Fortune Cookies & Accomplishments

by Mark Scaramella, November 18, 2009

Planning Director Nash Gonzalez is a man whose consciousness might be described as “highly evolved” or non-existent. Is he putting us on or is he clinically delusional?

With a straight face, Gonzalez listed his “accomplishments” at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting:

• The General Plan Update. An accomplishment? It took ten years and several million dollars to produce a document objectively worse than the pre-updated Plan. And it isn't really complete yet (far from it, actually), but Gonzalez considers it “done.”

Gonzalez listed this ongoing fiasco as an accomplishment.

• The Garden's Gate Environmental Impact Report was signed, sealed and delivered and the project was approved, by which time America's economy/housing market had collapsed and the lead developer had departed the country. This straightforward housing development for Ukiah of some 200 cookie cutter houses that are unlikely to be built ever, took more than four years to get before the board. But even then there was no evidence of water availability, no attempt to assess water availability, and nobody was interested in seriously exploring where the water might come from. Moreover, the doomed 'burb has no emergency second access, was opposed by all its neighbors, and the residual developer can’t get a loan to begin construction of phase I.

Gonzalez listed this limping piece of incompetence as an accomplishment.

• “Stage I” of the latest iteration of the state-mandated Housing Element of the General Plan was marked down in the “done” column. A meaningless paper shuffle which calls for the rezone of 50 acres of land, as yet unidentified, on which unaffordable “affordable housing” might be erected, and this rezone has occurred only because Ukiah-based Legal Services attorney Lisa Hillegas sued the County to force them to do what the law already required them to do.

Gonzalez put it down as an accomplishment.

• There’s a new Planning Department web page. We’ll give them this one; it is an improvement, although there’s still lots of stuff that needs to be posted on it.

Gonzalez put this unstartling technical breakthrough down as an accomplishment.

• The (recently-disapproved) Masonite site rezone “study” was marked done. An assemblage of remarks from other people which basically pointed out the obvious: the project wasn’t very well planned. Measure A, the countywide ballot measure devised by the site's would-be developers, and aimed at an end around of Gonzalez and the P&B Gang's one project passed by a nearly two to one vote against. Planning and Building really had little to do with any of it.

Gonzalez put it down as another accomplishment.

• Update of the County’s notice and violation process. Never mind that actual enforcement is minimal.

Gonzalez put it down as an accomplishment.

These triumphs, Gonzalez concluded, meant that “2009 was a good year as far as getting things accomplished.”

We'd hate to see what a bad year for accomplishment looks like. On second thought, they'd probably look pretty much the same.

Having dispensed with his accomplishments, Gonzalez moved into a lengthy and extremely tedious rundown of the Planning Department’s Top Ten things on their To Do List, accomplishments the County awaits with zero discernible enthusiasm.

• General Plan implementation. Those ten years and millions of dollars didn’t include “implementation” which is another years-long process which will cost more millions.

• Complete the 2009 Housing Element. The Housing Element “accomplishment” listed above was only “Phase I.”

• Ag lands and winery regulations. Wait a minute. Did Gonzalez really say vineyard and winery regulations? Why, yes, he did which, he might have legitimately claimed as an accomplishment if he actually did some of it since the County's wine barons exist in a uniquely unregulated local environment.

• New land use codes and a new zoning ordinance for the new General Plan. Which also wasn’t included in the General Plan Update Gonzalez listed as an accomplishment, past tense type.

• The Mendocino Town Plan Update. This famously sticky tar baby has also been in-work for more than ten years. Each time someone attempts to inventory the rental units in that precious little bower of scented soap and gingerbread it (1) changes again, and (2) residents inevitably find errors in it. (Mendocino County is unique in its expert ratio — for every adult citizen there is also a resident expert (sometimes a high-paid consultant), typically either a retired lawyer or a three million dollar man, meaning a retired person or trust funder who arrives with three million dollars, the former with self-presumed expertise on all matters, the latter with equivalent expertise by birth.)

A couple of years ago the Grand Jury complained that Mendocino's town plan process was taking too long, but the only thing that came of that was an even more tediously detailed and barely understandable techno-blather from the Planning Department about why it was so hard to do and why it took so long. There is no indication the plan will ever be done. It is, for all intents and purposes, an impossible task and shouldn’t even be on the list.

Nevertheless, the intrepid Gonzalez, visions of future accomplishments perhaps lighting his way, summed up the Town Plan process: “In order to conduct a comprehensive update, this would include wide community involvement to reevaluate the visions, goals and policies of the Town Plan. The planning process would include at least four community meetings, three Planning Commission hearings and three public hearings before the Board of Supervisors. Upon approval by the Board, the Mendocino Town Plan Update would require certification by the California Coastal Commission. It is estimated that the update process would encompass 18 to 24 months given the current staffing levels and resources and would have to be augmented by a contract planner. Additionally, it should be noted that the loss of Rick Miller, who was to be the project planner/project manager for the Town Plan Update, impacts the anticipated time lines.”

Translation: “Never happen. A certain prescription for the mother of all gridlocks. We don't have anyone on staff who knows anything about it; we’ve been working on this mess for years but all of that is now obsolete and has to be done over again because there's a whole new crew of busy bodies in town who must be heard and somehow cooled out. Naturally, we’ll have to hire a consultant to do even that and at best that could take up to two years. Probably much longer, if ever.”

• The Local Coastal Plan Update. This is an even more complicated process than the General Plan Update so it too will never get done. Whatever the County does must also be approved by the Coastal Commission, an extra layer of bureaucracy on top of an already huge pile of required bureaucratic sign-offs for any and all planning documents whose origins come with ocean views. And the Coastal Commission is relatively competent, meaning they'll probably bounce it back to the County for at least one re-do.

• The Point Arena Housing Element Update. This is supposed to be done in conjunction with Point Arena City staff — two in-County agencies which means a doubling of bumble factor. Decades away.

• Confusion Hill Interpretive Trails Plan Feasibility Study. Nobody on the Board even knew that this irrelevant “study” project had become a Planning Department task. Board Chair John Pinches bluntly said he never heard of it and that it had no business on the list. Good grief. The trail outside this obscure tourist trap at Leggett needs interpretation? Apparently Mr. Gonzalez volunteered to do it on his own because the Mendocino Council of Governments (the local transportation planning agency) offered him some much needed funding to do it.

• Completing the months-long rezones of the 24 very simple rezone applications that were supposed to have been included in the new General Plan Update.

• A “specific plan” for Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg.

• The state-mandated countywide greenhouse gas analysis, in which the unthinkable just might be thunk. (Note to Nash: Do not include the gas emanating from 501 Low Gap Road. Might throw off the whole study.)

In a supporting document Gonzalez explained to the Board that during the General Plan Update process “questions and concerns have been raised” including: “The growth of viticulture leading to the conversion of range and forestlands to grape cultivation; associated environmental impacts, including traffic, wastewater, water usage, visual impacts, and the commercial character and potential conflicts with surrounding lands; the expansion of accessory uses to wineries to include art galleries, restaurants, gift shops, and wine tasting facilities developed on land that does not have enough viable on-site grape production.”

Action Item RM-105.1 of the newly adopted Updated General Plan says: “Consider adoption of regulations, standards, or guidelines for wine tasting rooms and similar uses to address the potential effects of these uses on adjacent properties, roadways and their communities.”

The Plan specifically called for the County to “consider” adoption of wine industry regulations.

Gonzalez continued, “The Board may wish to address this issue by either directing staff to initiate the code amendment process to update the current Zoning Ordinance and bring it into consistency with the adopted General Plan Update, prioritize this amendment; or direct staff to include the winery regulations as part of the comprehensive Land Use Code Update.”

Basically, the only specific thing the public suggested with regard to tasting rooms during the General Plan update process was that the County should require them to get a minor use permit, just like barbershops, art galleries, or childcare facilities. A perfectly legitimate and extremely modest request given that the entire County is overrun with alcoholic grape juice and marijuana smoke.

The mere mention of possible wine industry regulation, no matter how peripheral, prompted Fifth District Supes candidate and Mendocino B&B proprietress Wendy Roberts to leap to the microphone during public expression to, to, well, tell the Board about the ominous portend she'd just found.

“I went to lunch with a friend today at a Chinese restaurant,” said Roberts, “and I received a fortune that seems particularly appropriate.”

The candidate recited the wisdom she'd plucked from the fortune cookie.

“There's more to balance than not falling over.”

Ah so.

Ah, Too, save those little nuggets on the off chance they might be locally applicable. Here's a few of mine:

Try to be wrong — that way you might be right.

Plan not to finish. Then you might.

Doing nothing is cheaper than paying someone to do nothing for you.

If you don’t want an answer, ask Supervisor Smith.

If you don't want two answers, ask Nash Gonzalez.

* * *

Ms. Roberts, moving from deep fried prawns to the chicken chow mein, explained:

“What I'm not hearing… what I just heard is that the priorities are being set by resources and staffing. And I am sympathetic to that. However, I would urge you to think carefully about setting priorities according to how that will affect our economy. [Updating the rental tables in the Town of Mendocino is an administrative task] and [not doing it] is costing our town significant income. The houses are darker every month over there! Houses are in foreclosure and other houses — there hasn't been a sale. The signs are up all over. People own second homes. They need to pay their mortgage. Are you gonna let them go into foreclosure because somebody doesn't want families renting them on a part time basis? You can do that. I'm not arguing with your ability to do that. Is it what we need in our town? Noyo Harbor is a priority, getting something going there. I'm glad to see it there. Obviously the Ukiah Valley Area Plan is #1. We just went through an agonizing initiative process and that did have to do with the difficulty of proper planning processes taking place here. It was a factor. I'm not going to say it was the only factor but how can we continue to allow any developer to have to go into an initiative process or even for that to be an attractive alternative? We've got to focus on doing things that will get us unstuck and will create jobs that are consistent with our economy. I'm scared to death of the winery regulations! I haven't heard one word about a comprehensive study looking at the next two decades of associated business in viticulture [wine-making/selling] and the kinds of jobs they might be able to bring and how that would play out. How can we start making rules to limit a sector without thinking about the long term consequences? And of course, long term consequences on neighbors is important! It's part of the package. But balance — it's more than not falling over! And right now we're in danger of doing that. So I hope that that thought of which projects can have some immediate loosening effect would be factored in here. I don't see how you could put anything ahead of the UVAP. I mean that's, there's just too much going on here. That's consistent with what I just said about getting the economy moving.”

Supervisor John McCowen said he was concerned about the Ukiah Valley Area Plan being pushed back again. McCowen said he thought it was already nearly complete. “I am very concerned that this just keeps getting stretched out,” McCowen said.

Board chair John Pinches didn’t address individual projects, but he said he would oppose hiring any more planning consultants (aka contract planners): “Because of limited staff and limited money, your budget does not have funding to hire outside consultants.”

Former local Farm Bureau President, now Supervisor Carre Brown, didn’t like the idea of wine regulation at all and moved to put it on the bottom of what had morphed into Gonzalez’s list of Things That Will Never Happen Anyway.

Gonzalez’s predecessor as Planning Director, Ray Hall, had a legendarily untended in-box that his own staff said he seldom, if ever, examined. (The entire first batch of Anderson Valley's contribution to the General Plan is rumored to have disappeared somewhere in Hall's in-basket. At least Director Gonzalez is bold enough to make his list of Things In My In-Box I’ll Never Get Around To a matter of public record.) Everybody agreed that “considering” wine regulation should be at the bottom of the Never Happen List and after a few other minor wording adjustments the board approved The Never Happen List unanimously.

At this rate the County might get around to “considering” wine industry regulation some time well after our grandchildren are dead.

* * *

Addendum (from K.C. Meadows at the Ukiah Daily Journal_: “Some of you may remember the reporting we at the Ukiah Daily Journal [and the AVA] did on the property owners who tried to get non-controversial zoning changes as part of the Mendocino County General Plan update and were left holding the bag after the update was voted upon by the Board of Supervisors. Not only did their changes not go through as promised, now the County is going to take four months — and if the County says four months you know it will be eight — to allow them to reapply and pay more money. At a meeting in late August or early September the Supes discussed this. Everyone agreed that the property owners should have had their zoning changes as part of the update — although Kendall Smith was whining about what a good deal they got not having to pay for a full zoning change — and the Supes told the Planning department to group these property owners together and put them on a fast track to a single package of zone changes. Here's what one property owner told me last Monday: 'I want to make you aware that none of the 24 property owners who filed for formal rezoning have received any information as of now. As you know, we were given until October 1 to submit our applications. Rezoning fast-track was to take 3-4 months, and possibly lower our application cost. Two weeks ago I exchanged emails with Supervisor Brown. I expressed my concerns over the lack of information. I stated I had not even received a letter from the planning department to acknowledge receipt of my application. Supervisor Brown emailed back after checking with the Planning Department stating completion was four months out, and due to short staffing, could slip even further. The Planning Department informed Supervisor Brown they would be sending out invoices within the week for $2,570 per applicant plus other public notice fees. If the stated application costs holds true, the applicants did not receive any break in price. But we are losing more time, which is costing both applicants and the County money. Nearly two weeks have passed since communicating with Supervisor Brown. To date, no information from the County has been received.' As you may also remember, all of these property owners were told by the Planning Department that they had to go through the general plan process — instead of individual zone changes — and were promised that they would get their zoning change as a result. They waited patiently, and this is what they got instead. It's a crime, really. Nash Gonzalez was not Planning Director when all these promises were made. However, I asked him why it would take four months to do something for which all the work was already in place — studies, EIRs all done, County approval on the record. He said that the County still needed to get signoffs from federal and state agencies like Fish and Game blah, blah blah. I asked why the County couldn't just send them a letter saying, 'These are all simply changes that would make these properties conform to our new general plan update and we need you to sign off in ten days or we'll assume you approve.” Oh, we could do that, he said. But then, if they come back later and have an objection, there'll be a problem and then it drags on. It sounds to me like the planning folks are good at foreseeing the worst case scenario and then implementing it. Get some backbone folks. If some fed comes back later, say tough, it's a done deal. These are not controversial. The new County maps already reflect the changes. No one is arguing there might be a problem with them. Only the property owners are getting the short end of the stick. And the Supes do nothing. This would be an easy one. They already said they wanted it fast tracked and it seemed only fair to do something to back up their promises. But now what are they saying? Oh, well, it's going to take at least four months and you'll have to pay the money and we can't do it as a group — because then we couldn't charge you individually. Geez what a gyp. It reminds of the movie in which Goldie Hawn plays a woman at an adult party being ruined by a group of out-of-control children who finally yells: “Is there anyone in charge around here?!'”

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