines, that’s what they’re saying: The adopted [Fort Ord] Reuse Plan is wrong,” he says. “It does put staff in an awkward place.”