Thursday, September 29, 2005
Chris Fitz’ heroes are poets. They include Pablo Neruda, who said a poet’s role is to find “balance between solitude and solidarity,” and William Carlos Williams, the great poet of the mid-century United States. And Mary Oliver, who writes today about nature and loneliness and love.
“Poets not just living in the ivory tower, but poets who are accessible,” Fitz says. “They talk about the concrete world.” Neruda wrote “Ode to Salt” and “Ode to Tomatoes.” Williams was also a physician. Oliver writes about lilies and moles and wild geese.
Fitz recites a few lines from Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
“To me, it relates to the kinds of work we’re trying to do at LandWatch—to inspire people,” Fitz says. “It’s not new that we’ve got these incredible growth pressures and the Valley is threatened with being paved over, and at the same time, we’ve got this horrible crisis in affordable housing.
“What William Carlos Williams is saying: ‘My heart rouses thinking to bring you news’— [is that] we as members of the community can made a difference. We have a vision for what we want. We have power to change our future. And what great lines about how we must pay attention to the things that are really the most important, rather than the stuff that passes for the news.”
In June, Fitz was appointed executive director of LandWatch, the county’s land-use watchdog group. He knows his battles will be difficult: fighting to protect farmland and open space in a county where real estate is worth so much money; fighting for affordable housing when developers stand to make a fortune building market-rate homes; trying to convince an anything-goes Board of Supervisors to adopt a conservation-minded General Plan.
Like his heroes, Fitz is an idealist, but he’s also a pragmatist. The goals LandWatch pursues— protecting the environment and promoting social equity— sound lofty, and indeed they are. But they’re also good business, Fitz says.
And, more immediately, urging voters to vote no on Measure C, the Nov. 8 ballot measure intended to stop the massive Rancho San Juan development.
Like his heroes, Fitz is an idealist, but he’s also a pragmatist. The goals LandWatch pursues—protecting the environment and promoting social equity—sound lofty, and indeed they are. But they’re also good business, Fitz says.
“People may tend to think of particular policies of LandWatch as being progressive, but these good policies are steeped in what is fiscally prudent. It’s about what makes sense for the environment. What makes sense so teachers, firefighters and police officers have a place to live in their community.”
• • • •
Fitz, 47, was born in Bloomington, Ind., but grew up in Nassau County on Long Island, “one of the places where suburban sprawl was invented,” he says.
He didn’t like suburbia. He liked the city. As a high school student, other teens his age spent their weekends at the beach. Fitz preferred to hop on the railroad and go to New York City. “I was going to art museums and getting fake IDs so I could get into all the jazz clubs,” he recalls. “I thought, Manhattan—that was it.
“It was later on that I developed a real affinity for nature and the outdoors and rural settings.”
Upon graduating high school, he enrolled at Bard College, a progressive liberal arts school in the Hudson Valley, well known for producing artists, musicians and actors. Fitz figured he would study studio art, but found he couldn’t get along with the other artists. Instead, he studied art history and literature. He decided he would become a writer.
After three semesters at the college, Fitz and his best friend “decided we needed to do our Jack Kerouac kind of thing,” and hitchhiked cross country for about five months.
Fitz the young artist had worn his red hair long, down to his shoulders. Before leaving to see the US, however, he cut it short. Five days before his 20th birthday, he and his buddy arrived in Big Sur, and camped out “just off the side of the road somewhere.” Fitz turned 20 in San Francisco.
“I thought California was an absolutely beautiful state,” he recalls. “It was a great experience for me to see the breadth and diversity of the US. At that time, I was still more of a city kinda guy. I didn’t really think about coming back to California.”
As Fitz and his friend traveled, they crashed at friends’ and families’ houses, or with whoever would let them sleep on the floor. They worked odd jobs, unloading a truck of potatoes in Texas and attempting to build an extension on a trailer in North Carolina.
They settled for a while in North Carolina, where their closest neighbors were hippies, with a garden, who saw themselves as living in the tradition of American Indians. “My first experience with vegans,” Fitz remembers.
The hippies invited the art students over for dinner and cooked spaghetti with soybean meatballs and raisins. “They were so proud that they didn’t eat any meat or dairy products, and they told us the last time they ate meat was when they ate the placenta from their newborn baby. Here we were, two 19-year-old kids, totally grossed out.”
On the road again, in Colorado, a man with a thick Spanish accent—Mexican, Fitz believes—saw the two on the side of the road in the middle of the night, and offered to bring them some chicken. They refused. He asked if there was anything else they wanted. “We didn’t think we were going to see this guy every again, so we said, ‘Yeah, sure, bring us some Jim Beam. That’s what we like when it’s cold.’”
About 20 minutes later he returned, with the bottle and some chicken. “You sure you don’t want some chicken?”
• • • •
Nearly five months into their adventure, the two got homesick and returned to the East Coast. Before Fitz had embarked on his journey, he had applied for a work-study program with Sotheby’s auction house. He was accepted. Fitz lived for a year in London, and learned that working in the fine art world wasn’t for him.
“I was this middle-class kid, and these people were really jet-setters,” he says.
When the work-study program ended, Fitz returned to Manhattan, where he had lived and worked during summer and holiday breaks from Bard. He worked a series of odd jobs—driving a cab, working as a doorman, cleaning air conditioning systems in apartment buildings, selling women’s garments on 10th Avenue. He hung out at jazz clubs—the Village Gate, the Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil’s.
Once a friend dragged Fitz to the punk rock nightclub CBGBs. “I was used to everything,” he says, “but I was intimidated by CBGBs. It was pretty rough, and I couldn’t get into that ear-splitting sound.”
He still saw himself as an artist.
“I really tried to write,” he remembers. “Finally I figured it out. This is a romantic notion, but I’m not getting anywhere. I was in Manhattan—the place where I always wanted to come live—and I didn’t have the time or the money to enjoy the great things about New York.”
So, in 1980, a 22-year-old Fitz joined the Army. “I couldn’t figure out what else to do with my life,” he says. After completing basic training, Fitz came to Monterey to attend the Defense Language Institute, where he studied German.
The Army trained Fitz to eavesdrop on East German radio transmissions, and stationed him in Cold War Germany for two years. It was there, Fitz says, that he developed a political conscience.
“The group of friends I had in high school were very cynical about politics,” he says. “It was during the whole Nixon-Watergate era. It had a real chilling effect on me and my friends. I didn’t join the Army out of any particular patriotism. It’s not that I was unpatriotic; I wanted a way out of Manhattan.”
He made it to the Berlin Wall. “I saw these guys with their AK-47s, and it hit me,” he remembers. “I had been trained to go into battle and kill people. Here were these guys who were trained to kill me. It got me thinking, ‘This is serious stuff,’ and ‘Why is it that I’m here?’ and ‘What’s this all about?’ That was my first questioning of international politics.”
• • • •
He came back to California, to Fort Ord, for the final six months of his four-year tour of duty. He got out in ‘84, and began taking courses at Monterey Peninsula College and then at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
“Even though I had this background in the Army, had this background as a German linguist, while I was at the Monterey Institute, I was really more interested in Latin American development,” Fitz says.
While he was going to school at MIIS, Fitz worked at Third Point Systems, a political and military think tank with one major client: The Saudi Arabia Ministry of Defense. Fitz worked on three databases for the firm: one that took inventory of world weapons systems; one that tracked political events (“The idea being if you look at this behavior over time, you could see patterns and predict behavior,” Fitz explains), and one that tracked the arms transfers worldwide.
The fact that he was working for the Saudi government didn’t bother him.
“There were about 20 of us, all international policy students,” Fitz says, “and we were thrilled to get paid whatever we were getting—seven or eight bucks an hour—and we were thrilled to be getting paid to read the New York Times everyday, and Jane’s Defence Weekly. We didn’t think that much about, ‘What is the Saudi Arabian government going to be doing with this?’”
While attending MIIS, Fitz also got involved with a bunch of local progressives working for the Salvadoran Medical Relief Fund, headed by MIIS professor and attorney Bill Monning, and later joined the board of Monterey County Sanctuary, which worked with local Salvadoran refugees.
Years later, this group of friends would tell Fitz—half-jokingly, half-seriously—“We wondered if you were a spy.”
“We would get into these arguments about how to convince people that US policy in Central America was wrong,” Fitz remembers. The other progressives would speak passionately about human rights violations. Fitz, on the other hand, would make an argument in favor of talking to political conservatives in their own language.
“I would say, ‘Tell them that our policy in Central America is bad for stability in our country.’
“So I used to make these arguments—how to best to reach out to conservatives. No one could get over that I had been in the Army.”
Soon after Fitz graduated from MIIS in 1986, Third Point Systems closed its Monterey office, and Fitz was hired as a research analyst at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he worked for five years.
In 1992, Fitz went back to MIIS, this time working at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, where he managed databases focused on nuclear weapons and missile systems.
A few years later, Fitz changed course. Instead of changing the world, Fitz decided to work to change things in his own backyard.
“This notion that people can have an impact on the community…At the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, it’s hard on a daily or even yearly basis to see the results of your labors,” Fitz says. “It’s academic—arcane, some would say.
“Land-use policy is arcane, too, but you see real things that affect real people in their everyday lives—whether people have affordable homes to live in, and whether gridlock affects our roads.
“Many of my [former] colleagues at MIIS are very smart people, many with Ph.D.s, very informed—but most of them could not tell you who their local city councilmember is, or who sits on the Board of Supervisors. They follow national and international politics, but that’s completely inverse from what really impacts our daily lives. And it’s at the local level where everyday people really have the opportunity to make an impact.”
Fitz basically created a staff position for himself at LandWatch—deputy director—in order to do grassroots community activism full time. The group went for it, and hired Fitz.
“I took a pretty significant pay cut and never regretted it,” he says.
• • • •
Urban growth boundaries, affordable housing and waffles. For some die-hard land-use wonks, it doesn’t get any better than this.
A dozen or so similarly-minded folk sit at tables at Seaside’s Waffle Shop, at one of LandWatch’s regular Around the County meetings, on a very early recent morning. These meetings, held in different cities and communities each month, include a no-host breakfast and some informal discussions.
In June, Fitz took over from Gary Patton, who had held the executive director post since 1998, and who, deservedly or not, played a more controversial role than Fitz likely will. Patton lives in Santa Cruz—he’s a former Santa Cruz County Supervisor—and although he was very effective, his brand of politics weren’t always welcome here. Patton was a regular at Monterey County Supervisors’ meetings, sparring with his booming voice and sharp intellect against developers and their attorneys.
Fitz is equally smart, equally passionate, but perhaps less fiery than his predecessor. He speaks in a softer tone, and with a calming presence. He formulates his argument to fit his audience.
He points often to LandWatch’s three-pronged approach, which gives the organization’s efforts broader impact than it gets credit for.
“This organization sees itself as very different from, say, the Sierra Club, for example, which is clearly all about the environment,” Fitz says. “LandWatch cares equally about promoting the local economy and social equity.”
At the Seaside breakfast, Fitz is touching all three bases. He’s also introducing himself to the land-use faithful, and rallying them to the cause. But first, between bites of pancakes and eggs, the attendees introduce themselves. They say where they live and what issues concern them.
A life-long Monterey man says he’s “shocked” to see Salinas agriculture land growing more houses than vegetables these days. A Seaside woman says she wants to ensure that people of color are part of land-use policy discussions.
Fitz nods in agreement.
“Social equity has everything to do with how we use the land,” he says. He introduces himself, and the LandWatch mission statement: “To promote and inspire sound land-use legislation at the city, county, and regional levels,” he says.
“Why land use? The most power we have in our local government are the decisions we make about how to use the land.”
Fitz tells an abbreviated version of the most recent part of his story.
In 1996, he bought a home in Marina, right around the time the City was updating its general plan. Fitz and a handful of other citizens got together to discuss the proposed development of Armstrong Ranch, just north of town, where developers had recently announced plans to build 3,580 homes on 900 acres of the 2,000-acre ranch.
Fitz and his neighbors formed a group called Marina 2020, and proposed an alternative: redeveloping city-owned portions of Fort Ord while restricting development to 300 acres of Armstrong Ranch.
The group drew a line around Marina on a map. The city would not grow beyond this line. They drafted what they hoped would become the first “urban growth boundary” in the county, and presented their proposal to the City Council.
The council refused. So the citizens drafted an initiative, Measure E, and qualified it for the November 2000 ballot.
Breakfasters quietly sip coffee and spread jam on toasted wheat bread as Fitz talks about walking door-to-door, collecting signatures.
“To me, it wasn’t just about protecting the beautiful open space of Armstrong ranch. To me, it was, ‘What’s going to happen if our little town quadruples in size over the next 20 years? What’s the smart way for our community to grow?’
“I remember at the time, talking to a number of progressive friends of mine on the Peninsula,” Fitz says, “And they were a little cynical. They said, ‘Urban boundaries? That’s for Portland, Oregon, not here. Maybe in Berkeley this would fly, but Marina is a blue-collar town. They’re not going to go for this progressive, urban boundary notion.’”
They were wrong.
In 2000, Marina voters approved Measure E. That same year, Fitz joined the LandWatch Board. A year later, he was hired as deputy director. To this day, he hasn’t lost his sense of optimism.
“Continually, what we run into is the conclusion that says it can’t be done,” he says. “But the people can make a difference.”
• • • •
Fitz hasn’t had time to take a bite out of his waffle. His coffee must be cold. But he keeps talking, telling the Waffle Shop group about LandWatch’s more recent activities.
He tells how he sat on a committee, mostly comprised of developers, which worked for two years on an ordinance that will rework Salinas’s inclusionary housing laws. In August, the City Council adopted the proposal.
Under the new law, developers who build in Salinas would be required to make at least 20 percent of the homes they build affordable to low-income residents. (Currently, it’s only 12 percent.)
At the same time, the ordinance provides incentives to developers who build a higher percentage of affordable homes, and makes it easier for developers who build as much as 35 percent affordable.
In many ways, this law is cutting-edge. It will increase Salinas’ affordable housing stock by making the approval process quicker and less costly for developers who agree to build more low-income homes.
It’s also a bit of a miracle—the likes of Fitz and several building industry types sitting around a table and eventually agreeing on the most progressive affordable housing ordinance in the county.
“Chris Fitz has done some really credible work with the city of Salinas’ inclusionary housing policy,” says Tom Carvey, executive director of Common Ground, a pro-growth group that doesn’t usually agree with LandWatch on policy issues at the city or county level.
“There were obviously different areas of interest on that committee, but they were able to stick it out, listen to each other and work something out.”
Carvey belongs to the same Salinas Rotary Club as Fitz. They don’t agree on everything, but, Carvey says, “He’s a great guy.”
Last spring, the two faced off in a Rotary debate about the County’s General Plan. Fitz was involved in drafting the Community General Plan, a more conservation-minded plan for future county growth, while Carvey helped write the development-friendly Refinement Group Plan.
“Afterwards, we shook hands,” Carvey says. “I would say we’re friends, and that’s a good thing. He puts forth his positions with a lot of heartfelt conviction—and those may be positions I don’t agree with a lot of times—but he does a credible job of putting forth his position.”
The final breakfast discussion topic today is Rancho San Juan, a planned 2,500-acre development north of Salinas. County Supervisors approved the plan in late December. (In the coming weeks, opponents—including many LandWatch staffers and board members—will collect enough signatures to put the plan on the Nov. 6 ballot. It’s called Measure C.)
As Rancho San Juan opponents tell voters to vote no on Measure C, county planners have already unveiled a new, smaller plan—the first step of “piecemeal development,” of the area, according to Fitz. Planners will be able to say Measure C is moot, because it will only serve as a referendum on the much larger, initially-approved plan.
LandWatch disputes that notion, as Fitz makes very clear at the Waffle House.
“Here’s why it’s not moot,” Fitz tells the attendees. “If voters vote no on Measure C in November, it sends a strong political message to the Board of Supervisors. It will be difficult for them to come back and piecemeal that project.
“It’s about this whole issue of representative government, and the idea that people can have an impact at the local level, versus cynicism.”
• • • •
Fitz recently finished reading The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro’s biography of the master planner who was once the most powerful man in the city and state of New York.
Between 1924 and 1968, Moses, who was never elected to public office, built seven city bridges, two tunnels under the East River, 658 playgrounds and 416 miles of parkways.
He also created the sprawl of Long Island and destroyed neighborhoods and dislocated thousands of residents to make way for his projects.
Moses started out as an idealist. But after being denied power by the political establishment, he stepped outside of the democratic system.
“It’s the story of someone who started out with this great idealism for civic participation and what the government can accomplish,” Fitz says. “Over time he became very cynical and did everything he could to undermine the democratic process. He ended up someone who believed in power. He despised the democratic process in the end.”
Until recently, Fitz sat on the Marina Planning Commission. A fellow commissioner gave him the book.
“I found it fascinating because it deals with politics at the local level,” Fitz says. “Many of the battles LandWatch has been engaged in are mirrored in the book. Interesting stories about housewives in apartment buildings in the Bronx, doing a grassroots effort to stop a terrible freeway that was going to plow down their neighborhood.
“To me, we’re trying to prevent, here in California, some of the devastating sprawl that still has ongoing negative impacts there in New York.”
When asked if the book caused him to reflect on Monterey County, and the land-use decisions being made here, at the local level, Fisk is unequivocal.
“Absolutely,” Fitz says. “It’s a much smaller pond here. But similar stories—power, the elite trying to run the show versus people who care about their neighborhoods and have a vision. That struggle between wealthy, powerful elites and the grassroots.”