Thursday, January 4, 2001
What''s an environmentalist to do with Scott Hennessy? On one hand, the fact that he was chosen to oversee development as the new planning director for Monterey County spells good news for nature. As the director of CSU Monterey Bay''s Watershed Institute, a former president of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club, and a boardmember for the Monterey County Resources Conservation District, Hennessy sports a resumn soaked in green ink. And in his four-year tenure as a Monterey County Planning Commissioner, he''s stood tall against environmentally incorrect projects like the September Ranch subdivision.
On the other hand, the marine biologist parted ways with the local environmental community when he opposed an agricultural land preservation initiative in 1996. Moreover, he sits as an advisor to Common Ground, a moderate "smart growth" group which some critics see as a thinly veiled antidote to the more insistently preservationist LandWatch Monterey County.
Hennessy recognizes that his position among local environmentalists is something of an enigma--but then again, he''s not one to be pigeonholed. "I''ve had people from the environmental community say I''m not an environmentalist, and that''s probably true," he acknowledges. "I''m an environmental scientist. Anybody can be an environmentalist, but I''m more solution-based and looking at the science behind the environment."
Hennessy just may be the one to bring some much-needed equilibrium to a community deeply divided on the development question. While he approaches his new job from a conservation stance, he''s also a realist. People need roofs over their heads, the economy is strong, and development is inevitable. Hennessy tries to balance the needs of humans with the need to protect natural resources. "I''ve gained a much greater respect for the need to consider humans in the equation," he says.
The question is, how to strike that balance? Hennessy experienced an epiphany of sorts during a recent bike trip to central Italy. Bicycling between densely populated villages, he was struck by the region''s composition. "You don''t see urban sprawl," he says. "You see little cities as dense as they could be, and then there''s ag land."
And that, he says, is what Monterey County should strive for. "We can''t just keep spreading," he says. "We''re going to have to do infill and increase intensity."
The need to curb sprawl rises from economics as much as conservation. In the past, county decision-makers have often turned a blind eye to the long-term costs of providing roads, power and water to subdivisions plunked in the middle of a field. But the county can no longer afford to ignore the bottom line.
"When a developer comes forward with a project that doesn''t make economic sense to the county," he says, "it''s going to have a hard time getting through."
With the county in the midst of updating its general plan, which will guide development for the next 10 years, Hennessy enters the job at a critical time. Hennessy stresses that the county needs to be vigilant in sticking to the new plan and not allowing variances and amendments that obscure its original vision.
"If you took that document"--the current general plan--"and threw it up on the screen right now, you''d call it smart growth," Hennessy says. "There was some real advanced thinking that went into the general plan. The problem is in the implementation and enforcement of it. The policies haven''t reflected the verbiage in the general plan."
For all the lofty talk of conservation and smart growth, Hennessy inherits a department rife with more basic problems. On Jan. 2, he''ll enter an office still reeling in the wake of two lost lawsuits--one over the September Ranch project and one alleging that county planners were passing off developer-written documents as their own work. The loss of those legal battles are rooted in the perpetually chronic understaffing, poor-to-nil employee training, and antiquated technology that plagues the Planning Department.
As far as getting planning staff up to par, Hennessy hopes to recruit young planners from CSUMB''s Earth System Science and Policy Department and to provide current planners with ongoing training. He also plans to expedite a project currently underway in which all the county''s parcel maps are being entered into a computerized system available to property owners. The system would include resource constraint overlays--such as endangered species habitat and the slope of a lot--to warn would-be builders of potential environmental impacts, "so you don''t have someone coming in and proposing a project that''s not really appropriate," Hennessy says.
As a planning commissioner, Hennessy says he''s already seen an effort within county government to ensure that development projects are suitably analyzed, and he plans to escalate those efforts.
"I think it would be a really great thing for the county to be a model of how to do development in the coastal zone, how to do development with sensitive resources and agricultural land," he says.