Going into the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, July 20, it was hard to call which way the vote would go for the proposed 90,000-square foot River View at Las Palmas Assisted Senior Living Facility off of River Road. Chairperson Wendy Root Askew was on vacation, leaving four members of the board to listen to arguments for and against the controversial project.
River View already had approval from the Monterey County Planning Commission, although with a split vote of 6-4 in February 2020. To pass at the board on Tuesday, 17 months later, the developer would need at least three votes.
A lot can happen in 17 months and for the Las Palmas I neighborhood it did: In August the River Fire roared dangerously close to homes there, forcing residents to evacuate.
It was that fire that was on the mind of County Supervisor Mary Adams, who made a motion to deny the project.
"We don't need another Paradise," she said, referring to the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that killed over 50 senior citizens living in the town of Paradise who were trapped in the fast-moving wildfire. She was unmoved by assurances from the Monterey County Regional Fire District that the plans were workable for fire protection.
Adams saw other problems with the plan, which calls for 13 casitas for a total of 26 separate units, 40 assisted living units with 52 beds and a 21,600-square foot, three-story memory care facility for 48 beds. She questioned whether the facility would lead to further depletion of the Salinas Valley groundwater basin. Adams also argued that while Monterey County needs more assisted living facilities, it needs more affordable ones.
Supervisor John Phillips joined Adams in voting to deny the proposal. As presented on the board's agenda, that also meant voting to deny an amendment to the Las Palmas Ranch Specific Plan and use permit for the facility. "I think this is a good project but it's not the right project for this location," Phillips said.
Phillips argued, as did many residents, that the parcel for the facility was planned for only three more housing units to meet a cap on the number of units allowed in the area. He also took issue with the assurances of planning staff that residential care facilities are allowed in areas zoned as medium residential.
"I don't care if technically a rest home falls within the strict definition of medium residential. This is a commercial operation and this was never planned or anticipated," Phillips said.
Adams agreed, calling it "a bait and switch" for people who purchased homes years ago, expecting the neighborhood would remain residential only.
Having only one road in and out, through the gated Las Palmas I community, was also a problem, Phillips argued, detailing how the facility would attract visiting friends and family, 92 employees and an estimated 10-12 ambulances per month.
Supervisors Luis Alejo and Chris Lopez were both in favor of advancing the project, making the case that the positives outweighed any negatives.
Although he would have liked to have seen a second road in and out of the project, Lopez said he was balancing the cons against the need for more housing. "Housing continues to be big for me," he said, regardless of income level. Acknowledging the long line of residents who showed up to argue against River View he said, "I understand everybody's frustration but those are the things I'm balancing."
Alejo thanked residents for speaking out, reiterating more than once "I hear their concerns," but added, "I think, though, they've been addressed as best they could [by mitigations required of the developer]." Alejo mainly focused on the growing number of senior citizens and the need for more care facilities, referring to it as a "crisis."
"The day has come to make a tough decision but moving this forward is the right thing to do at this time," Alejo said.
When it came time to vote on Adams' motion to deny the project, the vote was 2-2. That means the motion failed, but according to county staff, the tie didn't mean the project was denied.
With Askew absent, the only path forward was to continue the item until a future date. It's expected to return for a vote on Aug. 31, giving Askew enough time to watch the meeting video, read the materials and be prepared to vote with the rest of the supervisors that day.
Alejo attempted to give the project another chance by suggesting supervisors could give the developer more time to make further concessions, such as adding in a second road, but Adams was adamant that they not repeat another long hearing where both sides would rehash the debate.
"At this point that's not what I want to see happen," she said.