Thursday, February 16, 2012
Valentine’s Day brought poetry to the County Board of Supervisors. The show of public passion also included entreaties to logic, emotional pleas and angry rants.
After hearing from three dozen people adamantly opposed to the MST/Whispering Oaks project, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to pull the plug on the controversial proposed business park and transportation hub on the former Fort Ord.
The vote is a reversal of last July’s decision to move the project forward – also 4-1, with Jane Parker dissenting.
Supervisor Lou Calcagno said he changed his mind because of the overwhelming opposition to the 58-acre project, which includes a 24-acre new headquarters for MST and an adjacent business park. The development would have disrupted popular recreational trails and destroyed thousands of mature oak trees.
“They’re right on,” he said. “You can’t walk away from the type of arguments the public has brought forward. MST is gonna be a loser, the Board of Supervisors is gonna be a loser, but in democracy, you don’t always win.”
Supervisor Simon Salinas also reversed his earlier vote. “Kenny Rogers says you gotta know when to fold,” he said, “and I think it’s time to fold on this project.”
Fernando Armenta, who sits on the MST board, was the lone supervisor to hold his ground in favor of Whispering Oaks. “I think some of us are circling now for re-election purposes,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the merits of the project… I think it’s all political.”
Armenta, Parker and Dave Potter are all up for re-election in June’s primaries. Of the three, today’s vote represents a reversal only for Potter.
He took an apologetic tone, saying strong public opposition convinced him to change his mind. “I did not give this the whole level of scrutiny that I should have,” he said. “I’m not too stubborn to say it was a bad decision.”
The Feb. 14 vote rescinds the project’s environmental impact report and related entitlements, and repeals the county ordinance that rezoned the property from quasi-public to heavy commercial use. It also kills two figurative birds challenging the project: a ballot referendum spearheaded by the Fort Ord Rec Users group, and a lawsuit filed by LandWatch Monterey County.
Last month, LandWatch’s board rejected a settlement offered by the county and MST. “Accepting a settlement that still built something on that site just didn’t feel right to my board,” says LandWatch Executive Director Amy White. “There are places to build elsewhere.”
But the oak-woodland parcel isn’t fully protected yet. It remains slated for development under both the Fort Ord Base Reuse Plan and the County General Plan, Planning Director Mike Novo explained.
The supes’ decision likely forfeits a $30 million zero-interest federal loan MST had landed for its new headquarters. “That takes the funding plan we’re relying on and throws it out the window,” MST CEO Carl Sedoryk says.
MST paid the county over $800,000 for fees and permits for the Whispering Oaks project, he adds: “Will the county repay MST for what is being described as a mistake?”
The agency has also spent about $4.9 million in state bond money on headquarters designs. “Those plans are still good,” Sedoryk adds. “If we can find another site, with an investment of $750,000 to $1.5 million dollars, we can re-use most of that investment.”
The MST board got an earful from activists the day before the supervisors’ vote, when 16 people spoke against the project.
Therese Potter, an environmental sciences major at CSU Monterey Bay, lectured board members for their support of a project that would remove 3,400 trees and wipe out the trails she walks to class. “I can’t believe you would be so selfish,” she said. “You’re just disappointing a generation behind you.”
CSUMB assistant professor Fred Watson said Whispering Oaks is valuable habitat for nuttall woodpeckers, which nest in the cavities of old oaks. Seaside resident Diane Cotton said she just might have to chain herself to an oak tree if the project moves forward. Seaside resident Jason Campbell took direct aim at Sedoryk, telling the board, “Fire your captain; change course quickly.”
Monterey resident Jim Fink made the sole comment in favor of the project, noting that it sits on top of an old Army landfill. “It’s just an old garbage dump,” he said. “I think it’s a perfectly good use for MST.”
Although he has taken a public beating over Whispering Oaks, Sedoryk said the project is under county control.
With $20 million for capital projects from 2008 state bond measure Proposition 1B, MST started designing a new headquarters near 8th Avenue and Gigling Road.
But the county, which controls the project’s water allocation, asked MST to do a land swap for the 24-acre parcel in the Whispering Oaks business park. The transit authority, Sedoryk says, reluctantly agreed.
The county Planning Commission rejected the project last March on account of the mature trees to be removed. The supervisors reversed that decision on appeal in July. Within a month, Fort Ord Rec Users gathered 18,000 signatures for a referendum to repeal the zoning change ordinance, and LandWatch filed suit.
“I can understand why people are confused,” Sedoryk said before the Feb. 14 vote. “You can reduce it down to a very basic emotional level – you’re gonna cut down trees – but it’s more complicated than that.”