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Desert’s Gate Welcomes You To Ukiah

In early 2005, Ukiah Developer Chris Stone imagined his Garden’s Gate development for an abandoned vineyard parcel south of Ukiah. Almost five years later, and just last week, the County and the Board of Supervisors finally got around to dealing with Stone’s costly Environmental Impact Report.

Whatever you think of tract developments and their developers, Stone was treated badly. He didn't get anything close to a timely hearing of his application.

Stone wants approval to build a Major Subdivision with 200 lots on the 46.1 acre site, including 197 lots for 123 detached single-family dwellings and 74 townhouse dwellings, including 36 units reserved for “moderate-income households,” plus two lots of 2.3 acres each for parks, and a 13.1 acre remainder parcel.

Although on the south end of Ukiah just outside the city limits, the parcel is in Supervisor David Colfax’s Fifth District.

AVA readers may recall that Mr. Stone appeared before the Board of Supervisors back in July of 2008 complaining about a lack of response to his June appearance. He said it was taking way too long for the County to process his permit request. Colfax and CEO Tom Mitchell were assigned to see what was taking so long. Predictably, the supervisor and the supervised never did anything beyond saying they'd look into it, and the project continued to languish.

On paper, Mr. Stone has made a good faith effort to comply with Mendocino County’s stated desire for housing development, including a portion of so-called affordable housing (basically slightly smaller houses on smaller parcels).

It’s also obvious that County foot-dragging has delayed Mr. Stone’s application so long that the bottom has fallen out of the housing market in Ukiah (and everywhere else).

The delay is certainly not Mr. Stone’s fault, but it has meant that he's under some pressure from his investors to get something going, even if that something is unlikely to result in the attempt to sell new homes set down tract style in a town whose newspaper announces fresh foreclosures every day.

One of the closest observers of the Garden’s Gate project has been Michael Maltas, a neighbor of the project and a professional landscaper. Mr. Maltas has made a point of familiarizing himself with not only the project, but with the circumstances surrounding it.

In a recent letter to Supervisor Colfax, Mr. Maltas wrote:

“…there is major opposition by a large number of residents [neighbors] to linking the vehicular traffic of this development to Oak Knoll Road [the second/rear entrance to the site]. The idea does not even have the support of the developer, as I have asked him. If you look at the way the roads are where this is all meant to happen you will see that it is idiotic and dangerous, let alone a very intrusive and unwanted traffic burden on a quiet neighborhood. I'm sure a full explanation of the many negative impacts of this proposed idea will be vociferously given by residents at the hearing.

“Another issue of course is water. The developer is painting a lush and welcoming ‘French Chateau’ type environment for the 200 odd homes proposed. All this takes water and we are already under restrictions. Why on earth would anyone want to add more use to already restricted use for those already living here? It does not make the slightest sense to me and who knows if the future will cooperate with increasing wet years. It could very well go to more and more drought.

“Incidentally, I don’t buy the fancy French graphics [that Mr. Stone used at his Planning Commission hearing] one bit. A high density suburban area is just that, and we all know how they look in reality unless we are talking dwellings three times the projected price range implied.

“At the last Planning Commission hearing on this project [in July] I was appalled to hear the developer request to table numerous of the ‘expenses’ in the hopes of generating some income first, by being allowed to build and sell some houses before spending money on the ‘extras.’ These ‘cuts’ were with regard to traffic flow and aesthetics, etc. which would supposedly enable the developer to get some money back for the expenses to date so that they could continue at a later date with the rest of the project. This was very unsettling. Sort of like, ‘Can you please let us just do the stuff that will enable us to make some money but leave the rest until we see how things work out — Ummmm, and maybe we won't get to it’!

“Along with this there were numerous questions raised by the planning commissioners and the public where it seemed the answers were a moving target and ‘undefined as yet.’ Much of [Mr. Stone’s] plans are that way too and are ‘subject to change as circumstances dictate.’ The exact nature and number of houses and phases of the project became more and more unclear to me the further into the hearing we got. It was not confidence building!

“On a more macro level, this whole development seems ludicrous. It is clear that what Ukiah needs is more jobs that pay a decent wage rather than more houses that will only increase our labor base and force people to undercut the few jobs that are already here. How are those houses going to be paid for in this economy? Driving to Santa Rosa to work? More of the same old scenario? That recently led to the highest foreclosure rates in Ukiah at our already existing ‘high density suburbs’ — The Forks and Empire Gardens. I have been told by a top Ukiah realtor that over 50% of all these homes have already been in and out of foreclosure and it has not stopped. We need more of these types of homes? Some weeks back there were 119 single family homes for sale in Ukiah alone, and prices had dropped to 1990 levels ($156k) in Empire Gardens. This figure does not include apartments, condos, rentals, mansions, etc. and also nothing outside of greater Ukiah, such as Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Hopland, Calpella, Talmage, etc. Maybe we should work off the inventory we have before flooding it with more! There is already ‘cheap housing’ available!

“We don't need this ‘Garden's Gate’ thing. It is ridiculous. Maybe 20 houses I could go for, but 200? It is way out of line with the reality of what we need in this valley.”

* * *

Then there’s the bogus “will-serve” letter from the already restricted and overdrawn Willow County Water District (which serves most of south Ukiah outside the city limits) which says they’ll provide water for the project.

To begin with, the will-serve letter is obsolete. Dated June 7, 2005, it contains no evidence of how Willow will “serve” Garden’s Gate with water.

Policy DE-190 of the County’s wildly expensive new Updated General Plan says, “Development of residential, commercial, or industrial uses shall be supported by water supply and wastewater treatment systems adequate to serve the long-term needs of the intended density, intensity, and use.”

But the Garden’s Gate’s Environmental Impact Report says, “The Vesting Tentative Map is exempt from the requirements of Government Code section 66473.7 concerning water verifications because the Project is a residential project with less than 500 housing units.”

Proving once again that the much-discussed policies of the Updated General Plan were a waste of time and are totally useless in practice.

There’s no estimate of how much water Garden’s Gate will require, much less how it will be provided or from where it will be provided.

In reviewing the Garden’s Gate application in July the Planning Commission recommended that the developer “contribute to funding to replace and expand the capacity of the existing water storage tank located on Fircrest Drive to ensure adequate pressures within the Ukiah Valley.”

Note that that’s adequate *pressure*, not adequate supply.

One of the proposed environmental mitigations in the nearly approved Environmental Impact Report states: “The applicant shall enter into an agreement with the Willow County Water District to pay a capital improvement fee (estimated at $400,000) to fund the project’s share of the replacement and expansion of the Fircrest Drive water storage tank.”

According to the American Water Works Association average daily water consumption for residential units in the US is 424 gallons per day. Some water professionals say the real figure is more. The AWWA also defines projects with over 50 residential units as “Major Development Projects.”

With some simple math we find that 200 new residential units would add at least 85,000 gallons per day to Willow’s demand, not counting the usual landscaping carpet of turd-shaped bushes and misplaced truncated trees so beloved by Ukiah neighborhoods, and not counting fire protection.

Since there is no water conservation plan in the Garden’s Gate proposal nor any mention of gray water systems, we can assume that usage will be in the range estimated by the AWWA. There’s also no provision or requirement from the County or from Willow for water monitoring or metering.

In 2004 the County Water Agency reported (in the most recent available report) that the Willow Water District produced 385 million gallons per year.

That seems like a lot of water. Much of it, of course, is drawn from the nearby and already overdrawn Russian River.

But Garden’s Gate consumption will be about 85,000 gallons per day, or about 31 million gallons per year for about 8% of Willows' 2004 production.

The Willow District’s outdated will-serve letter, signed by a Mr. David Redding, General Manager, simply says, “The District has determined that … it has sufficient water supplies to provide service to this project…”

But not the plumbing to hook up to it.

On top of the $400k required storage capacity increase donation, Mr. Stone will also have to pay to pipe the water, what there is of it, to his proposed new houses.

The Ukiah Valley Sanitation District also provided a similarly outdated “will-service” letter dated May 31, 2005.

Ukiah Valley sewer connection fees in 2005 were about $12,000 per hook-up, but, they said, those fees could go up to $17k per hook-up — then — which means a staggering $2.4 million to Mr. Stone at the very minimum. Probably much more.

The latest report from the Local Area Formation Commission issued last year on water at the south end of Ukiah says, “Willow Water District and Hopland Public Utilities District have for decades used water wells that they considered percolated groundwater. Recently, the State determined that this water was underflow water to the Russian River that required a permit. These two agencies were ordered to apply for permits. … If ordered to seek a permit, given the water circumstances and the [overappropriated] condition of the Russian River, it will take years before the permit process is completed.”

In 2006, the Grand Jury did a study of the Ukiah Valley Water Districts which, in part, reported, “Projections of population growth and development within the County and specifically in the Ukiah/Potter Valley Area indicate that continued availability of adequate water resources will be problematic.”

The Willow Water District soon responded: “We expect 2% growth per year. We have planned on that assumption. If the assumptions in the UVAP (Ukiah Valley Area Plan) are different we will update our projections.”

Which is your basic non-response response.

In fact, customers of the Willow Water District are now under severe water usage restrictions because of the drought-like rainfalls of recent winters, on top of the previous restrictions plus the additional restrictions from having to get permits for their wells.

(The Supes themselves confirmed this last week declaring “Lake Mendocino storage remains at an unprecedented low level, and drought conditions and water delivery limitations have become worse in this third year of drought, creating emergency conditions in Mendocino County.”)

So that means that Willow’s current annual production is much less than it was in 2004. Which in turn means that Garden’s Gate will require a much bigger percentage of Willow’s current production even if there’s some new storage.

Since the amount of water in the Ukiah Valley is finite, there’s no prospect of more overall water there in the foreseeable future. That means everyone else served by already-restricted Willow will be cut further — substantially further.

But nobody in official Mendocino County has raised so much as a single concern about the adequacy of all these very basic water and sewer services.

The Willow Water District has no current plans to increase their capacity. (They’re calmly waiting for the UVAP, apparently. But that's in suspended animation for the moment.) In fact, there’s nothing in the available evidence that shows the Willow District Board even realizes they have a problem. And nobody knows where the water to fill that new storage would come from if it was built.

As recently as February 19, 2009, the negative declaration for a four-unit minor subdivision in Calpella had the following standard requirement imposed on it: “The applicant shall submit to the Division of Environmental Health an acceptable water quantity evaluation completed by a qualified individual of a water source located on any parcels of the subdivision demonstrating an adequate water supply in compliance with the Division of Environmental Health’s Land Division Requirements.”

Four units need an evaluation but a 200-unit project is exempt?

When the Board of Supervisors considered the Garden’s Gate Environmental Impact Report last Monday, they heard nothing about the obvious water problems. The neighbors seemed more worried about traffic problems than lack of adequate water.

Mr. Stone, by the way, has recently moved to Chile — permanently. No one knows why, or who the new lead developer for the Garden's Gate project is.

* * *

PS. Last Tuesday the Supervisors unanimously proclaimed October 3 as “Watershed Celebration Day. The 2nd Annual Watershed Poetry Mendocino” will “celebrate the importance of watersheds to our local communities and help raise awareness of their significance through art, poetry and discussion.” The supervisors “urge residents to participate in the scheduled events and to make practical choices throughout the year in order to live in harmony with nature and to be aware of the importance of healthy watersheds to our communities.”

Oh we will certainly try, Mr. Two Shoes, we will, even without the bad poetry! PS. Might we be so informal as to call you Goody? But Mr. Two Shoes, simple minded statements of the obvious arranged vertically on the page don't amount to poetry, and you can quote Gordy Black on that!

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