Badlands, SJRRC, POW, CVSEN and San Joaquin et al position on Measure C

The Badlands editorial board, including members of the San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center, Protect Our Water (POW), Central Valley Safe Environment Network and San Joaquin et al,  have in the last five months discussed very thoroughly Measure C, the development—plebiscite initiative in Merced County. We have extensive experience reading land-use and environmental documents, laws, legal briefs and court decisions. Over decades of work collectively, we have studied numerous environmental impact reports, negative and mitigated negative declarations in our participation in the public processes of land-use decisions in cities and counties in the north San Joaquin Valley and beyond. We have studied extensively  the California Environmental Quality Act and have gone to court numerous times to defend the public environmental interest in clean water, clean air and wildlife habitat regarding local land-use decisions. We have also studied and sued on the Williamson Act and Agricultural Preserve laws.
We have studied a number of general plans. In fact, San Joaquin Raptor Rescue Center sued Merced County to produce a general plan and when the courts decided against the county, Raptor participated in the development of the 1990 Merced County General Plan.
We have been involved in the most unpopular environmental battles in the county, from defense of Turkey Vultures on M Street to defense of rangeland and wildlife habitat against UC Merced to riverbed and town destroying, corporate aggregate company projects to the Riverside Motorsports Park lawsuit.
We have supported opposition to rural parcel splits to create parcels more attractive to residential development, either ranchettes or subdivisions.
In addition to our consistent defense of state and federal environmental law and regulation in Merced County, we have been equally devoted to defending the laws of public process, specifically the California Public Records Act, which governs the availability of public documents, and the Brown Act, which governs the conduct of local government meetings and hearings. In defense of environmental and public process law and regulation, we have come into frequent and sustained conflict with, principally though not exclusively, the Merced County Board of Supervisors. However, these battles have been about laws and regulations, and they have been fought completely openly in public meetings, public hearings and in courts. A great many of the documents relating to those battles appear in Badlands Journal archives.
Late in his long tenure on the Atwater City Council and shortly before he retired and returned to Oklahoma, Ed Abercrombie confronted the Merced County Board of Supervisors one day on a land-use issue. In the course of his 5-minute public statement, Ed got to the meat of thing: “Cities grow; counties don’t.”
The timing of Measure C is wrong because the County and the cities of Merced, Livingston and Los Banos are currently updating their general plans and several unincorporated towns from Hilmar to Snelling are updating their community plans. The measure is seeking, for reasons related to the characters of the proponents, to circumvent good and tested state and federal laws and legal processes regarding land-use, environmental protection and public participation. Just to mention one objection we have to the initiative, we do not believe any planning horizon beyond a decade is worth anything. We point to what happened to the county General Plan in the second decade of its life, when, through amendments, it became so misshapen and contradictory that it was useless as a planning policy guide. It is a point we brought up in numerous lawsuits against the County.
The measure is mis-timed and mis-aimed. It is mis-timed because it attempts to supersede existing land-use law and regulation before the general plans mentioned above are updated. It is mis-aimed because the cities, not the county, are the source of residential growth. The real devastation to unincorporated land under Merced County jurisdiction has occurred from two sources: aggregate mining of prime, river-bottom farmland; and huge plantations of almonds and grapes on seasonal pasture rangeland, natural habitat for a large number of federally listed endangered species.
Measure C would exempt these two sources of environmental devastation from a vote of the citizens and would exempt any development within the ever-expanding cities of the county.
The issue of “exemption” raises the question of the character of Measure C proponents and the role the County has played in creating them. When the county Board of Supervisors was discussing certification of the initiative, which having gathered enough signatures, had to be put on the General Election ballot, it was noted by members of the public, UC officials and supervisors that Measure C, if passed, would require a public vote on the UC Community Plan (a large mixed-use project planned for prime farmland adjoining the campus), and the Yosemite Lakes project, proposed by local developer Mike Gallo, also adjacent to the UC Merced campus on land full of vernal pools and endangered species habitat.
One Measure C proponent, Robbie Avilla of Stevinson, testified that proponents could change the initiative to exempt the two development projects. She and other initiative proponents had to be instructed by County Counsel James Fincher that going in the backroom and changing an initiative violated elections law. In fact, Measure C was so badly written that the county supervisors had to approve a referendum, Measure D, to ensure exemption of the UC Community and Yosemite Lakes projects. Measure D would only become operative if Measure C passes, which has led to proponents of Measure C to urge voters to vote for their measure and against Measure D and has led Gallo to contribute $50,000 to the “No on Measure C” campaign.
There is nothing “simple” about measures C or D, separately or together.
Like proponents’ apparent failure to understand that “cities grow, counties don’t,” they didn’t even know the legal processes they were involved with in the signature drive. In fact, one member of the Badlands Journal editorial board asked signature gatherers for the initiative to “save farmland” on three occasions, another twice, for a copy of the actual measure, without success. A third member was also never presented a copy of the actual measure by signature gatherers.
We have worked with proponents of Measure C on issues involving farmland. We've always fought for the preservation of farmland. However, it became apparent to us that the proponents of Measure C were a group of people without integrity and honor, and we severed all relations with them. The proponents of Measure C did not understand that the County had created them as an astroturf “environmental, farmland and open space” group as an alternative to Raptor and POW. The Measure C proponents were given backroom access to the supervisors and the Planning Department.These people have never participated in the daily struggle to maintain public access to public information. Now they wish to impose their weird will to command the whole public to try to get enough information to vote intelligently on residential development in the county? Measure C isn’t just bad policy. It is absurd.
When the County selected citizen advisors for the general plan update process that began two years ago, all the proponents of Measure C were invited to join. The County excluded us. About this time, the County began to refer to the local Farm Bureau and the Valley Land Alliance (one of the names the Measure C proponents use) as “agencies.”
The County has no one to blame but itself for the Measure C initiative. The County cultivated the astroturf group, it spoiled them and got them all puffed up. Then, according to one Measure C proponent, the supervisors disagreed with the little astroturfers on a general plan update policy concerning new towns.
This made the astroturfers mad, so they went out and tried to copy the Stanislaus County’s Stomp Out Sprawl initiative, did extensive polling and qualified it through a signature drive of dubious legality. Now it is before us, an initiative that will cost the County an unspecified amount of money to implement and defend. Unlike other similar measures, whose proponents honestly stated their intent was to slow urban growth and that it was neither simple nor easy, proponents of Measure C claim it is “simple, it is “smart growth, not slow growth or no growth,” and it “saves farmland.”
What voters are facing in this initiative is a creation of privileged, wealthy farmers, most now members of the county Farm Bureau executive board and Valley Land Alliance, who, like many Merced County farmers and ranchers, want and expect to get it both ways.
Having studied Measure C for months, we see no reason to change our view, stated in Badlands on July 17, that it is a “miasma of contradictions" (
In the interests of full disclosure, we close by saying how much we, not having contributed financially to either side, are enjoying the spectacle of the proponents and opponents of Measure C battling each other. We have sued a number of the opponents and have been stabbed in the back by a number of the proponents of the measure. It is a real pleasure watching these two factions of Merced County agriculture tearing each other apart.