Thursday, November 18, 2004
This week, county officials scheduled back-to-back hearings on three major development proposals. On Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 15 and 16, Planning Commissioners considered the huge Rancho San Juan proposal, for the mini-city planned to be built between Salinas and Prunedale. On Wednesday, Nov. 17, the panel began its first of two hearings on the proposed East Garrison project, which would build nearly 1,500 homes on 244 acres at Fort Ord. (The second hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1.) Finally, on Thursday, Nov. 18, the County Subdivision Committee will consider the long-planned expansion at Pebble Beach, another big proposal that includes a new golf course, 160 visitor suites and 33 homes.
If the rush-huge-projects-through-the-pipeline tactics weren’t enough to piss off the populace, planners waited until the 11th hour—literally—to release the latest monstrous reports on Rancho San Juan.
Hmmm, and county officials wonder why the public often feels like it got the shaft.
County Planning Commissioners seem to feel the same way at Monday’s meeting, a five-hour-long “special” hearing on the sprawling Rancho San Juan growth plan. >
Why do they call them “special meetings,” wonders the girl reporter. She thinks her tie-neck leopard-print blouse must be one of the very few special things in the Salinas Courthouse this afternoon. Her leopard print, and Commissioner Keith Vandevere’s multi-colored tie. And Commissioner Sharon Parsons’ floral scarf.
“East Garrison’s on Wednesday’s meeting,” says a cross-yet-chic Parsons. “I’m feeling as if I’m lined up against the wall and a rifle cadre is ready to shoot.”
She’s angry. She says she weighed the newest Rancho San Juan material. It weighs 16 pounds.
“Most of us got about half of it Saturday morning,” Parsons says. “I don’t know if the public got it at all.”
“I was not able to read all the material I was presented with,” adds Commissioner Martha Diehl, wearing a gold brooch, this fall’s must-have accessory. “I have no prospect of reading it all by Tuesday night. That troubles me.”
According to the hasty timeline, the Planning Commission is supposed to consider both the Rancho San Juan specific plan (a mini-General Plan of sorts for the entire growth area) and the Butterfly Village proposal (the first piece of the development slated to be built, which includes 739 single family homes, 338 multi-family units, 141 guest villas or time shares, commercial use, and an 18-hole golf course) presented by HYH Corporation’s Moe Nobari.
The Commission has only Monday and Tuesday to consider both projects. And by the end of Tuesday night, the panel is expected to make its recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, who want to approve—oops, Freudian slip; the girl reporter meant to say “consider”—both the Rancho San Juan specific plan and the Butterfly Village proposal in early December.
Back at the special meeting, the girl reporter thinks she’s figured it out. It’s special, because it’s possibly the first and only public hearing she’s ever been to where no one—not the commissioners, nor the civic-minded citizens in the audience—has read the proposal’s final EIR, or the other documents and reports released over the weekend. >
The public—or at least the public with Internet access—could download the final Environmental Impact Report on Nov. 12. “Late Friday, and I’ve been trying to get my hands on a hard copy ever since,” says Julie Engell, who wears a gray turtle neck and her signature chignon. Engell chairs the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, a group that has collected about 3,000 signatures on a petition to stop Rancho San Juan. “We need time,” she says. “One day turnaround doesn’t do the job.”
Jan Mitchell who, along with Engell, wears a “Rancho San Wrong” sticker on her lapel, tells the commissioners that she tried to get a hard copy.
“I was told they would be available Monday [the day of the first hearing] at Kinko’s for $180 each.”
By now, the commissioners have made up their minds. They—and the public—need more time. Two days isn’t enough.
“This is the sort of thing that has plagued our process,” Diehl says. “Unless we have an unassailable process, we are setting ourselves up.
“We get $400 a month. That covers my dry cleaning bills, but we’re not full-time county employees. With all due respect, I can’t be asked to certify something I don’t understand.”
“The process becomes a sham at some point,” he says. “None of us, nobody here, has had a chance to read the material all the way through. We have a few other things going on in our schedule between now and next week”—namely the East Garrison proposal.
Parsons points to the “elephant in the middle of the room that no one is talking about: the threat of a lawsuit that could cost the County $50 million.”
Now all eyes are on Nobari, and his cluster of attorneys and consultants who wear dark suits and bilingual buttons that read, “RSJ Si,” and “RSJ Yes.”
Nobari lives in Marin County and sued Monterey County a half-dozen years ago to keep the Rancho San Juan project moving forward.
Because of the lawsuit, the County must process the overall plan and Nobari’s Butterfly Village proposal simultaneously.
According to County Counsel Charles McKee, if the Supervisors don’t approve Nobari’s development plans, he could sue the County for “taking” his property rights (in Constitutional-law-speak) and ask the court for millions of dollars.
“It doesn’t wash to say, ‘well, whoops, we’re out of time,’ when we get to the most important part in the process,” Vandevere says. “If the public process becomes essentially a sham, because no one understands what’s going on…
“We did a rush process on the General Plan last spring,” he continues. “We spent hundreds of hours with the Planning Commission and the public on the General Plan, and the whole thing was rejected on arrival by the Board of Supervisors.”
Come to think of it, the Planning Commissioners did, in fact, adopt a finished version of the General Plan last spring, which was then rejected by three of the five Supes. And one of the commission’s key recommendations was to ax the entire Rancho San Juan project.
Funny how that all played out, thinks the girl reporter. Still no General Plan Update, and now the Planning Commission is expected to consider Rancho San Juan.
So for the next several hours they do consider the development, listening to hours and hours of presentations about the “development of a sustained urban village”—in a non-urban area. Slide-show presentations point out that 20 percent of the homes would be affordable to low-income and moderate-income families; that this new community would include several parks and schools and places to shop; and that thousands of residents would be able to walk to their jobs.
Commission Chair John Wilmot isn’t so sure.
“Jobs-housing balance,” Wilmot says. “It’s like ‘new urbanism’ and all those buzz words. Don’t mean anything.
“Is the developer going to stay here and bring employees here?”
Another slide shows the “environmental benefits,” of the project, which include using reclaimed water, preserving open space and “background wildlife gardens,” among others. Hmmm, not too sure about that last benefit. Sounds a little dangerous.
But by 5pm, after listening to details about traffic models and wastewater treatment and how, instead of the current annual water deficit of 506 acre feet per year, Rancho San Juan will only overdraft the aquifer by a mere 463 acre feet per year, Planning Commissioners vote unanimously to hold more than two hearings.
In other words, they decided to take their job seriously and give the project—and the public—the consideration it deserves.