After nearly five years of work and $5 million of expense, Monterey County’s general plan revision effort has taken a drastic turn. Monterey County supervisors have installed a new team to take charge of the revision and have put on ice a draft general plan that had been endorsed by the Planning Commission.
The Board of Supervisors’ decision, which came on a 3-2 vote, cheered development interests, landowners, farmers, the tourism industry, labor unions and some affordable housing advocates, all of whom disliked the draft general plan. The decision angered environmentalists, slow-growth activists and different affordable housing advocates, who endorsed many provisions in the draft plan.
No matter which side is “winning” at this point, it appears that Monterey County — long a scene for protracted development battles — is more polarized than ever over growth. One pro-growth group has threatened to sue the county, while slow-growth forces are feeling betrayed and discussing a ballot measure of some sort.
“It’s like a couple of angry dogs circling around, snarling, waiting to see who’s going to lunge first,” said Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau and a draft plan opponent.
Adding to the uncertainty is a November election that could tip the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Edith Johnson, who cast the swing vote for scrapping the draft plan in late May, is not seeking re-election. Running for the seat are Seaside Mayor Jerry Smith, who opposed the draft plan, and Jane Parker, a Planned Parenthood executive who is seen as the slow-growth candidate.
From the outset, Monterey County’s general plan process was unique. When the county got started, the planning department was short-staffed and in a state of flux. So County Administrative Officer Sally Reed created a new division in her office with Chief Assistant CAO James Colangelo in charge of 10 county employees and about 15 consultants. Working through about a dozen citizen advisory committees, the general plan crew conducted more than 200 public meetings.
As the plan took shape based on “guiding objectives” adopted by county supervisors (see sidebar below), growth advocates began raising concerns. A 2001 update was rejected, and an attempt in 2003 to resolve issues though a 25-member “refinement committee” stumbled. Eventually, a document known as GPU-3 was released early this year. After seven long meetings, the Planning Commission endorsed an amended version of GPU-3 and a draft environmental impact report in late April.
The draft plan is a marked change from the existing general plan, which was adopted in 1982. That plan is fairly brief and relies heavily on area plans for more detailed policies and implementation measures. The draft plan, which is about 1,500 pages long, is organized quite differently. Significantly, the plan directs unincorporated area growth to seven “community areas,” which would have housing densities ranging from 7 to 30 units per acre. The plan would virtually prohibit new subdivisions outside those community areas. The draft plan emphasizes the need to get infrastructure and public services in place, and calls on new development and existing residents of poorly served areas to foot the bill. While dramatically reducing the land available for development under the 1982 plan, planners said the document still provides three times as much land as needed to meeting the unincorporated county’s 20-year housing needs.
“The major thrust of this plan is to manage growth by preserving a clear distinction between urban and rural areas. This means channeling new growth into planned urban areas and preserving rural areas for agriculture and other resources-based industries and for natural resource protection,” the document states in a chapter called “Plan Concept.” To ensure the goals are met, “it will be critical to time the release of new growth areas based on the availability of water, roads, sewer and other services and to phase development from the community centers outward.”
Almost everyone found something to hate about the draft plan. That hatred came to a head in the Board of Supervisors chambers. The plan arrived in supervisors’ hands in mid-May, with the schedule calling for board adoption in June.
“That’s when I told the board, ‘Time out,’” said County Counsel Charles McKee. His office and county departments involved with land use had never received the opportunity to review the entire draft plan, McKee said. Feeling the heat from powerful interest groups, the board not only granted McKee’s time out, the board put him in charge of the revision process.
Supervisor Fernando Armenta, who voted in the majority, declined to characterize the decision as a change of direction, but, rather, as a way of ensuring that everyone gets heard.
“To me, it’s not stopping the process. The thing was never complete to begin with,” Armenta said. “I never made any promises to anybody about any deadlines.”
But Marit Evans, a former, 13-year member of the county Planning Commission, said supervisors deviated from the process because they did not want to make difficult decisions. “Three of them gave in to the development interests,” Evans said.
Discarding the plan was “totally unjustified,” added Gary Patton, executive director of LandWatch Monterey County and a former county supervisor. “When it became clear that the board was going to have to vote on a document that the business and development community didn’t like — and, therefore, either have to adopt a plan that these folks opposed, or vote to modify the Planning Commission recommendation to accommodate the development side — the board decided to avoid, at least for the time, the need to make a tough choice,” Patton said.
“I think the supervisors have taken the only course they could have taken,” responded the Farm Bureau’s Perkins, a Republican candidate for Assembly. The draft plan is internally inconsistent, with long “feel-good discussions” at the start of each element that do not necessarily match the policies, Perkins contended. “They [supervisors] simply could not implement the plan they had in front of them.”
The effort was supposed to produce an update of the 1982 plan, not an entirely new plan with a different format, said Brian Finegan, a Salinas attorney who represents landowners and agricultural interests. The draft plan “may have been cutting-edge, but it did not reflect the diversity of this county, a broad cross-section of the county.”
County Planning and Building Inspection Division Director Scott Hennessy, who is now working closely with McKee on the plan, agreed that the original update grew into something else. “The power structure of the community really was not prepared to accept a state-of-the-art general plan. They wanted an update of the ’82 plan,” Hennessy said.
And that, apparently, is what they will get. With the board’s blessing, McKee and Hennessy intend to craft a general plan based largely on the 1982 edition. They say they will also use the guiding objectives, portions of the draft general plan and community input in piecing together a new plan, he said.
“We’re going to see if we can use an area plan approach,” McKee said. “We’ll probably do a lot of informal meetings with stakeholder groups. And then if we can’t get some good consensus in different areas, we will ask the board to be tiebreaker or to appoint a citizens commission.”
Patton and his allies argue that McKee’s process is a back-room approach to what should be a public process. Although McKee and supervisors said they would like to see everyone stay involved, some people are unsure how to proceed.
“If join them, we’re co-opted,” said Evans. “If we don’t join them, we’re ‘detractors.’ The county counsel has already called us that.”
Whether the guiding objectives survive intact could be as important symbolically as practically. Finegan and Perkins offered a tepid endorsement of the objectives, while Armenta said the objectives should not limit the plan. Patton and other controlled-growth advocates endorse the objectives but have long wondered whether the county would truly abide by them.
Hennessy said he hopes to release a new plan in about one year.
Monterey County General Plan Guiding Objectives
1. Preserve the unique character of areas throughout Monterey County as represented by the different area land use plans.
2. Identify land that is adequate and appropriate for the residential, commercial and industrial development needs of Monterey County during the next 20 years, taking into account land located within the cities, existing legal lots of record, and resource and infrastructure constraints.
3. Preserve a distinction between urban and rural areas. Channel new growth to areas already committed to an urban level of development (e.g. cities, areas directly adjacent to cities, and densely developed unincorporated communities). Preserve rural areas for resource-based industries (e.g. farming, livestock grazing, mining), natural resources protection, and open space recreation uses.
4. Strongly encourage new commercial, industrial and residential development to provide actual, new, permanently affordable living quarters, including housing for people with low, very low and moderate incomes who live and/or are employed in Monterey County. Promote density, creative and innovative design concepts, and employer-produced housing which will increase affordable housing opportunities convenient to the workplace. Promote a healthy job and housing balance in all areas.
5. Promote the development of walkable communities that meet the daily needs of their residents, offer a high quality of life for their residents, and reduce the need for automobile trips.
6. Promote, preserve and support agriculture and the industries that serve it. Promote industries that preserve and support environmental quality or serve the local needs of our communities.
7. Minimize development of commercially viable agricultural land. Ensure that recognized needs for growth are met by infill and contiguous, compact development.
8. Provide adequate infrastructure and public services for existing residents and businesses. Ensure that infrastructure and public services are available, fully funded, and constructed concurrently with new development. Ensure that new development neither increases the infrastructure and public service cost for existing residents and businesses nor reduces their quality of service by a significant amount.
9. Provide long-term protection of identified resource-rich and critical habitat areas.
10. Protect the visual integrity of ridgelines, designated scenic corridors and other identified sensitive visual resources throughout Monterey County.
11. Seek to provide an adequate and sustainable water supply while protecting the county’s watersheds and marine environment, including surface water, groundwater and aquifer recharge areas.
12. Provide a clear statement of county land use values and policies to provide clarity in the county’s permit processing system and to simplify review of projects that are consistent with the general plan.
Charles McKee, Monterey County counsel, (831) 755-5045.
Scott Hennessy, Monterey County Planning and Building Inspection Division, (831) 755-5025.
Supervisor Fernando Armenta, (831) 755-5011.
Bob Perkins, Monterey County Farm Bureau, (831) 751-3100.
Gary Patton, LandWatch Monterey County, (831) 422-9390.
General plan website: www.co.monterey.ca.us/gpu