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Supervisors OK September Ranch again

– But developer not ready to celebrate

By CHRIS COUNTS  The Carmel Pine Cone

Published: November 12, 2010

WILL THIS time be a charm for the September Ranch?

For the third time since it was introduced in 1995, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved Jim Morgens’ Carmel Valley project, which aims to build 73 single-family market-rate homes and 22 affordable units, and preserve 891 acres of open space. The ranch’s equestrian center, which has long provided a scenic backdrop for motorists traveling on Carmel Valley Road, will remain.

The project was approved by a 3 to 2 vote. Meeting in Salinas, supervisors Fernando Armenta, Lou Calcagno and Simon Salinas supported the development, while supervisors Dave Potter and Jane Parker opposed it.

Morgens was pleased with the vote, but he’s in no hurry to celebrate.

“I’m not drinking Champagne yet,” Morgens told The Pine Cone after the hearing. “I’m feeling pretty good right now, but I’ve been here twice before.”

Morgens’ project was last approved by the board of supervisors in 2006, but that permit was overturned by a lawsuit. Meanwhile, in 2008, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Susan Dauphine ruled that the project’s EIR wasn’t adequate.

The project has been the subject of so much contention in Carmel Valley that it became a focal point of last year’s incorporation election debate. So it came as no surprise that passions flared during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s hearing.

Rewarding bad behavior?

Activist Patricia Bernardi repeated her assertion that Morgens overwatered his property for years to create an inflated baseline for his water use. She called the lower portion of his property the “Carmel Valley car wash.”

“I’m asking you not to reward bad behavior,” Bernardi said to the supervisors. “The water issue has never been resolved.”

Bob Sinotte, though, argued that the project is just what Carmel Valley needs.

“This project is a ray of light in the midst of a depression,” said Sinotte, one of the most outspoken opponents of incorporation. “This development will provide jobs, housing and some revenue for dying and struggling businesses.”

Several opponents of the project claimed it would destroy Carmel Valley’s “rural character.” The phrase was repeatedly tossed around by both sides in the incorporation debate.

“This project does nothing to keep Carmel Valley rural,” charged Amy White, the executive director of LandWatch Monterey County.

Leading incorporation supporter Glenn Robinson, meanwhile, accused Sinotte and others of hypocrisy. “Is supporting discretionary subdivisions in Carmel Valley honoring their campaign pledge to keep Carmel Valley rural?” he asked The Pine Cone after the hearing.

Calcagno, though, wasn’t buying into the idea that Morgens’ project would jeopardize Carmel Valley’s rural character.

“We’re talking about 10 acres for one house,” Calcagno countered. “You can’t tell me we’re ruining the valley’s rural character.”

Calcagno told the public he was supporting the project in part because of Morgens’ decision to preserve an extensive Monterey pine forest on the upper portion of his property — an effort Calcagno encouraged Morgens to pursue.

“It’s the prettiest pine forest in Monterey County,” he observed. “I negotiated in good faith with the landowner [to preserve the forest] and I owe it to him today to support the project.”

While Calcagno said he felt an obligation to back the project, Potter took a different view.

“Ownership is a right, but development is a calculated risk,” Potter insisted. “There are no guarantees.”

While Potter complimented Morgens for scaling back the project over the years, he said it wasn’t enough to sway his view of it. He still has issues with its location, its density and its ability to provide enough water. “The project has improved, but my vote hasn’t changed.”

Parker said she was worried the project would take water from the Carmel River aquifer, a charge often repeated by opponents.

“We can’t take a chance on impacting that aquifer,” Parker explained. “Even a small amount of impact is significant.”
Salinas, though, supported the project — in part because of the affordable housing it would offer. “People should be able to live where they work,” he suggested.

The hearing presented yet another opportunity for two of Monterey County’s highest profile attorneys — Tony Lombardo and Michael Stamp — to debate the merits of a project.

Lombardo, representing Morgens, took opponents to task for claiming the project doesn’t have enough water.

“Three engineering companies and the board of supervisors concluded there is a viable long-term water supply,” Lombardo noted. “Extensive analysis has been done beyond anything I’ve ever seen.”

In contrast to previous hearings on the subject, the majority of residents who spoke at the hearing supported the project, a fact that Lombardo observed.

“There is definitely not overwhelming public sentiment against this project,” Lombardo added, countering charges made by opponents that the majority of the public opposes the development.

Stamp, meanwhile, had some unflattering words for what Morgens hopes to build on his ranch.

“It’s a bad project and it’s a bad location,” said Stamp, who represented opponents at the hearing. “The project is so bad that it has an all-time record of 190 conditions. And the project still has an unreliable water supply.”

The project’s 190 conditions inspired several charges from opponents that the development would be impossible to monitor, particularly considering Monterey County’s shorthanded enforcement staff. They also claimed that taxpayers would end up footing the bill for the effort.

But Monterey County planning director Mike Novo insisted his staff could handle the workload — and taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for it.

“Between 80 and 90 of the conditions are tied to either the project’s final map or building permits,” Novo explained. “As we go through time, the number of conditions will be reduced. Also, this project is distinguished by the fact that the applicant is paying for our monitoring.”

Curiously, Novo credited Stamp with helping to make the planning department’s enforcement efforts more efficient — a fact that he believes will make it easier to monitor the September Ranch.

“Mr. Stamp helped us draft a new code enforcement ordinance,” Novo told supervisors. “With less staff we are closing more cases. The new ordinance is helping us improve our system, and I think you’ll be happy with the results.”

Opponents of the project have 30 days to file a lawsuit challenging the supervisors’ decision.