When you assume, as they say, you make an ass out of “u” and me. Or should it be a horse?

Opponents of Monterey Downs, a proposed mixed-use development including a horse racetrack on the former Fort Ord, hope an apparent false assumption can bring the whole project down.

Downs straddles land controlled by the city of Seaside, which is the project lead, and a larger portion held by the unincorporated county. The city proposes to annex the county’s 500-plus acres.

But there are no current agreements guaranteeing such a transfer, according to Carl Holm, deputy director of the County Resource Management Agency. Anti-Downs activists hope that leaves a window for the county to preserve the land as recreational open space.

The county’s Fort Ord Committee discussed the issue April 27. According to the staff report, Downs and the county Redevelopment Agency signed an exclusive negotiating rights agreement in May 2010, giving Downs temporary dibs on the land.

“People are freed on technicalities, and that’s where we’re at.”

But when Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved local redevelopment agencies in early 2012, the agreement expired, too – at least as county counsel interprets it.

“Monterey Downs, LLC, may have a differing opinion,” Holm adds. “They’ve continued to operate with the expectation that the county intended to sell, transfer [or] dispose of the land to them.”

Monterey Downs developer Brian Boudreau and Chief Operating Officer Beth Palmer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Also obsolete: a January 2012 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the county and city, detailing how they’d split up the Downs planning work. Seaside City Council terminated the MOU several months later.

During public comment April 27, activists framed the lack of land-transfer agreements as an opportunity.

“Technicalities save lives,” said LandWatch board member Sue Campbell, wife of Seaside Councilman (and Downs opponent) Jason Campbell. “People are freed on technicalities, and that’s where we’re at.”

Salinas resident Bill Lipe, however, urged the committee to back off. “I think [Downs] would be a great addition to what we have out there,” he said. “We ought to let the process work out.”

Supervisor Jane Parker, the committee chair, prodded Holm to describe the county’s role, or lack thereof. “Were you planning to come to the Board of Supervisors soon?” she asked.

Holm’s reply: Not until Seaside City Council approves the Downs environmental impact report. Once all parties are ready to negotiate a land transfer, he said, the county will do an appraisal.

The Fort Ord Reuse Authority has estimated the land at $188,000 per acre, making the county’s share of Downs worth roughly $100 million.

Seaside has an active exclusive negotiating agreement with Downs. City and county staff have met twice within the past year to discuss a pre-annexation agreement.

Parker asked county staff to return May 18 with an option to give the Board of Supervisors direction, and to remind Seaside officials the county hasn’t made any decisions about a land transfer.

The county needs to be very clear with the city,” Parker says. “I think there may be some assumptions made.”


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