Thursday, December 15, 2011
Land-use watchdog groups have a way of springing up like mushrooms in the fall, often to monitor specific projects in their neighborhoods. But thanks to a sweeping settlement reached with the county, development-watchers will have an easier time getting information as the county upgrades its record-keeping to a more accessible electronic format over the next year.
Richard Rosenthal, a Carmel Valley attorney representing the nonprofit Save Our Peninsula, says transparency in the county Planning Department is essential.
“It’s making them follow the law,” he says. “It’s never really been done.”
Monterey County Superior Court Judge Lydia Villarreal ruled in favor of Save Our Peninsula, requiring the county to pay Rosenthal and his associates $125,000 in legal fees, and to adhere to a more visible records system. In approving projects, the Planning Department generally imposes a number of conditions, like tracking water use or planting trees, to mitigate environmental impacts.
But Rosenthal says there’s never been a mechanism to effectively determine whether those terms are actually followed once developers sell property and residents or businesses move in.
“There’s nothing more important than making sure mitigation measures are implemented,” Rosenthal says. “If you don’t, [the California Environmental Quality Act] is just a waste of time, and it’s probably the greatest piece of environmental legislation in the world.”
Rosenthal sued last February after conducting an 18-month review of county records, alleging that a similar case on CEQA compliance that he won in 2000 hasn’t brought the county far enough.
Under the agreement reached in September, planners will make their records electronically available to the public, conduct an audit of 10 previously approved projects, and red-tag projects that aren’t keeping up with conditions.
To Mike Novo, director of the planning department, the settlement is just a technicality. “We actually do track mitigation compliance, and we have been for many years,” he says. “Are we perfect? No. Will we ever be perfect? No. But I think we actually do a very good job.”
“What this settlement represents is a re-commitment to doing the best we can,” says Assistant County Counsel Les Girard.
With the audit almost complete – nine down and one to go before Christmas – the planning department’s self-assessment so far reflects success. They’re still reviewing the East Garrison housing project, for which there were some 260 conditions, but haven’t yet found any holes in record-keeping.
Mike Weaver, chair of the Highway 68 Coalition and a member of Save Our Peninsula, says better transparency will help establish some checks and balances. He says Santa Monica-based developer Bollenbacher & Kelton and California American Water violated project conditions for their 325-acre subdivision, Ferrini Oaks. He says they overstepped with a permit from Public Works granting rights to construct a sewer line, also building a well hook-up on the site, which was supposed to have an independent water source. “We’re looking forward to better county processes,” Weaver says.
Rosenthal says the settlement terms shouldn’t make developers any more squeamish about building in Monterey County. “Why would it make anything harder for developers to do?” he asks. “If a project requires a condition be implemented, I presume they’re anticipating doing that. If they’re not, they shouldn’t be developing.”
*This story has been updated to reflect a correction. An earlier version stated that Ferrini Oaks was 870 acres; Ferrini Ranch is 870 acres, and the adjacent Ferrini Oaks, which is included in the audit required by the settlement agreement, is 325 acres. Public Works issued an encroachment permit for a sewer line, but the developer and California American Water proceeded to build water hook-ups that were excluded by project conditions.