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Who's that new guy with the desal plant?

By KELLY NIX

Published: December 21, 2012

JAWS DROPPED at the Pacific Grove City Council meeting this week when a man introduced himself and said he was taking over Nader Agha’s “People’s Desal” project.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Donald Lew, managing partner for the Concord-based JDL Development private equity firm, made the surprising announcement Agha is no longer involved in the desal project, and that the project has been renamed.

The news an unknown businessman on the Peninsula is now steering Agha’s plan stunned the P.G. City Council — which this year voted to explore becoming the public partner for the desalination plant. It’s also led to uncertainty about the city’s future involvement with the project.

“I was surprised by his revelations,” councilman Dan Miller told The Pine Cone Thursday morning, “and as a council, think we need to look into him and see how much of it is real.”

Councilman Robert Huitt, who voted against being involved in Agha’s water project, said the news that he’s no longer in charge is, to say the least, puzzling.
“I’ve always been opposed to our involvement in this project as a partner,” Huitt said, “and now, it’s not even clear where the project is headed or who’s in charge.”

Adding even more confusion was a press release Agha issued Thursday. Agha called Lew a senior managing director of the project, which he said has been renamed the “Regional Desalinization Project at Moss Landing Commercial Park.”

Agha said Lew is “joining the Moss Landing Commercial Park” to “manage the development” of the project, which was formerly called the People’s Moss Landing Water Desal Project.

But Lew’s characterization of his role in the water proposal differs from Agha’s.

“Lew said Nader is out of the picture,” Monterey Peninsula Water Management District general manager Dave Stoldt. “And Lew said he has acquired the loan [for Agha’s Moss Landing real estate], which in effect means he has the property.”

When asked by The Pine Cone if Lew had purchased the 200-acre former brick plant adjacent to Highway 1 in Moss Landing, Agha’s partner George Schroeder told The Pine Cone, “At this point it’s not true.”

“We are in negotiations with him to jointly operate the Moss Landing property,” Schroeder said. “And when we conclude, Lew will be in charge.”

Agha’s news release also said Lew is “looking forward to working with the City of Pacific Grove as the potential public agency.”

However, Mayor Bill Kampe said that wouldn’t be possible based on what Lew told the council Wednesday.

“Don Lew is looking to hire someone on his own to do the environmental impact report, which could not be the case if the city is going to be their partner,” Kampe said, “because we would have to be the one to select and hire the environmental consultant.”

Also bewildering is Lew’s apparent announcement that he’s forged a deal with private water company California American Water.

According to Stoldt, Lew, told him he’d entered into a water purchase agreement with Cal Am, something the water company’s spokeswoman said hasn’t happened.

“We met with Mr. Lew and he apprised us of his plans,” Catherine Bowie told The Pine Cone, “but we have made no agreements with him or the entity he represents.”

Agha said Lew is an engineer who formerly worked for Bechtel Power Corp., a large construction and engineering firm that has its headquarters in San Francisco.

According to JDL’s website, the family-owned private equity firm has a “focus on private equity investments in innovative companies with disruptive technologies within the health care, natural and renewable resources and green technology markets.”

Lew didn’t return a phone message left by The Pine Cone.

A consultant for the Monterey Peninsula Water Authority, a group composed of the six Peninsula mayors to find the most feasible water project for the Peninsula, found in November that Agha’s desal proposal couldn’t be up and running until the third quarter of 2019. The consultant also found Cal Am’s proposed water project would cost more but could be operating by the fourth quarter of 2017.

While Agha has long maintained his facility would be the least expensive to build at $129 million, the consultant said the project would likely cost in the area of $190 million.