Deep in the heart of John Steinbeck country, city folks, rural folks, farmers, businesses and everyone in between are still waging dubious battle over control of Monterey County land. After an 11-year process, a general plan update was unanimously approved by the county's Board of Supervisors on October 26.
But rather than lay out a vision for a bright new future, the approved update � which focuses growth on existing urban centers, limits growth in some areas with water shortages, and expands farmland � may turn out to be a magnet for lawsuits. Groups are lining up to sue, with several suits expected to be filed by the end of the year.
Contentiousness would be nothing new for the county. Two previous versions of the plan had come before the board in 2004 and 2007, only to fall apart. In 2004, the board rejected a city-centered growth plan. In 2007, county voters rejected an environmental group's general plan initiative, and they rejected the county's version of the plan update as well (see CP&DR, Vol. 22, No. 7, July 2007).
Monterey County has all the ingredients for classic planning tussles: valuable agricultural land, scenic vistas near the oceans, wealthy residents who don't want to see more development, environmentalists who want growth in its cities, farmworkers who need housing, and chronic water supply issues. Put it all together, and common ground is difficult, if not impossible, to find.
"Both sides at the extremes are unhappy" with the latest plan, said Simon Salinas, who is chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
Salinas said that many groups in the county do support the updated plan�affordable housing advocates, cities, and developers. But environmentalists and agricultural groups may yet file lawsuits over the latest plan by the end of the year, delaying the plan from going forward.
The website for environmental group LandWatch Monterey County, calls the general plan "a deeply flawed document." Its website said "LandWatch opposes new policies which would permit cultivation on steep slopes, a practice prohibited since the 1980s," and claims the county has chosen to postpone dealing with long-term sustainable water supply issues. LandWatch officials declined to comment further for this story.
But many concerns about the plan's actual impacts are likely to be ironed out in the coming years. Both Sup. Salinas and Assistant County Planning Director Carl Holm say that implementing ordinances will spell out specifics from the 150-page plan.
One thing that the general plan doesn't touch is use of oceanfront property, always a hot button issue. That would get the Coastal Commission involved, explained Holm, who was the county's project manager on the general plan. So the plan looked only at other zones in the county that are located inland or on coastal plains.
Two notable parts of the new update are expected to impact parts of the county differently. One provision will limit housing subdivisions in unincorporated parts of the north county where water supplies are limited. This area has drawn particular scrutiny because it is just over the hill from the employment centers of Silicon Valley and therefore is considered ripe for development.
And yet, Monterey County is still more oriented to crops than to computers. Another provision allows crops to be grown on slopes of over 25% grade, which is expected to allow more vineyards on hillsides in the foothills that extend south from Salinas.
"Compromises were made to development on slopes and on water use," Holm said.
The 25% slope issue is part of a long range plan to promote more tourism in the inland parts of the county, which is home to many of the county's vineyards. Tasting rooms, however, are currently clustered on the Monterey Peninsula where tourists to Monterey and Carmel are plentiful, Holm explained.
To compel tourists to visit inland areas, the general plan update allows for easier development of bed and breakfast inns and tasting rooms in the Salinas Valley. Supervisor Salinas said the general plan update will also facilitate agriculture-related construction, such as food processing plants, in the region.
Although environmentalists are concerned that crops might take over fragile hillsides, but those concerns may be unfounded, Holm said most wine growers do not plan to grow grapes on slopes with more than a 25% grade. And anything beyond that threshold will require a use permit from the county. Holm said the new requirements for slope grading is based on studying what has been done in nearby grape growing regions of San Luis Obispo, Sonoma and Napa counties
"Most viticulturists indicated it's not cost effective to go over 25 percent," he said.
But one agricultural leader said a blanket slope policy doesn't work for the vast county. "The one-size-fits-all mentality is pretty stone age, " said Christopher Bunn, Jr., who is head of the land use committee of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.
Environmentalists, he said, "don't really care about slopes. It's a convenient way to shut down growth."
Bunn said that, on the whole, the new general plan is "not friendly to farming" because "a lot of these regulations and policies cost (farmers) more." He said that the Farm Bureau would meet soon to decide on litigation.
Several agricultural groups have threatened a lawsuit over the plan's requirement that most new construction include proof of a long-term water supply, according to the Salinas Californian newspaper. They contend that an annual $3 million tax assessment for various water projects already confers on them certain long-term water rights that the general plan update would effectively trump.
Finally, Michael Stamp, an environmental attorney in Monterey, represents what he calls "citizen advocacy groups."
"We're still evaluating the situation," he said on November 10, when asked if litigation would be filed over the update.
"If the general plan is challenged, the challenge could be quite successful," said Carmel Valley attorney Richard Rosenthal, who is counsel for the Save our Peninsula Committee. Rosenthal said two top concerns with the update are inadequacies with traffic circulation and water issues. Rosenthal did not, however, indicate that his group would be filing lawsuits.
"The county has a pretty rich history of land use litigation," he said.
Bunn, whose family company grows celery and cauliflower, said the 11 years of contention on the general plan update are due to "a very polarized county. It has, he said, "sucked up a lot of time and money that we would have rather put into our businesses."
Christopher Bunn, Monterey County Farm Bureau Land Use Committee, 831.424.
Carl Holm, Assistant Planning Director, Monterey County, 831.755.5240
Richard Rosenthal, attorney, 831.625.5193
Simon Salinas, Chair, Monterey County Board of Supervisors, .831.755.5033
Michael Stamp, attorney, 831.373.1214