So long; farewell; auf weidersehen; goodnight.
It's not going to be all sad waves and tearful goodbyes when Supervisors Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt are replaced next year. Many SLO County wonks will be delighted to bid the current board adieu, especially with the last-minute string of pro-development votes that have passed at the end of their tenure.
Lenthall and Ovitt are two of the prevailing votes in what has become a consistent 3-2 split on most land-use decisions. When the two lost re-election bids, slow-growth proponents feared the last few months of 2008 would be a free pass for project-hungry developers, as long as the developers could appeal to the board before the 2009 switch. Many say that's turned out to be the case.
The last in a trifecta of hotly debated projects was Paul Viborg's sand-and-gravel mine on the Estrella River. The Planning Commission denied his application, saying that the project needed a complete Environmental Impact Report. Viborg thought differently, so he appealed to the Board of Supervisors and got a tentative 3-2 approval on Nov. 25.
In the last two meetings of the year, the current board is expected to give final approval for the Viborg and Santa Margarita Ranch project appeals. The board previously approved the Cayucos Del Mar motel/condo project appeal, which was also widely protested and also passed on a 3-2 vote.
What has riled many environmentalists is not the decisions themselves so much as the way that big projects have been hammered through approval processes by developers in order to get a vote from the current board. And the current board has often obliged.
"It seems to me that there's a lot of accommodation of business that doesn't need to be handled so quickly," said Gordon Hensley of San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper.
The Santa Margarita Ranch project, in particular, was approved by Lenthall, Ovitt, and Supervisor Katcho Achadjian despite hefty opposition, an unprecedented number of unavoidable environmental impacts, and a 4-1 decision by Planning Commissioners to deny the project.
Former supervisor Dr. Richard Kresja warned the three supervisors during the appeal hearings that they would be accountable for the gradual death of Santa Margarita Ranch by approving the project. Kresja was a county supervisor for eight years in the 1970s and said he has known almost every supervisor who has served in the last 35 years, but added that he was particularly disappointed with this board.
"One has to wonder why they feel so loyal to the developers," he said. "And obviously they've had support from the developers and they're giving their votes up to the last minute on [the developers'] behalf."
A big frustration is that there is seemingly no way to sway votes. Activists, environmentalists, and the public have flooded appeal hearings, but the outcome is almost always the same—the majority vote favors the developer.
"A bad or subverted process that ignores the county's policies and general plan harms everyone in the end," North County Watch President Sue Harvey said.
Already there is pressure on the new supervisors —Adam Hill and Frank Mecham—to save the day. Few are looking to stop all development, but they hope Hill and Mecham—especially Hill—will swing votes the other way.
"In a lot of ways I think it's kind of like electing Barack [Obama]," Hensley said. "There's a tremendous amount of hope placed on the shoulders of the incoming board members."
The new members will also find themselves defending votes of the old board in court. The Concerned Citizens of Cayucos filed a lawsuit on Nov. 26 to overturn the board's vote on the motel project. Opponents of the Santa Margarita Ranch project have said they will probably sue the county if the project is approved on Dec. 16, the final meeting of the year.
Viborg's and other projects along the Salinas River could be put under the lens. The Department of Fish and Game and environmental groups have pushed strongly to have a complete environmental study on the effects of mining in the area, and worry that the river may already be at its limit.
As for the future, there's hope that the new board will put developers through more scrutiny, but there's still time for the current board to cast its vote before the change.
It's nothing personal, Hensley said of cheering Lenthall and Ovitt's departure. Still ...
"I'm glad for the change, but I'm really disappointed in this sort of, what appears to be, 'Well, we're heading out the door so we've gotta clean up business for the good ol' boys.'"
Change of Heart
- Smaller design of Cayucos Del Mar project approved by Planning Commission 3-1-1 on June 26; Board of Supervisors approves larger project 3-2 on Oct. 28.
- Santa Margarita Ranch project denied by Planning Commission 4-1 on Oct. 9; Board of Supervisors tentatively approves 3-2 on Nov. 18.
- Viborg sand and gravel mining project denied by Planning Commission 3-1-1 on Sept. 11; Board of Supervisors tentatively approves 3-2 on Nov. 25.
Staff Writer Colin Rigley wishes all lame-duck politicians good luck, except George W. Bush. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.