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Monterey County Land Use Disputes Culminate At Rancho San Juan

A specific plan for a slice of northern Monterey County that has long been seen as a potential growth area could be released this summer. However, the second version of a Rancho San Juan specific plan is unlikely to settle long-running disputes over how the area between the City of Salinas and the unincorporated community of Prunedale should develop.  

At issue are not only how much of the roughly 2,500 acres should be developed and in what manner, but whether development should occur under control of the county, the City of Salinas or even a new city. Adding to the tension are the different desires of the numerous landowners in the area, and a Monterey County Superior Court decision ordering the county to complete the planning process.   

The court order is part of the project's lengthy history. During adoption of a general plan in the early 1980s, the county designated Rancho San Juan as an area for future development. In 1986, as part of the Greater Salinas Area Plan, the county designated Rancho San Juan as an "area of development concentration" and drew the first boundaries. A mixture of planning, politics and litigation consumed the next 12 years leading up to the release in 1998 of a specific plan and accompanying environmental impact report.    

Those documents generated a huge response from the public and agencies. "It was pretty clear what the community expected," said Celia Perez Martinez the county's current Rancho San Juan project manager. "They expected a community, not just houses. They expected no sprawl. They expected preservation of historic and cultural resources." But the plan did not meet those expectations, she said.   

The overwhelming response and the arrival of Sally Reed (late of Los Angeles County and the Department of Motor Vehicles) as county administrative officer led the Board of Supervisors to halt the specific planning process and begin an overhaul of the general plan in 1999. That move angered HYH Corporation, which owns or controls 671 acres in Rancho San Juan and which had helped fund the specific plan process. The company sued the county and won. The Superior Court said the county could not stop in the middle of the planning process, and the court ordered the county to complete the task.   

Planning resumed about two years ago but has remained mostly behind the scenes - to the frustration of property owners, city officials and environmentalists. Martinez said the county has conducted meetings with property owners, and she has made two presentations to the Salinas City Council. Plus, the Board of Supervisors has received two updates. But planners are working mostly with the first round of documents and the extensive comments, she said.

The plan also will be based on the 12 "guiding objectives" that county supervisors established for the ongoing general plan update, she said. Those objectives include concepts such as compact development, balancing residential and commercial growth, and preserving farmland and rural areas. Two options presented thus far call for 4,000 housing units, roughly 2.5 million square feet of "employment center" development, a town center, and additional commercial, office and live-work development. Development would be held to city standards, Martinez added.   

The HYH lawsuit and the county's desire to satisfy that developer appear to be driving the county's approach, said both attorney Brian Finegan, who represents the owner of about 220 acres at the southern end of Rancho San Juan, and Gary Patton, executive director of LandWatch Monterey County. HYH has submitted an application, which the county is processing concurrently with the specific plan, for about 1,000 houses, a 40,000-square-foot shopping center and a golf course.   

The HYH property, though, is in the middle of the site, so developing that portion of Rancho San Juan first has been questioned by Salinas officials and others.   

The City of Salinas opposed the development proposed in the 1998 specific plan, and the city has not changed its position. The city has raised issues such as the provision of public services - especially water - traffic, loss of farmland and erosion of Salinas's urban edge. In a letter to the county earlier this year, the city indicated that the county's approach conflicted with the Boronda memorandum of understanding, a city-county pact that calls for city-centered growth.   

"The development of Rancho San Juan, essentially a ‘new town' with a potential population rivaling that of Gonzales, Soledad, Greenfield and King City, is in direct conflict with city center growth and many of the references to city center growth embodied in the Monterey County general plan," Salinas Planning Manager Robert Richelieu wrote.    

Rancho San Juan lies within 1,000 feet of the Salinas city limits, yet the city did not include Rancho San Juan in a general plan update completed during 2002. Salinas officials envision their city growing to the east and northeast, not directly north into Rancho San Juan, said Senior Planner Jenny Mahoney.    

"When you look at our land use map and you plug in Rancho San Juan, it looks like this weird appendage that doesn't fit with the rest of the city," Mahoney said.   

Still, some landowners want the city to annex their property. Finegan said his clients, the Ferrasci family, which owns a 220-acre strawberry farm that abuts the city limits, wants no part of the county process.   

"What I've consistently said to the county planners is, ‘Let my people go.' Let the Ferrasci family go make their deal with the city," Finegan said. "It's the logical place for the City of Salinas to expand. It's very developable property. It has minimal constraints."    

The county wants to keep Rancho San Juan for itself so that it can meet its state housing mandate, charged Finegan, who is skeptical of county talk of jobs-housing balance in the area. "There has never been any interest in the industrial part of that project," he said.   

Cathy West, executive director of the Monterey County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), said there currently is no answer to the ultimate question of who will govern Rancho San Juan. The LAFCO has begun studying what entities will provide services if Rancho San Juan development does proceed. There are two fire protection districts in the area, a park district has shown interest in providing services, and the Pajaro/Sunny Mesa Community Services District has proposed expanding its boundaries to consolidate water services to Rancho San Juan.   

"In any case, we're looking at some sort of temporary service arrangements out there," West said.
The LAFCO studies could help answer the ultimate question, and they could affect both the city's and the county's approach to Rancho San Juan, West said. If an adequate commercial and industrial tax base were proposed at Rancho San Juan, LAFCO would look favorably on annexation, she said. If Rancho San Juan evolves as an urban yet unincorporated area, annexation would became more difficult because of the number of people involved, she said.   

And then there is the question of whether to develop Rancho San Juan at all. Patton, a former Monterey County supervisor and former general counsel for the Planning and Conservation League, said he has never supported growth in that area. Salinas has about 3,000 acres for growth, and the county has no business allowing large-scale development of unincorporated territory. The court order in the HYH lawsuit, Patton noted, only requires the county to complete the planning process; the court did not order the county to approve development.    

The area is home to the "Red Pony Barn" made famous by John Steinbeck. Historic preservation advocates want the barn protected. Farmland and open space advocates decry the potential loss of productive fields and scenic oak woodlands. And just about everyone is concerned about traffic on rural roads, narrow highways and the already busy streets of Salinas.    

If the county does approve large-scale development, many interest groups are likely to file a lawsuit or pursue a referendum. The City of Salinas has also hinted at legal action.   

An additional complication is the need to improve Highway 101, which splits Rancho San Juan. The highway currently is a four-lane road with cross traffic and driveways. Caltrans is constructing extensive safety improvements, but both Caltrans and the Transportation Agency for Monterey County view a proposed Prunedale bypass as the long-term answer to safety and capacity concerns.

However, a bypass through the hills would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require extensive property acquisition and, likely, environmental mitigation, said Colin Jones, a Caltrans spokesman.  

"The bypass is in the preliminary planning stages, but it's years if not decades away," Jones said.  

Because of this, Caltrans has asked Monterey County to plan Rancho San Juan both with and without the bypass.

Contacts:
Celia Perez Martinez, Monterey County Planning and Building Inspection Department, (831) 796-3087.
Jenny Mahoney, City of Salinas Community Development Department, (831) 758-7206.
Cathy West, Monterey County Local Agency Formation Commission, (831) 754-5838.
Brian Finegan, landowner's attorney, (831) 757-3641.
Gary Patton, LandWatch Monterey County, (831) 375-3752.
County Planning and Building Inspection Department website: www.co.monterey.ca.us/pbi/

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