Santa Cruz County has adopted an ordinance that discourages development of housing projects at less than general plan density. The law, which took effect in July, requires residential project applications to undergo an expedited review process when the proponents submit applications for developments that are less dense than allowed by the general plan. Only if the reduced-density proposal passes that separate review will the county accept the application for normal processing. A panel with representatives of several agencies will review the proposal and decide whether the county should accept it for normal processing, County Planning Director Alvin James said. The county could still approve less dense projects, but it would have to make findings based on existing county policies, "rather than a developer reducing the number of units, essentially because he is tired of fighting neighborhood opposition," he said. James said a project the county approved earlier this year exemplifies the issue. The general plan designated the site of the Atherton Place project for about 80 housing units. The developer proposed about 60. Neighborhood opposition and environmental concerns resulted in the developer whittling the project to 26 units, which the county approved. So much of this sort of thing has happened that the county has recognized an inconsistency with its general plan, James said. Santa Cruz County will need all the density it can get to meet its share of the regional housing need. After lengthy talks among members of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments and with state Housing and Community Development officials, the AMBAG board directed Santa Cruz County and its cities to plan for 9,715 housing units from 2003 through 2008 — including 3,441 units in unincorporated Santa Cruz County. The board directed 13,414 units to Monterey County and its cities. The housing allocation decision pitted county against county. All AMBAG representatives from Monterey County voted for the housing allocation, while all representatives from north of the Pajaro River voted against it. An appeal is likely, and there is even talk in Santa Cruz County of seceding from AMBAG. State housing officials have given mixed signals about the AMBAG allocations, said Kate McKenna, AMBAG principal planner. State officials first said they wanted the majority of new units built in Santa Cruz County. In May, they complained about low numbers for Monterey County. "It has been very frustrating, and we're not there yet," McKenna said. "We hope HCD will accept this latest plan." The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments appears not to care what HCD thinks. In July, the SLOCOG board voted to allocate among its member jurisdictions 13,892 housing units — 5,000 fewer than HCD had directed to the county. The state has rejected the SLOCOG figure and may not certify a housing element that relies on the lower number. Working-class families now consider the lack of affordable housing to be as big a problem as the shortage of affordable health care, according to the Fannie Mae Foundation. In a report released in June, 41% of respondents listed affordable housing as a problem. Half of people in the West, including 55% living on the Pacific Coast, said affordable housing was a problem. "What's surprising about our results is that the lack of affordable homes is seen as a bigger problem than many of the top issues on the public agenda today, including employment," said Geoffrey Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which helped conduct the survey. An analysis of a Nevada County property rights initiative makes clear that most aspects of the ballot measure are unclear. The Property Owner Claims Reimbursement Process Initiative qualified for the November ballot (see CP&DR, June 2002). Supporters say the measure would require the county to pay compensation to landowners when regulations prevent development at currently zoned levels. But the ballot measure's actual language is difficult to interpret, concluded Seifel Consulting and Clifford Associates, which the county Board of Supervisors hired to analyze the initiative. What regulatory measures would be subject to the compensation requirement is uncertain, and many of measure's key terms are ambiguous, says the report, which was released in July. "County staff and the consultants retained to help prepare this report have concluded that it is impossible to determine the meaning of the measure with any certainty," the report states. Using many assumptions, the consultants estimated the initiative, if approved, could cost the county $3.5 million to $10.6 million annually from fiscal year 2005 through fiscal year 2007. They also found the measure could "have far-reaching effects on land use conditions in the county." The report is available at Napa Valley grape growers have voted to tax themselves $7.76 per acre to pay for operation of the county's 177-bed farmworker housing system and to build more units for farm laborers. About 80% of the vineyard owners who participated in the mail-in balloting voted for the tax. State legislation approved last year allowed the county to pursue the tax (see CP&DR, September 2001). The assessment will appear on property tax bills beginning this fall. The county set the amount by dividing the shortfall in the county farmworker housing budget ($340,000) by the number of acres planted with grapes (44,000). West Coast Homebuilders President Albert Seeno Jr. has agreed to pay a $1 million fine and provide a 630-acre preserve for endangered red-legged frogs — all as part of pleading guilty to violating the federal Endangered Species Act. Last year, Seeno's company drained and filled two ponds that provided frog habitat at the site of the 2,900-unit San Marco subdivision in Pittsburg. In June, federal officials filed two criminal charges against West Coast Homebuilders. One month later, Seeno agreed to pay $300,000 apiece to the federal government, Contra Costa County and the environmental group Save Mount Diablo. He will pay another $100,000 to the state Department of Fish and Game. And Seeno agreed to dedicate 630 acres he owns near Mount Diablo as a preserve for red-legged frogs. But not all the news for the red-legged frog is good. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) has rescinded designation of nearly 4 million acres of critical habitat for the species. To settle a lawsuit filed by the Home Builders Association of Northern California, the agency removed nearly all the land from last year's designation of 4.1 million acres (see CP&DR Environment Watch, December 2000). Federal officials made the decision to settle the lawsuit in light of some recent court rulings that said federal officials had not adequately considered economic impacts of Endangered Species Act decisions. A federal judge in San Diego has given USF&WS three years to reconsider designating critical habitat for eight threatened or endangered plant species. The agency had earlier decided that it was not prudent to designate critical habitat for the desert plants, which cover various areas from the Mexican border to Mono County. Environmentalists sued, and U.S. District Court Judge Irma Gonzalez ruled for them. Developers of a proposed 1,400-unit project in Contra Costa's Tassajara Valley received approved from the county in early July after agreeing to pay $8,000 per home to a new county housing trust fund. The Alamo Creek project will provide about $8.5 million for affordable housing projects, redevelopment and innovative land uses. The $8,000-per-unit fee will not apply to Alamo Creek's 340 affordable units. The fee broke the log-jam that had stalled approval of Tassajara Valley, in the hills east of Interstate 680. However, the Danville Town Council voted to sue over the project's EIR. Traffic congestion, water availability and grading are the major concerns. San Francisco supervisors slashed the budget for planning of, and environmental reviews for, a runway expansion at San Francisco International Airport. Supervisors gave the airport only about $6 million. They placed $5 million of the proposed budget into a reserve. Supervisors said they were angry about the hiring of high-priced lobbyists, public relations experts and other consultants. If the $5 million cut remains, it would effectively kill the project, Airport Director John Martin wrote to supervisors in June. A petition drive aimed at splitting Santa Barbara County into two counties kicked off in July. The mayors of the north county cities of Santa Maria, Lompoc and Guadalupe were among the first people to sign the petition, which asks the governor to appoint a study commission and put the matter on the ballot. Backers of the new county — proposed be called Mission County — have been pressing their case since last year to split off the fast-growing and more conservative northern part of the county from the Santa Barbara area, which has long dominated county politics. A proposed $9 billion bond measure to begin building a California high-speed rail system has been shelved. The measure's chief backer, state Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), said he would pursue a bond in November 2004, when officials are scheduled to have decided on routes and to have completed environmental studies. The development of Indian casinos in recent years has worried some county officials. But in economically depressed Yuba County, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in July to support the Enterprise Rancheria's proposal to build a casino south of Marysville. The 40-acre casino would be next to a two-year-old Bill Graham Presents amphitheater and on the site of a proposed auto race track, development of which appears in doubt (see CP&DR Local Watch, April 1999). However, the Enterprise Rancheria still needs the Interior Department to accept the 40-acre site into trust for the tribe. Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit over the City of Irvine's approval of a general plan amendment that could allow construction of 12,350 housing units and 7.3 million square feet of office, retail and industrial space on about 3,100 acres. The group Defend the Bay of Newport Beach claims the environmental impact report on the Northern Sphere plan was inadequate.