Letter to the Merced County Board of Supervisors on the General Plan Update process

Lydia Miller
San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center
P.O. Box 778
Merced, CA 95341

Steve Burke
Protect Our Water (POW)
3105 Yorkshire Lane
Modesto, CA 95350

To: June 20, 2006

Merced County Board of Supervisors Sent via email

Dee Tatum Sent via email
Chief Administrative Officer

Robert Lewis Sent via email
Director of Planning and Economic Development

Ruben Castillo Sent via email
County Counsel

Merced County 2222 M St.
Merced CA 95340

RE: 35. General Plan Update Public Outreach Efforts - authorize Website and approve composition of the six General Plan Update Focus Groups.

The public must regard the General Plan Update process in Merced County as a waste of public funds and compliance in bad faith with the letter of state law until the county Board of Supervisor offers a public explanation of how this process is connected with numerous other planning processes going on in the county and the San Joaquin Valley.

The most immediate, clearest example is the transportation plan advanced by Merced County Association of Governments, on whose board the entire county board of supervisors sits. Yet MCAG has no apparent authority to be the lead agency to decide land-use issues in Merced County. We will be interested to see how many MCAG technical and citizen advisors are appointed by county supervisors to sit on General Plan Update focus groups.

Beyond MCAG, there is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, an 26-member committee chaired by the state secretary of business, transportation and housing, San Joaquin County’s largest developer serving as vice chairman, and representatives from state government, local government and the private sector. Los Banos Mayor Michael Amabile serves on the committee.

Amabile was chairman of MCAG when he was appointed to the partnership. He is listed as chairman in the May 16 Draft 2007 MCAG Federal Transportation Improvement Program. He has apparently since been replaced by Supervisor Diedre Kelsey. Several tasks of the partnership are certain to exert such powerful influence over city and county general plans and community plans in unincorporated areas that updating these plans at this time seems to the public like a meaningless exercise.

(a) Identify projects and programs that will best utilize public dollars and most quickly improve the economic vitality of the Valley, especially those that leverage federal, state, local and private sector resources in a coordinated effort to address critical needs in the Valley.

(b) Work with members of the state's Congressional delegation and federal officials, including the federal Task Force for the Economic Recovery of the San Joaquin Valley, to gain federal support for projects identified by the Partnership as critical to the region.

(c) Partner with the University of California, California State University, community colleges, and the state's other research and educational institutions, as well as private foundations, to provide guidance, advice and encouragement in support of studies of particular interest and importance to the Valley.

(d) Review state policies and regulations to ensure they are fair and appropriate for the state's diverse geographic regions, including the San Joaquin Valley, and determine whether alternative approaches can accomplish goals in less costly ways.

-- EXECUTIVE ORDER S-5-05 by the Governor of the State of California

If the governor’s partnership, along with MCAG’s transportation plan, aren’t enough, there is another major planning initiative underway, by the eight San Joaquin Valley county councils of government, called The Blueprint Program. The eight COGs are working with the Great Valley Center on a “visioning process, which will be incorporated into a valley-wide vision … to preserve and improve the quality of life of the San Joaquin Valley.”

The description of the blueprint program continues on the MCAG website:

“Everything proposed through this process will ultimately have to be embraced by the local decision makers. The Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley established by the Governor is examining very similar issues at the regional level. The goal of the Partnership’s Land Use Working Group is to develop a macro strategy for the region; localizing the strategy is another part of the challenge. The Partnership’s macro strategy will be examined through the Blueprint Planning Process and recommendations incorporated into the regional blueprint plan.”

“Vision” in this context, the Merced County public believes, means “regional planning without reference to local, state and federal environmental law and regulation in an attempt to override them all for economic reasons for the benefit of developers, large landowners and financial institutions interested in speculating in a housing boom.”

The blueprint program is directed by the Great Valley Center, a Modesto-based non-profit corporation with no land-use authority at all.

The phrase, “Everything proposed … will ultimately have to be embraced by the local decisions makers,” is particularly disingenuous, we believe, because 1) all the major local decisions makers will be members of the committee, and 2) state and federal laws and regulations concerning environmental and public process issues significantly limit and inform their decisions.

If this is a public outreach effort, why are the recommendations for focus group composition loaded up with about 40 local, county, state and federal staff members? Staff should not be on focus groups. They should be there to offer technical support and information to the allegedly public members of the focus groups. By the logic of the model proposed by the county’s consultants, there would be no need for any public members or, in fact, for any focus groups, because you already have staff that could do the job (or not) in their own offices without bothering with the flummery of being members of focus groups.

Many of the proposed staff represent agencies that are mandated either by the state or the federal government to enforce state and federal environmental law and regulation, not to negotiate it away, regardless of their vulnerability to visions.

Finally, concerning the problem of groups that lack land-use authority making land-use recommendations, the Merced County General Plan Review Update Steering Committee comes to mind. The public is aware of its significant involvement in planning for the update process and certain land-use recommendations it made to the board of supervisors last month. However, in response to a state Public Records Act request, Assistant Planning Director Bill Nicholson replied with county records showing that a general plan steering committee was appointed in 1987 to assist development of the present General Plan, now being updated. A 19-year-old authorization seems the faintest letter of the law for this steering committee to meet away from the public for months to orchestrate the appearance of any meaningful public involvement.

The entire vision/planning effort underway in Merced is ludicrous if viewed from the position of the Merced public. The focus groups are to be composed solely of government staff and special interests (with two possible exceptions). The largest developer in the county, the University of California, is not even mentioned. Official silence on the subject of UC, its own sovereign land-use authority, on issues of local and regional planning and vision, does not reassure the public. To the public familiar with the process of siting the UC Merced campus, this silence merely means that UC will be operating behind closed doors, as usual.

In the second week of June, Mintier and Associates, consultants hired by the county to prepare the General Plan Update, interviewed a number of stakeholders “to provide an opportunity for community leaders to identify keys concerns and expectations for the updated General Plan.”


Lydia M Miller Steve Burke

Coalition Statement on Merced County Planning Process

We call for a moratorium on County General Plan amendments, variances, minor sub-divisions changes to existing projects, zoning changes, and annexations of unincorporated county land by municipal jurisdictions, MOU’s and developments with private interests and state agencies, until a new County general Plan is formulated by a fully authorized public process – and approved locally and by the appropriate state and federal agencies.

The continual process of piecemealing development through amendments, willfully ignoring the cumulative impacts to infrastructure and resources, for the benefit of a small cabal of public and private special interests, is illegal and reprehensible conduct by elected and appointed officials of local land-use authorities.
We also call for a permanent moratorium on indemnification of all local land-use jurisdictions by private and public-funded developers.

Indemnification is the widespread, corrupt practice in which developers agree to pay for all legal costs arising from lawsuits that may be brought against their projects approved by the land-use authority -- city or county. Without having to answer to the public for the financial consequences of decisions made on behalf of special interests, local land-use authorities can be counted on to continue unimpeded their real policy: unmitigated sprawl, agricultural land and natural resource destruction, constant increases in utility rates, layering of school and transportation bonds on top of property taxes, and the steady erosion of the county's infrastructure.

Adopted 2006

San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center
Protect Our Water
Central Valley Safe Environment Network
Merced River Valley Association
Planada Association
Le Grand Association
Communities for Land, Air & Water
Planada Community Development Co.
Central Valley Food & Farmland Coalition
Merced Group of Sierra Club
Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge
California Native Plant Society
Stevinson Citizen’s Group
San Bruno Mountain Watch
San Joaquin Valley Chapter of Community Alliance with Family Farmers


Central Valley Safe Environment Network is a coalition of organizations and individuals throughout the San Joaquin Valley that is committed to the concept of "Eco-Justice" -- the ecological defense of the natural resources and the people. To that end it is committed to the stewardship, and protection of the resources of the greater San Joaquin Valley, including air and water quality, the preservation of agricultural land, and the protection of wildlife and its habitat. In serving as a community resource and being action-oriented, CVSEN desires to continue to assure there will be a safe food chain, efficient use of natural resources and a healthy environment. CVSEN is also committed to public education regarding these various issues and it is committed to ensuring governmental compliance with federal and state law. CVSEN is composed of farmers, ranchers, city dwellers, environmentalists, ethnic, political, and religious groups, and other stakeholders

P.O. Box 64, Merced, CA 95341

Additional reference material:
Where do “growth” profits go? – Badlandsjournal.com, June 17, 2006
Reply to a local planning official – Old Badlands Archives, Dec. 21, 2004