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Four lawsuits take aim at county general plan


Published: December 3, 2010

THE LEGAL floodgates opened last week as four lawsuits were filed against Monterey County for its new general plan. The suits were filed Nov. 24 — the last day legal action could be taken against the plan.

Lawsuits filed independently by The Carmel Valley Association, LandWatch Monterey County and The Open Monterey Project each argue that the new general plan permits too much development accompanied by too much damage to the environment.

The fourth lawsuit, filed in tandem by the Monterey County Farm Bureau and the Salinas Valley Water Coalition, objects to conditions in the new general plan that could restrict access to water farmers say they’ve already paid for.

The general plan was unanimously approved Oct. 26 by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.
The lawsuits, each of which was filed Nov. 24, come as no surprise. When the general plan was approved, county counsel Les Gerard said the county faced “potential litigation from both sides.”

“Pick your poison,” he suggested.

Supervisor Lou Calcagno, meanwhile, warned activists that a legal challenge to the general plan would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“[You are] just going to cost the county money that could go to more valuable projects,” he said.

Counting cars

The Carmel Valley Association has long argued that the county — and now the general plan — uses an “extremely lax” method of measuring traffic in Carmel Valley that allows for more congestion than a method used in other areas of the county.

“Everyone in the county who lives with congested roads should be concerned,” said Carmel Valley activist Glenn Robinson. “If the supervisors can get away with these shenanigans in Carmel Valley, they will use the same technique elsewhere in the county in an attempt to remove traffic congestion as a development-limiting environmental impact.”

The CVA’s lawsuit demands an “adequate” EIR or a return to the previous method of measuring traffic, according to its attorney, Ron DeHoff.

DeHoff said the CVA also is objecting to the omission in the new plan of “specific standards” that prohibit development on steep slopes and protect endangered species. He said the old plan offered those protections.

LandWatch wants studies updated

The lawsuit by LandWatch, meanwhile, was filed in part because the group believes environmental studies for the 2001 Salinas Valley Water Project — which the general plan relied upon — are based on outdated information. “There have been numerous and substantial changes in the assumptions made ... regarding agricultural land use, population, and water demand,” reads a passage from a letter LandWatch delivered to supervisors Oct. 26.

As a result, LandWatch believes the water section of the general plan must be recirculated. “You can’t put out new information and not give the public an opportunity to comment on it,” explained Amy White, executive director of LandWatch.

As an example of new information that was inserted into the general plan, White cites a 17,000-acre-foot increase in agricultural demand for water. She said the public was told in 2008 that there would be no increase in demand for water from the agricultural sector. She also accused the county of justifying the increase by saying that urban water demand would decrease by 17,000-acre-feet — a claim White said can’t be backed up with any evidence.

The LandWatch lawsuit also raises concern that the general plan will permit development in the county’s “wine corridor” without adequate environmental review.

“The same environmental review should be required in the wine corridor that is required everywhere else in the county,” White added.

Group seeks another EIR

The lawsuit filed by The Open Monterey Project challenges the general plan’s EIR, which the group says doesn’t fully address the impacts on the environment that its policies would permit.

“The [general plan] would have significant unmitigated impacts on Monterey County and would change the physical environment of Monterey County forever,” the lawsuit reads. “These impacts were not adequately identified, investigated or analyzed in the environmental impact report ....”

And even though the plan took more than a decade to finalize, the group claims the general plan’s vetting process was accelerated as it moved closer to being adopted.

“The county’s rush to complete the approval of the General Plan resulted in prejudicial errors and omissions, and reflected a desire for expediency over public participation and good faith, reasoned analysis,” its authors, attorneys Michael Stamp and Molly Erickson, insist.

Farmers say no to proving water

The lawsuit filed by the Monterey County Farm Bureau and the Salinas Valley Water Coalition asks the county to rescind policies in the general plan that require users of the Salinas Valley Water Project to prove they have a “long-term and sustainable” water supply. “We believe we made a contract with the county when voters agreed to fund the project,” said Nancy Isakson, the president of the SVWC. “The taxpayers have held up their end of the bargain.”

What happens next?

Gerard said the lawsuits “will muddy the waters” for people coming in now and applying for permits.

“They won’t know if they’re subject to the 1982 General Plan or the 2010 General Plan,” he explained.
But Gerard also said, “The county feels very confident that we can defend against these lawsuits and put behind us the decade-long process of updating the general plan.”