In mid-January, county officials announced good news: After more than four years of talks, they'd finally reached an agreement over a lawsuit imperiling the county's 2010 general plan.
The settlement came in the form of proposed amendments to that general plan, which lays out a broad vision for the county's land use policy, replacing a 1982 general plan.
The only hitch: For the settlement to take effect, the county Board of Supervisors would have to approve the amendments. Tuesday afternoon, they voted 4-1 to deliver a whole-hearted rejection of the proposed changes.
They agreed to keep negotiating for two more weeks, but a resolution with the plaintiffs, government watchdog group Open Monterey Project and smart-growth advocate LandWatch, seems unlikely.
"We all know the plaintiffs here live by litigation and that’s how they support themselves," Supervisor John Phillips said.
"Anything anyone proposes to do—whether it’s to clean out the river, or get a use permit to build a B&B, it’s going to be litigated. To me, it's not even a close call."
Supervisor Simon Salinas also delivered a full-throated rejection of the amendments, even while voting in favor of the two-week extension as a last-ditch effort to stay out of court for years to come.
"I will support the motion, because it includes the word deny," Salinas said. "I think there’s a lot at stake here. I [want to] convey to the plaintiffs that the vast majority of this board wants to deny this."
The amendments have limited new agriculture on steep slopes (defined as 25-35 percent) to the winery corridor and Cachuagua area. Everywhere else, new agricultural development would be prohibited on slopes steeper than 25 percent.
They would also have required new development in a wildlife corridor to include design features allowing animals to continue accessing their normal routes, and would have eliminated stand-alone inns and restaurants from a streamlined approval process for growth along the winery corridor.
Letters of opposition poured in. The Monterey County Mayors' Association and cities of Gonzales, Soledad and Sand City, all sent the same opposition letter.
"The proposed amendments will effectively gut the ag wine corridor plan," each of the above entities wrote. "The proposed amendments will have a chilling effect on the business climate in Monterey County."
One of their assertions: Protecting wildlife corridors would restrict fences, an important tool in keeping animals off of farm fields for food safety purposes.
The county Planning Commission and Agricultural Advisory Committee each voted to recommend the Board of Supervisors deny the settlement terms.
Supervisor Fernando Armenta delivered the most vehement objections to the proposed settlement terms, based on a thought process he recently had while on a drive along Napa Valley's scenic Highway 29, apparently very impressed by what he saw there in terms of winery and tasting room development
"It was the first time I had ever been up to Napa Valley," Armenta said. "I was driving, talking to myself: I don’t feel like reading my [Board of Supervisors agenda] packet for Tuesday. I’ve had enough of this. We can’t strangulate this county. Enough is enough.
"I think there’s significant protection, around traffic, water, wildlife. I don’t know what it was, driving up Highway 29—it was like a different world, and everything is green. I didn’t see salamanders or alligators or kit fox. Those are things to be appreciated, but I say, why can’t Monterey County live in peace and prosperity like those folks up there?"
Armenta's remark about those species references tiger salamanders and kit foxes, protected animals that live in Monterey County. (That part about the alligators is a joke; they don't live here.) Protecting wildlife corridors for these animals has routinely come up as a costly challenge for developers in this region.
"We’ve got to protect everyone involved in the winery corridor, from the farm worker to the grower to the vintner," Armenta said.
Supervisor Jane Parker cast the lone dissenting vote—as she did in 2010 when she disagreed with her colleagues and also demurred on certifying the general plan in question.
"I felt it was legally flawed, and those are some of the issues that are now before us," Parker said.
"The county really has to be concerned about our liability and the potential negatives if we were to continue the litigation, go to court, and lose. If we don’t settle, there is a risk that we are going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars."
As part of the proposed settlement, the county would've paid $850,000 in attorney's fees, to be split between the two plaintiffs.