Land use politics in Monterey County reached a new level of chaos in early June, when voters cast ballots on four land use measures but apparently resolved nothing. Voters provided conflicting direction on a general plan update adopted by the county, rejected a slow-growth general plan initiative, and overturned county approval of an 1,100-unit housing development.
The only certainty to emerge from the special election was the dismissal of Measure A, the general plan initiative written by the group LandWatch Monterey County and strongly opposed by developers, landowners and the Monterey County Farm Bureau.
But the vote on the county's general plan update, known as GPU-4, was confusing. Voters said "no" to Measure B, which asked if the plan should be invalidated. Yet voters also said "no" to Measure C, a referendum that asked if the plan should be upheld. County Counsel Charles McKee initially advised the Board of Supervisors that the Measure B vote prevailed because it was an affirmative vote — a double-negative really — for the plan and made the referendum irrelevant. That position infuriated slow-growth advocates, causing McKee and supervisors to take a step back.
"There's a very good argument that Measure B was successful and the general plan was not repealed," McKee said. "However, the Measure A proponents argue — and I think they can honestly argue this — that the constitutional power prevails." In other words, the state constitution provides voters with the power of referendum, which trumps the Board of Supervisors' legislative act of placing Measure B on the ballot.
"Both plans were denied," said LandWatch Executive Director Chris Fitz. "It would be an act of bad faith to try to shove their plan through after it was denied, and we would sue them."
Lawsuits and ballot measures have become the primary method of settling land use disputes in Monterey County, although the litigation and voting seem to beget only more litigation and voting. The general plan update is simply an example of the county's planning paralysis.
In 1999, officials began work on an update to the heavily amended 1982 general plan, a relatively brief document that relies on area plans for details. A team of staff members and consultants headed by then-County Administrator Sally Reed proposed a plan with sharp growth restrictions. The plan angered developers, landowners and farmers, and the Board of Supervisors rejected it. The board then appointed a "refinement committee" composed of 25 interest group representatives, but the board disbanded the committee two years later for lack of progress. In early 2004, the county released GPU-3, a city-centered growth plan that the Planning Commission endorsed. The same interests that opposed the first draft protested again, and supervisors voted 3-2 to start over with McKee and county planners in charge.
In 2006, the county released GPU-4, which the Board of Supervisors adopted 4-1 in January of this year. Endorsed by development interests, the Monterey County Farm Bureau and some affordable housing advocates, GPU-4 calls for growth in approximately 40 nodes in unincorporated areas around the county and permits subdivisions elsewhere. Supervisors also decided to put GPU-4 on the June ballot, but as a negative question: Should GPU-4 be invalidated?
In the meantime, LandWatch drafted a general plan initiative largely based on GPU-3. The plan designated five growth areas and directed most other development to incorporated cities. Although supporters quickly gathered adequate petition signatures, a federal district court judge blocked the measure from the ballot because it had not been translated into Spanish. Ultimately, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an unrelated Voting Rights Act case that recall and referendum petitions need not be translated into other languages (see CP&DR In Brief, February 2007, October 2006; CP&DR, May 2006). Monterey County supervisors decided to place the LandWatch initiative on the same ballot as their own measure concerning the general plan. And, because GPU-4 opponents did not trust the Board of Supervisors, they qualified a general plan referendum for the ballot, as well.
After the June 5 election, the question for — and from — everyone was, "Now what?"
"We are going to have to see if there is a process we can get in place to get everybody on the same page," said Supervisor Simon Salinas, a former Democratic state assemblyman. "The extremes need to be ignored."
Salinas said that residents of his district — which stretches from the outskirts of the City of Salinas to the San Luis Obispo County line — need places to work and live. But people on the Monterey Peninsula want to exert control over inland growth, he complained.
"We can't stop development. We can manage it and do the best we can," Salinas said. "None of us are advocating for paving the fertile Salinas Valley." He recommended using the 1982 plan as a starting point for drafting a new update.
But Fitz and other slow-growth proponents contend that starting over is unnecessary. Both GPU-4 and the general plan initiative have a number of quantifiable metrics, such as the number of community growth areas and number of new housing units, and county leaders should simply find the middle ground, Fitz said.
Yet opponents of the general plan initiative argue that because voters rejected Measure A, the county should ignore it entirely. In a guest column for the Monterey County Herald, Richard Smith, a wine grape grower and leading Measure A opponent, wrote that the Board of Supervisors should implement GPU-4 and then "invite public comment about how the general plan might be improved."
About the only thing people seem to agree on is the need for the Board of Supervisors to make difficult decisions about process and policy. In the meantime, a lawsuit that LandWatch filed over the environmental impact report for GPU-4 remains pending in Monterey County Superior Court, as are numerous lawsuits over a variety of development projects.
Supervisor Simon Salinas, (831) 755-5033.
Charles McKee, Monterey County Counsel, (831) 755-5045.
Chris Fitz, LandWatch Monterey County, (831) 375-3752.
General Plan Update website: http://www.co.monterey.ca.us/pbi/gpu/
Housing Proposal Remains in Limbo
Monterey County's special election also marked the latest chapter in the 25-year saga of Rancho San Juan, a 2,500-acre area between Salinas and the unincorporated town of Prunedale. In a referendum, voters overturned the Board of Supervisors' approval of the 1,100-housing unit Butterfly Village project on about one-quarter of Rancho San Juan.
The next chapter is likely to be written by a judge, as project proponents are pursuing two legal claims. The first claim is that the referendum was invalid because it undoes an action taken under court order; the second is a compensation claim for a taking of private property.
When Monterey County last adopted a general plan in 1982, officials designated Rancho San Juan as an area for future development. Several years later, the Greater Salinas Area Plan named Rancho San Juan as an "area of development concentration." That plan was extremely contentious, so not until 1998 was a specific plan for Rancho San Juan released. The plan, funded in part by Butterfly Village developer HYH Corporation, essentially called for covering the area's strawberry fields and pastures with housing subdivisions. Opposition was fierce.
When it began a general plan update in 1999, the county suspended the Rancho San Juan specific plan process. HYH Corporation sued and in 2001 a Superior Court ordered the county to complete the specific plan for which HYH had paid $500,000. In light of that court order, the county and HYH entered into a stipulated agreement. The county would complete the planning and environmental review processes, and HYH would drop its takings claim.
In late 2004, the county did adopt a specific plan calling for about 4,000 housing units and extensive commercial development. The county also approved development of the first phase of the plan, Butterfly Village, a project that would include 30% affordable housing and a neighborhood shopping area. Environmental groups, the City of Salinas and Caltrans sued. Environmentalists also forced a referendum onto the ballot, and voters in November 2005 rejected the specific plan 3-to-1.
However, the day before the 2005 election, the Board of Supervisors adopted a revised specific plan that covered only HYH's 671-acre project. Opponents pursued another referendum, and the revised plan lost by nearly 2-to-1 in June.
Attorney Mark Blum, who represents HYH head Mo Nobari, pointed out that the county adopted the specific plan under court order.
"The county has no legal authority to undo it, especially when it approved a map based on that plan," Blum argued. "The voters' power of referendum is entirely derivative of the elected body's power. They don't have any greater power than the Board of Supervisors."
Blum also has revived the developer's takings claim in light of the latest turn of events. Noting that the county has designated Rancho San Juan for growth for 25 years and that Salinas and Caltrans have settled their lawsuit — yet entitlements remain in doubt — Blum said, "This is probably the best set of facts you could have for a takings case."
But Julie Engell, who heads the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition, called Blum's takings arguments "nonsense." Nobari still owns the land and is able to farm it, so he never lost economic use of the property, she said. The county probably should have returned the money he paid for the specific plan, she said, but, "The people of Monterey County have spent a lot more than he ever has on a specific plan and environmental documents."
"Nothing has ever been taken from Mr. Nobari except for his campaign contributions, which have gone for naught," Engell contended. "The people of Monterey County should not have to guarantee the profits on this specific development."
A hearing on the validity of the latest referendum is scheduled for Monterey County Superior Court on July 27.
Measure A (general plan initiative): No, 56.3%
Measure B (reject the county's general plan update): No, 53.2%
Measure C (keep the county's general plan update): No, 55.1%
Measure D (uphold Butterfly Village approval): No, 63.7%