Don't hold your breath

Published January 2004 in The Carmel Pine Cone - Editorial

A hopeful woman called our office the other day, eager to find out how she could get on the waiting list for one of the affordable housing units at Rancho Canada Village.

"I hope I'm not too late," she said. We immediately assured her that the list probably hadn't even been opened, much less filled up.

But she was concerned about an elderly relative who desperately needed an inexpensive place to live. "Haven't they started building yet?" she asked. Unbelievably, the woman wasn't kidding. We found her through-the-looking-glass innocence touching, so we took the time to explain just how long a row Nick Lombardo has to hoe before he'll be able to get construction of his 280-unit housing project under way.

The plan wasn't even announced until October, we began. Since then, there's been a series of informal workshops to gather input from neighbors and other interested parties. Lombardo says he hopes he'll file an application with the county at the end of February.

At that point, the planning department will begin a state-mandated review of the project, for its "potentially significant impacts" on the environment, including aesthetics, biological resources, mineral resources, utilities and service systems, public services, agricultural and cultural resources, water and air quality, noise, recreation, geology and traffic. Also whether the housing unit will produce any hazardous materials or violate existing county zoning laws.

Invariably, for a project like Rancho Canada Village, the checklist will trigger a state law requiring that an Environment Impact Report be prepared before officials begin considering whether the project itself should be built. An EIR is a complex document that can take years to prepare, cost $100,000 or more, and end up being bigger than the Manhatten phone book.

Before the EIR is even begun, the county will host a "scoping session" where members of the public will be invited to offer their opinions about the project's environmental effects. Every government agency with even the remotest jurisdiction over the plan will also be invited to suggest topics for the EIR.

A consulting company (picked by the county but paid by the applicant), with the help of a legion of experts, will then write the EIR. Included will be a thorough analysis of the environmental impacts not only of the proposed development, but also all reasonable alternatives to the project, such as building fewer units at Rancho Canada, building the whole project somewhere else and leaving Rancho Canada just the way it is. One of these will be ordained the "environmentally superior alternative" by the EIR consultant,.

When the document is finished, the public will be asked to comment on whether the EIR did what it was supposed to do - that is, everything identified in the "scoping session" and by the various governmental agencies. Usually, the answer is No. The consultant will then add material to the EIR. If all goes well, this threshold - when the county can begin public hearings on the merits of Rancho Canada Village - will be crossed sometime in 2005 or 2006.

Then the Carmel Valley Land Use Advisory Committee will hold several public hearings on the project. They will make a recommendation to the Monterey County Planning Commission, which will hold its own round of public hearings. In turn, the planning commission will make a recommendation to the board of supervisors, which will also hold public hearings and then decide whether to approve or deny the project, equally likely, send it back to the LUAC or the planning commission for more consideration. Also, the board has to make sure all the environmental impacts identified by the EIR have been mitigated as much as possible. And it has to explain why the "environmentally superior alternative" identified in the EIR shouldn't be substituted for the whole project.

Thus, another year or two after the EIR is finished, Nick Lombardo will get an answer from the county whether his project can be built. If the answer is Yes, he and the county will probably be sued - the easiest grounds for filing a suit to stop a development project is to claim that the EIR wasn't adequate. If a judge agrees, the EIR is reopened and the whole process begins again. A determined opponent can drag the judicial process out for at least five years. And then there's always the possibility of a ballot measure to overturn the decision of the board of supervisors!

Thus, if new housing is to be built at Rancho Canada, it won't be for a long, long time, we told the woman, who understandably had gotten a bit discouraged.

She hung up before we had a chance to give her the worst news: By the time affordable housing is built in Carmel Valley, her elderly relative probably won't need it anymore.


Coast Property Owners Association, P.O. Box 59, Big Sur, CA 93920
© 2004 by Coast Property Owners Association