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General Plan Roadshow Visits Anderson Valley

One act of the show, that is. The Mendocino County General Plan Update is the full name of the touring extravaganza, but Saturday afternoon's Boonville presentation at the Fairgrounds cafeteria addressed only the Plan's “housing element,” which, it seems, is being considered first-est and fast-est to meet State of California planning deadlines.

Saturday's session was divided into two parts; a “bilingual” session from 4:30 to 6:15, and an “open English language” session from 6:30 to 8:30. As local realtor Mike Shapiro noted, the workshops were scheduled in a way that discouraged participation: on a weekend, at dinner time, right in the middle of the popular Redwood Classic basketball tournament, as a choral presentation began across the street at Lauren's Restaurant.

More gringos than limited English speakers showed up at the bilingual portion of the meeting although the Hispanic delegation made up for their low numbers with an intensity, immediacy and sense of humor that the County reps probably didn’t expect.

Former County planner, now consultant for the County’s Sacramento planning contractor Pacific Municipal Consultants, Ignacio “Nash” Gonzalez, chaired the bilingual session. Gonzalez began by breezing through some English language overhead slides in Spanish translation, summarizing primarily census data and information provided by the State Department of Finance. But the stats were so obviously off that several people in the audience asked him whether he believed them and whether they were important to the planning process. “That’s what we’ve got,” Gonzalez lamely explained.

The General Plan is supposed to contain a “needs determination” based on household growth, employment growth, employment to household ratio, income adjustment…

According to the County’s obviously faulty stats, 70% of housing needs are in the unincorporated areas of the county, and almost 5,000 new homes are required between 2001 and 2008, of which 41% or 1,390 should be affordable. (Audience giggles at “affordable” and at 1,390 being built.)

“Very low” income is defined as a household of four earning $32,192. In the unincorporated areas, the County says, 22% are below that. (More giggles at both the figure and the word incorporated, the former being much greater than the annual earnings of the unincorporated, especially unincorporated Mexicans.) These figures are derived from the“Mendocino Council of Governments, 1991 and 2002; State Department of Finance projections and State Department of Housing and Community Development Regional Housing Needs Determination, January 8, 2002.”

Also according to these extremely dubious stats from even more dubious sources, only 4% of the residents in the unincorporated areas are in farming, forestry and fishing. The rest are in managerial/professional, sales and office, services, production/transportation, construction/maintenance.

Other suspicious stats:

• Unemployment rates have been going down since 1995.

• The population of county will rise from 86,265 to 118,800 by 2020.

• Median home sales prices range from $82,000/$90,000 in Covelo/Laytonville; $480,000 in Mendocino;. $210,000 in Fort Bragg; $223,000 in Ukiah; and $250,000 in Redwood Valley.

• The median household size in unincorporated areas is 2.57.

• The median gross rent is $600.

• “The more affordable multi-family units represent only 6% of the housing stock.”

• Maximum affordable home price for a “very low income” family was $56,429. And maximum affordable rent for a “very low income” family was $263.

“These are just projections,” said Gonzalez.

But these projections are already part of the formally drafted Housing Element Needs Assessment, January 2003 which was handed out to attendees.

“You could get a better picture of Anderson Valley's population by talking to the local school district,” suggested one disgruntled audience member. “Ask them for their data on the ethnic mix; ask them to send surveys home.”

There’s one blurb on the “Anderson Valley Region” in the Housing Element package: “According to Census 2000, 2,927 people or 3% of the total County population live here. It is alleged that our population has increased by 15% since 1990. In 2000, Anderson Valley's population was 69.5% white with 34.3% reporting that they were of Hispanic/Latino origin, the greatest concentration of Hispanic Latinos in Mendocino County. There is no rancheria in Anderson Valley and only 1.4% of the population reported that they are Native Americans.” That old demographic standby “Other” was not counted although there are quite a few Others resident here, including Chinese, Hawaiians, Blacks, Samoans, and hippies.

Income levels of Anderson Valley residents are said to average $37,251 per household. as compared to $35,996 countywide. Census 2000 is the shaky source of these fancifully inflated figures. Despite these robust incomes, “16.4% of Anderson Valley's population lives below poverty level, compared to 15.9% countywide.”

Also: “60.5% of the Valley's adult residents are employed. 35.6% are not. 3.8% unemployed. 27.9% (highest in county) do not possess a high school diploma, which probably accounts for the presence of so many intelligent persons among us.. MediCal recipients total some 29.5%” (also highest in county).

After some prodding, Mr. Gonzalez agreed to translate the Spanish-language questions for the English-only gringos in the room. However, some of the comments from the Mexicans in attendance seemed to have gotten lost between him and the Spanish speakers. English versions of words and phrases like “nada!” and “adios!” and “es stupido!” somehow didn’t make it back into Gonzalez’s translated English. Another language oddity occurred when Mr. Gonzalez referred to “septic” en espanol as “septic” — apparently there’s no Spanish word for “septic.” And he said it a lot.

Jose Orozco started the discussion by telling the planners that he couldn’t find any housing in the Valley — single family, rental, apartments… didn’t matter, adding that he doesn’t care what kind of housing is developed, as long as there is some. “I don’t need ‘single family housing’,” Orozco said, “I just need a place to live. We’ve recently been told we have to get out and I have to find another place to live. Keeping my two kids out of the cold is what drives me to be concerned about this.”

When another Mexican suggested that Anderson Valley also needs some parks, especially in Boonville, Orozco, with a wife, two kids, an eviction notice, and the prospect of a long winter out of doors, replied, “First the housing, then the parks.”

A third man said that he knew professionals — doctors, nurses, etc. — who couldn’t find housing in the Valley, or Ukiah, so how could anyone expect wage workers to find housing if professionals couldn’t?, he wanted to know.

Maria Malfavon pointed out that available work in Anderson Valley is irregular and seasonal, but rents must be paid every month. “There’s not enough work for us to pay rent every month,” she complained. “For three years I had to pay $400 every month just for a space to park a trailer.”

Deborah Kahn, of Navarro Vineyards, complained that the county maintained unreasonably onerous standards for construction of worker housing in ag preserve zones, commenting that the number of housing units allowed under the ag exemption is limited and only allows housing for actual field hands, not other winery workers such as tasting room and winery workers. She also thought the County could be more flexible in allowing leach fields on adjoining parcels.

Lourdes Pacheco noted that she understood that the County is exploring the possibility of building senior housing on the state land near the fairgrounds. “If that works out,” she joked, “by the time we retire we might qualify for that.” Becoming serious, she added, “We just need housing for the people who are here now. That’s all.”

Lucina Reynoso thought that aging Mexicans who don’t have pensions or social security may be forced to return to Mexico when they retire. (So-called illegals, out of necessity, often pay into social security for many years under false identification and, therefore, can't collect it when they are too old to do the back breaking work of agriculture.)

When County Staffer and workshop co-host Pamela Townsend agreed with some of the observations, Orozco piped up: “OK! Now go tell the government!”

Mrs. Reynoso also complained that some of the local Housing Association’s rules at their rental units seemed petty — and that breaking them was grounds for eviction. “Even running your blender at the wrong time of day can be grounds for eviction,” she said. “How can we be protected from these rules?”

Mrs. Pacheco added that landlords frequently hesitate to do even minor repairs on their rentals like sealing doors and windows and repairing fixing roofs. “Doesn’t anyone enforce the building codes?” she asked. (No, is the answer to that one.)

Local farmworker advocate Jerry Cox presented some statistics that his organization, “Sueno Latino,” had assembled from a farmworker housing survey they’d done a couple years ago: most farmworkers rent, most have low incomes, most cannot afford to pay more than $300 or $400 in rent, most find their housing “unsatisfactory.”

Mrs. Pacheco, Sueno Latino’s Recording Secretary, quipped, “We knew that.”

About 30 or so gringos appeared for the second session. Ms. Townsend began by again admitting that the County had not done much of what was called for in earlier General Plans. “But housing is more of a crisis now,” she conceded, “and consciousness has been raised.” (Ah yes. Consciousness. Mendocino County's collective consciousness is positively Himalayan, especially among the housed sectors of, say, the KZYX membership, but back here at sea level most people would prefer either cash or to see some buildings raised.) Ms. Townsend pointed out that failure to update the General Plan opens up the county to lawsuits, which in turn might put a stop to new development. (And it almost did back in 1980 when the lawsuit was filed forcing the County to even do a General Plan — before any new building permits were issued.)

Mr. Gonzalez ran through the stats again, in English, revealing, in passing, the true reason for having to rush the housing element update through quickly: failure to have an updated, approved housing element in the General Plan by certain dates “jeopardizes state and federal grant money coming to counties to get the Plan done.” In other words, the staffers’ jobs are on the line if they don’t get a Housing Element turned in fast — not that housing under this government is anything like a priority. Does anybody really think county employees would convene Saturday afternoon meetings on their own time?

Jean DuVigneaud opened the second session by asking where the Planning Department’s numbers came from. Before Mr. Gonzalez could answer Linda Brennan added, “You’re saying that very low income is someone making less than $32,000? Teachers start at $31,000!” “Yes, that’s our data,” replied Gonzalez, clinging to the bogus numbers underpinning the bogus process that employs him.

“Your demographics are way off,” noted Philo resident Hank Gundling. “The wealthy people are in the hills, the farmworkers are in the Valley, so your average incomes and average rents don’t mean much. And your projections don’t take the birth rates of the farmworkers into account; so your population predictions are way off.”

Former planning commissioner Geraldine Rose pointed out that in 1993 the minor General Plan update back then indicated that the county would re-zone 100 or so acres for cluster or multi-unit housing and that there were problems with water and sewer. “Has any of that been done?” she asked.

“We have not done that,” replied Townsend.

“So will anything happen this time?” asked Rose. (Audience laughter.)

Townsend admitted that the County had “fallen a little short” of most of its modest goals in previous versions of the General Plan, citing the example of a 1993 minor update of the General Plan which called for the County to re-zone 128 acres across the entire county to R-3, presently only used in Brooktrails Township outside Willits. R-3 zoning allows apartment unit construction without a separate use permit. Ten years later exactly zero acres have been rezoned. If there were any more modest accomplishments, county planners were apparently unaware of them.

“It’s up to the Supervisors,” replied Townsend. “There have been no new mobile home parks approved in the last ten years, no apartments, no condos, not enough land has been re-zoned, not enough land has been identified for re-zoning.” Unfortunately, Lourdes Pacheco had left, so no one said “We knew that” again.

Barbara Goodell asked why the County can’t pre-designate areas that meet basic housing needs, such as areas with adequate water and septic perc and zone those areas accordingly in advance. “I have no good answer for that,” replied Ms. Townsend. “Theoretically we should do that. It does need to be done.”

In fact, the County requires housing developers to invest large sums of upfront planning and engineering money to prove that land can be built on, never knowing if a proposed project will be approved in the end. If it’s disapproved, the investment is lost — hardly an incentive for people to develop proposals.

Local realtor Mike Shapiro suggested that the county should have a simple set of rules and standards for affordable housing, and if the requirements are met the proposal should be automatically approved so that developers and investors know that if they put up the money and comply they’ll be approved. At present there are multiple levels of approval required and public hearings and knee-jerk opposition from neighbors and the entire process is a risky — and time-consuming — gamble.

Shapiro cited his frustrated attempts to erect reasonably-priced housing in the past. “It’s an arduous task! It can take ten years to get through the process. It’s an impossible process. We need a process with simple rules that can be met. The impact on schools and roads must be considered, but you’ve got to remove the whims of politics from the process.”

“There are no standards,” agreed Townsend. “We don’t have a process where if you comply, you are approved in a timely manner.”

Local realtor Tim Mathias remarked that “It’s become very difficult in the last two or three years to get past Environmental Health on water and septic approvals. Very expensive.”

Several other people also complained about arbitrary enforcement coming out of the County’s Environmental Health Department. Water and septic systems that would have been approved two or three years ago are now getting turned down. Realtor Shapiro complained: “The rules are the same, it’s the enforcement that’s gone up. It’s not the state, it’s the County!”

When Ms. Townsend tried to put it off on state regulations, Shapiro insisted, “No! It’s local. The regs are the same, it’s the enforcement that’s increased.”

Gundling thought Anderson Valley's Community Services District authority should be expanded to cover water and sewer, judging common leach fields and other current obstacles to local housing artificially imposed by the County's Ukiah-based authority. But Shapiro replied, “And where will the staff for that come from?”

Gonzalez tried again: “The state dictates these things. Counties are hostage to state funding. But we can look at it.”

Fifth District Supervisor David Colfax seemed surprised at the difficulties people are having with Environmental Health’s increased enforcement of the septic system requirements, observing that Environmental Health should be part of the process — “otherwise this is all a big waste of time.”

Kathy Cox insisted that zoning is the basic problem. 160-acre parcels make it impossible to develop housing. “As a result, what we’ve become is a society with the wealthy and people who serve the wealthy.” Ms. Cox thought consideration should be given to allowing houses to be built on ag preserve land.

Shapiro said the real problem was not enough 10, and 20-acre lots. “They’re gone!” he emphasized.

Hank Gundling disagreed, “If you break up those 160s, I guarantee that it won’t be long before we look like Sonoma County.”

Geraldine Rose agreed, saying that breaking up the 160s would just produce more lower cost parcels which would be bought up by urban escapees who are trying to avoid even higher cost housing in the Bay Area. She said she didn’t have much sympathy for realtors like Shapiro and Mathias who were unhappy because “you don’t have enough parcels to sell.” (Much laughter at that sally.) Rose also said she didn’t like all the new buildings she sees going up without permits (How does she know?) and “the county has to take that propensity into account. Perhaps by something easier to comply with than Class K.”

Ms. Townsend replied, “We do see a big increase in the number of illegal trailers being put up. That’s a sign of a problem on our end.” (Mrs. Pacheco’s absence was again unfortunate.)

Jerry Cox reminded people of the local Housing Association’s ill-fated Bachman Hill proposal of a few years back which “was not built because of location, zoning and other reasons.” Cox later explained that those “other reasons” included not only NIMBYs (not in my backyard) but BANANAs — “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.”

An earnest young chronophage had the audience rolling its eyes at his meandering, inarticulate filibuster on alternative building materials, composting toilets, water bags, straw bales, gray water, cooperative enterprises, globalization, the free market not working, punctuating his tedious presentation by waving an alternative materials book by Michael Smith as if it were Christ's very shroud. Finally, in a blizzard of cliches, “We have to think outside the box,” he said, “go back to ancient ideas. The old solutions don’t work. People have to be allowed to meet our own needs.”

(Will some community-minded person please inform every other member of this community under the age of 30 that while mommy, daddy and Beth Bosk have led you to believe that both you and your information is hot stuff, the rest of us not only know all about alternatives, methods, we don't need public meeting time dominated by big picture riffs from people who are too young to know much of anything at all.)

Several audience members agreed with Young Windy, though, that the General Plan should encourage both alternative methods of construction and sweat equity building. “The Windsor mindset has got to go,” a man loudly commented from the back of the room. (Mrs. Pacheco was sorely missed at this point.)

Ms. Townsend agreed that preventing Windsor was a good idea, “but we don’t have enough staff to do that. Each alternative has to be researched and it has to make its way into the building code. So it’s up to you to put pressure on the Supervisors to do that, to prioritize that staffing.”

The press representative asked Ms. Townsend to explain her comment in Thursday's Ukiah Daily Journal that, “The county's role is to look at ways to remove government constraints and partner with or encourage housing development for all types and all income levels.”

Ms. Townsend replied, “Yes. I said that,” veering off point and on into an irrelevant string of unrelated observations about low income housing requiring government subsidies and summarizing Anderson Valley as having a “high poverty level with high levels of income disparities.” “We’ve seen the loss of high wage jobs and conversion to retail and tourism,” she added. “The area is becoming very much characterized by haves and have-nots…”

“Yes, but you didn’t say anything about ‘constraints’,” the press representative repeated, shaking his head. Mr. Gonzalez jumped in with, “I’ll answer that. For example we removed some restrictions in the past on approvals of second units.”

“But which constraints are you talking about?” the press rep was getting irritated at the staffers non-responsiveness.

“We don’t know which constraints,” replied Gonzalez. “We are only making general comments.”

“Will there be a specific list of constraints that you think should be removed or relaxed in the draft General Plan update?,” persisted the press rep, a world class persister. He may even have been irritating the audience himself at this point.

“Yes,” was Gonzalez's, startling reply. “We have an idea what they are,” added Townsend, without mentioning any.

“And we’re hearing about septic tonight so we probably should check with Environmental Health and involve them,” added the befuddled Gonzalez. (The Planning Department should hire Mrs. Pacheco.)

“I’m upset that people think vineyards are the only ones with any responsibility for this,” said Ms. Kahn. “We should take some responsibility, but we can’t solve this on our own.”

Throughout the gringo portion of the workshop, Mr. Gonzalez was seen to be taking notes feverishly. Presumably, some of the AV feedback will find its way into a footnote or two in the final Housing Element draft that’s presented to the Supervisors.

Ms. Townsend ended the meeting promptly at 8:30, explaining that she was losing her voice. “We don’t know if we’ll be back again,” she said.

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