Environmental advocacy groups are appealing the County Zoning Administrator’s approval for up to nine exploratory oil wells in South County, granted in October to a Denver-based oil company, Venoco, Inc.
The appeal, though, isn’t only about the wells. Filed by Lockwood-based Ventana Conservation and Land Trust, environmentalists are arguing not only against the cumulative environmental impact, but also contend the $4903.64 fee to appeal a Planning Department approval amounts to an “antidemocratic pay to play” fee and should be waived.
Ventana director Steve Craig says, “It’s a fairness issue. The people benefiting from entitlements are the ones that are going to make the money.”
Currently applicants like developers or oil companies cover the county’s costs to process applications for entitlements, with the exception of appeals. County Supervisor Jane Parker says the appeal fee “transfers the cost to the public, who is now essentially having to pay twice,” since taxes should cover the costs of public participation.
Carl Holm, Assistant Director of the Planning Department, says that just as applicants pay for the service of processing applications, citizens filing appeals pay for the service of processing appeals. Even with the nearly $5000 fee, county staff recovers only about 70 percent of costs, he says.
Based on a survey of 30 percent of the state’s counties, Monterey County’s fee is about 600 percent higher than average. In 2002, the fee was increased from $671.
AT NEARLY $5,000, MONTEREY COUNTY’S FEE IS ABOUT 600 PERCENT HIGHER THAN AVERAGE.
“There is only one purpose that [the fee] serves, and that’s the suppression of participation,” Craig says.
Holm contends that without the fee, there would not likely be a “huge flood” of applicants, but it would probably increase the likelihood of filing “if one neighbor just doesn’t like another neighbor.”
The county can grant fee waivers to appellants over age 62 who are on a fixed income; small day care centers; government agencies; and affordable housing projects. Parker is pushing the supervisors to expand waiver eligibility to nonprofit organizations that work in the public interest.
Ventana applied for a fee waiver, and a decision will be announced on March 30 by the Planning Commission, when the appeal is scheduled to be heard.
The County Planning Department calculates that it lost more than $400,000 in revenue over the past three years due to fee waivers.
Craig sees the County’s tight resources, and says that’s the crux of the problem. “Our goal is to see the county fund itself properly to do a good job with oil and gas development,” he says. “We’re trying to support the [county] staff.”
In a letter from Venoco’s attorneys addressed to Zoning Administrator Mike Novo, Venoco argues that it has been unfairly “caught in the crossfire of a policy debate that Ventana wishes to have with the County.”
Craig says there is “nothing special about Venoco,” but that the environmental community has been able to effectively organize around this permit.
Venoco indicated in its most recent quarterly report that the company will invest $100 million in onshore activity in the region (extending south to Ventura County) in 2011, and has also expressed interest in leasing mineral rights on 6,000 acres of BLM land in South County. Craig says this “is the most egregious” part of the company’s plans in the “black gold rush.”
Venoco representatives declined to comment until the hearing.