The view from Paraiso Vineyards

The view from Paraiso Vineyards overlooking the Salinas Valley.

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.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

(1) comment

Kim Stemler

Hi Sarah,
Thank you for covering this important story.

I think it's important to clarify that the settlement primarily relates to vineyards, not other agricultural crops. The settlement not only costs taxpayers dollars, but amends the General Plan, specifically impacting the Agricultural Winery Corridor Plan (River Road and south) and the Cachagua Area Plan.

This was a plan that took 10 years of hard work, hundreds of public meetings, compromises and much public debate. (One of the plaintiff’s was actively involved in the process and compromise.)

The Agricultural Winery Corridor Plan (AWCP) is an economic enterprise zone developed to leverage the untapped value added opportunities the Wine Industry presents for the benefit of Salinas Valley Communities, Agri-tourism and business linkage to the Hospitality Industry on the Monterey Peninsula.

There are over 43,000 acres of cultivated vineyards in Monterey County, most of this in South County. The local economic impact of grape production in the County is currently valued at $623 million annually. As a comparison, Napa cultivates around 44,000 acres, similar in acreage to Monterey. In a 2012 study, the total annual local economic impact of the Napa Valley wine industry was over $13 billion, an exponentially higher local economic impact due to the vertical integration and value added aspects of their wine industry. The local Wine Industry has been appraised by economists to potentially stimulate more than $1.9 billion dollars of added annual economic contributions to the local economy, with much of the focus on South County.

The proposed General Plan Amendments and Addendum to General Plan’s EIR break the promise of the AWCP. The promise is for Economic Development within the County and for the Communities that are most in need.

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