December 23, 2006

T H E H E R A L D ' S V I E W

A Christmas surprise from the supervisors

We won't call it a Christmas gift. It isn't a gift if you have to fight for it.

The Board of Supervisors' tentative decision to put competing visions of the county general plan to a public vote also doesn't quite qualify as a miracle. That's a word that should be reserved for events of a more spiritual nature.

So let's just call the board action Tuesday a very pleasant surprise, a remarkable turnabout that restores faith in the power of people working together and speaking up.

In case you missed it, the supervisors indicated that when they return to action after the holidays, they're likely to agree to place the county's official general plan update (GPU4) on the June ballot alongside the relatively slow-growth Community General Plan.

The decision was both unexpected and wise. With 15,000-plus voters petitioning for a public vote on the alternative Community General Plan, and seemingly meeting legal requirements for a ballot measure, the county's previous decision to keep it off the ballot was jeopardizing the political careers of supervisors Jerry Smith, Fernando Armenta and Lou Calcagno.

Until last week, it seemed as though the supervisors and their lawyers would do whatever it took to keep it off the ballot, and to heck with the public. But the measure's backers -- with help from supporters of open government and clean process -- kept the pressure on, balancing the considerable pressure being exerted by development interests.

It was the development side, which prefers the "smart-growth" label, that had essentially vetoed draft general plans prepared by the county planning staff and insisted on the latest draft, GPU4, which is more favorable to development and agribusiness.

While last week's board decision was largely the result of pressure from slow-growthers, at least some of the supervisors apparently felt they had been pushed too far by commercial interests. In particular, Calcagno is said to have become exasperated when ag interests criticized his recent push to require special mitigation measures when projects result in loss of farmland.

However it got to this fascinating point, the result could be the political fight of the decade in Monterey County, where every proposed development is a battle and where an awful lot of money will be made or lost depending on how the general plan ultimately carves up the landscape for development purposes.

If the supervisors follow through as they all but promised Tuesday, the result will be a loud and emotional campaign in which both sides will have considerable opportunity for hyperbole.

From every perspective, there's a lot at stake. If the last year of general plan debate is an indication, the campaign could be long on accusation and short on facts. But if the voters insist on information and not rhetoric, the eventual outcome could make all the fuss worthwhile.