Defending the county before Monterey County Superior Court Judge Kay Kingsley on Sept. 23, Deputy County Counsel Kay Reimann got poetic about North County’s limited water supply.
“If you have the moon and the stars aligned, it should work and there will be a net increase,” she says. “But there were large assumptions.”
Reimann was defending the county’s denial of a proposed 32-lot subdivision on 80 acres of oak-studded hills in Aromas, named for the trees it would build around: Heritage Oaks.
But it’s not the trees at issue here, it’s water. The would-be developers contend a recharge system would result in a net increase for the water table. Opponents, including land-use watchdogs Aromas Citizens for Planned Growth and LandWatch Monterey County, say that’s not true—unless Reimann’s cosmic alignment produces just the right combination of predicted rainfall and percolation.
The County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors each ultimately sided with the water skeptics and denied the project. (After the Planning Commission denial in 2009, the developers appealed to the Board of Supervisors, where they lost again in 2010.)
Now Kingsley will interpret how the project would impact the aquifer—and whether the county was justified in rejecting it. Her decision is due Dec. 23.
“Your argument is that the county disregarded the experts.”
Los Gatos-based attorney John Shepardson laid out Heritage Oaks’ argument, claiming the supervisors misread the water reports completed as part of the environmental impact report.
“The project should’ve been approved,” Shepardson said in court. “It can’t be based on speculation or a guess.”
Kingsley hinted she was leaning toward the county’s side. “It seems as though your argument is that the county disregarded all the experts,” she said, “but a lot of the experts did characterize their support as ‘if this, if that.’”
What makes this case particularly interesting is that the county will find itself arguing the opposite side—in favor of approving a development—in a lawsuit by the Highway 68 Coalition over a planned Corral de Tierra shopping center, where a similar water recharge system helped get the project approved on appeal.
The developers, sisters Marcella Zobel and Star Mallory, with contractor Wayne Holman (also an Aromas Water District board member), proposed the subdivision in 1999. They spent $360,000 over 10 years on the environmental impact report.
What happened during that decade, from the time they first began the application process to the project denial, is also an issue in this lawsuit. The developers say it wasn’t until well after they began preparing environmental documents that the county acknowledged the overdraft, and the project should be approved based on 1999 standards.
In a 2005 letter to Holman, County Planning and Building Services Manager Ann Towner wrote, “There might not be a long-term sustainable use of water for the Heritage Oaks subdivision.”
Zobel says the opposition caught her off guard. “We’re local people, we’re not foreign developers,” she says. “We’re continually puzzled. We thought we were benefitting the community.”