Merced County sued for fraud, etc....Badlands Journal editorial board
A Sacramento law firm, Somach, Simmons & Dunn (SSD), on Feb. 4 filed a complaint in Sacramento County Superior Court against Merced County and the Merced County Board of Supervisors concerning unpaid bills arising from the Riverside Motorsports Park (RMP) case.
The complaint alleges that Merced County staff, Assistant Planning Director William Nicholson, committed acts of fraud and intentional misrepresentation, fraud and negligent misrepresentation, violation of state Civil Procedures code for levies and unjust enrichment.
SSD is represented by Donald B. Mooney of Davis CA, who is familiar with the operations of Merced County government.
The background facts alleged in the complaint are:
"On August 19, 2008 , the Sacramento County Superior Court granted SSD's Motion for Summary Judgment against Riverside Motorsports Park, LLC, for recovery of the amount due to SSD under a promissory note executed by Riverside Motorsports Park LLC. (Somach Simmons & Dunn, LLP v. Riverside Motorsports Park , LLC, Sacramento County Superior Court, Case No . 07AS0499 1.) The Judgment Granting Motion for Summary Judgment was entered on August 26, 2008.
"On or about August 28 , 2008, SSD caused to be served on Merced County a Writ of Execution (Writ) issued by the Sacramento County Superior Court. The Writ seeks to enforce the Judgment against RMP in the amount of approximately $ 143,000. (A copy of the Writ of Execution is attached as Exhibit A to this Complaint.) The letter that accompanied the Writ expressly seeks to attach all monies held by Merced County for RMP and, in particular, "all monies held pursuant to Contract 2008046." (A copy of the letter from SSD that accompanied the Writ is attached as Exhibit B to this Complaint.)
"In response to the Writ , on or about September 22, 2008 , Merced County submitted to SSD a Memorandum of Garnishee signed by William Nicholson, Assistant Development Director, Merced County , which states in material part: "The County does not have property in the name of the judgment debtor named on the Writ of Execution." (A copy of the Memorandum of Garnishee is attached as Exhibit C to this Complaint .)
"On behalf of Merced County, Mr. Nicholson also responded in the Memorandum of Garnishee: " N/A" to the questions on the memorandum of garnishee regarding whether the County holds any property of the judgment debtor that is not levied upon , and whether any other parties had claims to the property levied upon. Mr. Nicholson signed the memorandum of garnishee under penalty of perjury .
"In response to SSD's September 30, 2008, Public Records Act request , Merced County provided documentation that indicates that as of September 10, 2008, Merced County held $44,161.52 in the RMP Trust Account under Contract No. 2008046. On or about September 25, 2008, Merced County transferred $44, 161.52 held under Contract No. 2008046 to the County's general fund . (A copy of Explanation of Billing is attached as Exhibit D to this Complaint.) The documentation also evidences that on September 30, 2008, this money was transferred from the Merced County Planning Department to the Merced County Counsel' s office.
"When Mr. Nicholson signed the Memorandum of Garnishee on September 22, 2008, stating under penalty of perjury that the County did not have any property of RMP, Merced County actually held $44 ,161.52 of RMP assets in the RMP Trust Account,
"On or about November 4, 2008, SSD filed a Claim Against the County of Merced seeking $44, 161.52. (A copy of the Claim Against Merced County is attached as Exhibit E to this Complaint.)
"On or about December 19,2008, Merced County sent SSD a Notice of Action on Claim, rejecting the claim. (A copy of the Notice of Action on Claim is attached as Exhibit F to this Complaint.)"
The full complaint, including the causes of action and supporting documents, of Somach, Simmons & Dunn v. Merced County and the Merced County Board of Supervisors is at the following link, provided by the Merced Sun-Star on Feb. 7.
Valley housing industry tanks as sales of new homes plunge...J.N. Sbranti
Last year was dismal for new home builders, and this year is expected to be worse.
The construction industry has collapsed throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley, with builders going bankrupt, delaying developments or simply quitting.
The reason: virtually no new home sales.
With banks selling foreclosed houses at bargain prices, unemployment rates soaring and mortgage lending standards tightening, most builders say they can't lower prices far enough to attract buyers.
So most of them have stopped building, causing home construction to shrink to the lowest levels in more than 50 years.
Here are the facts:
Only 97 residential building permits were issued in Modesto last year, which was about 7 percent of normal. During the past 40 years, the city has averaged about 1,300 permits annually.
Stanislaus County's single-family home building permits plunged about 90 percent in 2008 compared with the 2005 building boom peak. Just 464 permits were issued last year, and builders predict there will be only 430 this year.
At the current sales rate, there are enough developed lots to last nine years. Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin county builders have spent millions on streets, curbs, gutters and grading for 13,000 lots that are sitting empty in unfinished subdivisions.
About 820 completed new houses were vacant and waiting for buyers in the three counties as of December, and about 500 others were under construction. Back during the boom, builders had 5,500 homes under construction at once and practically everything they finished sold immediately.
New home sale prices fell to a median $245,500 for those that closed escrow in Stanislaus during December. That was nearly 44 percent below the $435,250 median new home sales price in December 2006.
"You can't lose that kind of revenue and still have a profit," said Joseph Anfuso, who runs Florsheim Homes, which has been building in the valley for 25 years. "Now we're just working to pay our bills and stay cash-flow neutral. Profit is out the window."
Florsheim sold "a couple" homes in January at its two remaining Manteca developments, and Anfuso said his starting prices have dropped to $240,000.
"To survive, you have to pare back your expenses, cut down advertising, let your employees go and ride it out," Anfuso said. During the past two years, he's reduced his staff from 55 to 11. Florsheim also drastically scaled back its developments. "We got out of Turlock, Ceres and Lathrop, and we mothballed our Modesto project."
Demand for new homes faded
Demand for new homes faded as the real estate market in the region collapsed in late 2005 amid a glut of subprime loans. As foreclosures soared, credit tightened and the economy weakened, the new home market dried up.
Now every builder is struggling to survive, said Sharon Hope, the Hanley Wood Market Intelligence research specialist for the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
"Everyone that's keeping their head above water has had to change their product line, reduce the square footage of their homes and go back to basics," Hope said.
Big, expensive tract houses aren't selling, she said, particularly because large home loans are very hard to get, even for those with good credit.
Hanley Wood, which provides research for the building industry, lists 94 unfinished subdivisions in Stanislaus, 75 in Merced and 121 in San Joaquin.
But Hope said many of those developments have been repossessed by lenders or abandoned by builders. She said some still have model homes, but they're rarely open.
"These poor builders are just falling apart," Hope said. "Their sales staffs are mostly gone, and about the only time you can catch an agent is on the weekends."
Some vacant houses have been pulled off the market completely.
Modesto's Thomas Terrace development, for instance, went belly up in 2007 along with its builder, Pacific Pride Communities. It left nine finished houses -- many of them with more than 3,000 square feet -- and about 10 lots sitting empty. They remain that way two years later.
Lafferty Homes also got into financial trouble in 2007 and walked away from one of its unfinished Oakdale developments. Crosswinds Communities did the same with two Merced developments. Anderson Homes had so many unsold homes in Manteca and Los Banos that it auctioned them off to the highest bidder.
Then, last summer, William Lyon Homes gave up trying to sell at its massive Modesto development, leaving its Falling Leaf project with less than half of its planned 314 homes built.
To stick it out, some builders have drastically slashed prices.
When Taylor-Morrison's Carriage Lane project opened the summer of 2007, its 1,127-square-foot model had an advertised base price of $271,990. Now it's just $139,990. That's a nearly 49 percent reduction.
'A no-growth market'
Upscale homes also have scaled-down prices. Pam Franco opened her luxury Heirloom Collection development on one-acre lots south of Atwater in 2006 with a base price of $640,000. Now her 2,400-square-foot houses can be had for less than $369,900.
"We sold just three houses last year," said Franco, who is starting her second year as president of the Building Industry Association of Central California. "It's tough. We all of a sudden became a no-growth market."
The market collapse also is tough on the building association.
"We were pushing 350 members," Franco said. "We're down now to our core members with about 45 builders."
Beyond hurting developers, the demise of construction is devastating the region's economy and employment opportunities. Unemployment soared to 13.6 percent in Stanislaus in December -- about double what it was during the building boom.
When housing was hot, Riverbank's Monschein Industries employed 406 people to craft cabinetry and countertops. Now only 72 remain.
"We had to lay off some people who had worked for us for 28 years," lamented Michael Monschein, whose father started the company in 1964. "No one has seen anything like this before."
'They have no money left for me'
Not only have developers stopped ordering cabinets for new subdivisions, but Monschein said some of them never paid for the cabinets already installed.
"Us poor subcontractors. We're the ones stuck with the bills," said Monschein. He noted how when builders go bankrupt, banks collect their debts before other creditors. "I've already paid my workers, my vendors and my suppliers. Then builders say they have no money left for me."
California construction work has gotten so scarce that Monschein last week traveled to Colorado to secure a cabinet order for a custom home. He's bid jobs in Wyoming, too, just to keep his operation going.
Last year Monschein said his company installed $4 million in equipment to enable it to be "green certified" and to meet California's strict environmental standards.
"We paid cash for everything, so we will survive," Monschein assured.
But the housing slump won't end anytime soon, analysts warn.
"The Central Valley is not immune to the slowing national economy and the region's housing market is feeling the effects," said Greg Gross, director of Metrostudy's Central Valley division.
Metrostudy provides market research to the housing industry nationwide.
"Would-be home buyers have taken a wait-and-see attitude," Gross said. "Others have lost interest or the ability to purchase a home. With regulation in the mortgage industry, buyers now have to prove their ability to repay their mortgages. Higher credit scores and more stringent documentation are required."
Metrostudy forecasts the Northern San Joaquin Valley's housing market will "decline further through 2009 and most likely into the second quarter of 2010."
Because few new homes are being built, Gross said, the inventory of unsold new homes is declining: "This is an important step if we expect housing prices to rise during the next two years."
The California Building Industry Association is pushing lawmakers to start offering state and federal home buyer tax credits to reinvigorate the housing market. Home construction creates jobs, which would stimulate the economy, builders contend.
Construction jobs vanished
A study released last summer by the Sacramento Regional Research Institute calculated how many jobs are linked to California housing construction. For Stanislaus, it figured there were 5,363 construction-related jobs in 2006, but that fell to 3,767 jobs when building declined in 2007.
Because about one-third as many homes were built in 2008 as 2007, construction-related jobs in Stanislaus might have fallen below 1,300.
Builders suggest that with the government's help, increased new home construction could lead the country out of recession.
Some experts think there are too many homes already.
"There doesn't need to be any new construction (in the Northern San Joaquin Valley). Migration is leaving and the bank-owned properties can be purchased for well below the builder's cost," said Bruce Norris, a real estate investor and lender who leads California investment seminars.
"This silly notion that builders are not building enough new homes to keep pace with demand is absolutely wrong and very harmful to the reputation to those who keep saying it," Norris said.
Madera County officials aren't looking after land...Bill McEwen
The scenery along Highway 41 north of Fresno is spectacular: a new carpet of grass covers miles of rolling hills, livestock graze under gray skies and Little Tabletop Mountain provides a backdrop as dramatic as any in a Hollywood western.
The feast continues on the back road snaking the west side of Millerton Lake -- grass, rocks and wildlife soaking the senses. It's easy to imagine yourself an early settler cresting a hill for the first time, eager to see what's ahead.
Treasure the sights. Commit them to memory. If developers and the Madera County Board of Supervisors get their way, this land in a few years will be plundered, pillaged and paved into suburbia.
I can excuse the developers. Their job is to make money. But the supervisors are supposed to represent their constituents and be wise stewards of county resources.
Sad to say, Madera's supervisors are in way over their heads; either they're rubes being hustled by developers painting pretty pictures or they actually believe the myth that residential growth pays for itself.
Late last year, the supervisors unanimously approved two developments proposed for the sprawling Rio Mesa pig-in-a-poke that someday is supposed to be home to 100,000 people.
One of the projects would swallow up more than 2,100 acres on Millerton Lake's northwest shore and put apartments within 150 feet of a state park.
I don't know about you, but nothing says "camping" more than opening the tent flap and seeing a red-tailed hawk soaring above an apartment complex.
Water for North Shore Village would come from wells drilled near Cottonwood Creek -- a vital part of the San Joaquin River wildlife corridor and future salmon restoration efforts.
I wonder how long before flows are reduced to a trickle because the wells have sucked up every ounce of moisture in the vicinity of the creek bed?
Most troubling, says Dave Koehler, executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, is that the supervisors "approved the project with the wildlife impact surveys to be completed down the road."
Fortunately, there are people challenging both the supervisors' vision for this glorious land and the planning department's failure to account for how the mixed-use project would affect water, wildlife, traffic and air pollution.
In fact, the proposal faces lawsuits from three environmental groups -- including the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust -- and Fresno County, which says that the developer has failed to explain how it will mitigate traffic crossing the county line.
The state also has asked the developer to significantly increase the size of the no-build zone. This would provide a better buffer for the park and push homes away from the shoreline.
Reasonable people can make reasonable compromises that don't ruin the river corridor or stop development in its tracks.
But it's disheartening to know that Madera's supervisors aren't up to protecting what's precious.
Thank goodness there are others willing to serve as the public's vigilant watchdogs.
Dan Walters: Dry winter fortells big crisis
We've heard and read a lot this winter about the terrific snow and ice storms that have buffeted much of the nation, sometimes destroying both property and lives.
We Californians, basking in sunshine, are having an equally disastrous winter. It's the third dry winter in a row, notwithstanding a little recent precipitation, and the specter of severe water shortages is hanging over the state, compounding its severe economic woes.
The Sierra snowpack is just 60 percent of what would be considered normal and, barring a late-season onslaught of storms, water agencies will impose sharp cutbacks.
An Internet Web site maintained by the state Department of Water Resources – cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/ current/RES – catalogs how major Northern California reservoirs have been drawn down. The biggest, Shasta, can hold 4.6 million acre-feet of water but is more than two-thirds empty, while Oroville, with a capacity of 3.5 million acre-feet, also is less than a third full.
The climatic conditions that are causing severe storms elsewhere in the nation have been blocking the usual flow of storms into California. We can't change those conditions, but we could have, and should have, recognized the potential peril of drought years, even decades, ago and prepared for it with more storage, more wastewater reclamation, more conservation – in other words more intelligent action.
It has been, in the largest context, another political failure and another bit of evidence for the thesis that California has become functionally ungovernable.
Water politics are fundamentally the same as those of the deficit-ridden state budget, of our failing public education system, of our worst-in-the-nation traffic congestion, and of our inadequate health care system. California is a uniquely complex society, and every one of those issues – and many more that could be listed – has a complex array of interest and pressure groups, dubbed "stakeholders," that usually cancel out each other.
Professional water managers and hydrologists have been warning California for decades that as the state's population grows and its economy evolves – especially water-dependent agriculture – the state's need for potable water also increases. But the diametrically hostile philosophical and economic positions of myriad water stakeholders make it virtually impossible for political officeholders and/or voters to settle on a practical scheme to meet that need.
That's especially true because water programs, by their nature, are very long-term while politics is, unfortunately, a very short-term activity.
The water situation will not improve by itself as the state's population continues to grow. And if the predictions about global warming prove true, it will get much worse because there will be less snow and more rain even in years of normal precipitation, which means we will need more storage capacity to even out the ups and downs of weather cycles.
Nut glut leaves growers blue...Jim Downing
This year, a can a week won't be enough.
With the bad global economy choking off exports and warehouses full with a record harvest, California's almond business is swimming in nuts – and the industry's long boom has finally run out of steam.
Almond prices dropped more than 30 percent from August to December. The market for orchard real estate, which doubled in price from 2003 to 2007, has gone cold. And the industry expects to be left with a record-shattering surplus – at least 300 million pounds – when the 2009 harvest begins in August.
Drought is likely to make matters worse for many almond farmers. At the same time, though, a weak harvest might help the industry dig out of the glut.
"The price situation can turn around in a matter of no time flat," said Dave Baker, director of member relations at Sacramento-based Blue Diamond Growers.
Cycles of shortage and surfeit are a part of farming, and today's oversupply is reminiscent of the humorous scenes from Blue Diamond's famous "a can a week, that's all we ask," advertising campaign, where farmers stood waist-deep in almonds.
But for many years this decade, it seemed almonds might deliver endless profits.
Even as orchards expanded and harvests grew, sales kept pace. Industry-funded marketing campaigns built demand abroad, and exports soared to nearly $2 billion a year. Domestic sales rose, too, as stacks of nutrition research – supported by roughly $1 million a year from the industry – established the nuts as good for fighting everything from obesity to heart disease and cancer.
The result: In the first half of the decade, prices tripled, and orchards sprouted faster than Central Valley subdivisions. The promise of annual profits better than $1,000 an acre drew investors from real estate developers to football commentator John Madden.
"We were kind of in the same scenario as the housing industry – you couldn't grow enough of them," said Ladd Hackler, a sales representative for Oakdale-based Burchell Nursery, which supplies almond saplings to farmers around the state.
The almond market peaked after the 2005 harvest, but the crop was still quite profitable even after prices fell in 2006 and 2007. Orchard land kept rising in value, and export sales kept breaking records.
Then, just as the mammoth harvest of 2008 was being shaken off trees from Bakersfield to Red Bluff, the global economy seized up and, at the same time, the dollar strengthened, making almonds more expensive for overseas buyers.
The growth in almond shipments, which had been at double-digit rates, suddenly went negative. Prices crashed, and almond processors around the state scrambled to find storage space for unsold nuts. Blue Diamond bought a huge former Hershey's chocolate warehouse in Oakdale to help handle the glut.
Still, many believe almonds are headed for a soft landing.
"I still think they have a very strong long-term future," said Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. The state is the dominant global almond producer, holding more than 80 percent of the market. There are no serious competitors on the horizon, Sumner said.
"I wouldn't say it was a bubble," said Mohnish Seth, who runs a mid-sized almond processing and export business in Chico, and also farms several thousand acres of orchards.
Over the long run, Seth predicts, the world's appetite for almonds will continue to grow. He ties the slowdown in sales mostly to shifts in currency values and the bad economy. And even at today's low prices, he said, many of his orchards can still be profitable.
Wearing a Bluetooth headset, Seth walked briskly through his hulling plant on a recent afternoon. Though tiny next to Blue Diamond's sprawling Sacramento factory, it still handles millions of pounds of almonds a year, which Seth ships to Europe and China as well as to his family's nut business in India.
As he inspected the buds on a tree in one of the orchards that surround his plant, Seth said last fall's huge harvest portends a smaller crop in 2009, since yields typically drop after a bumper year.
The state's looming drought could also keep the crop small.
About 216,000 acres of almond orchards in the San Joaquin Valley face a serious water shortage this year, according to Blue Diamond's Baker.
On most of that land, farmers have some options, though all are expensive – pumping from wells, fallowing other crops to free up water for almonds or buying water from other farms.
John Diener, who farms 5,000 acres near Five Points in Fresno County, said he's planning to fallow 3,000 acres of land that usually grows anything from corn to melons in order to concentrate water on his 750 acres of almonds, which represent millions of dollars of investment.
His neighbors, however, planted almonds on all of their 2,000 acres – and are now pulling them out, he said.
International nut buyers follow California's water situation closely, Seth said. When water officials cut irrigation forecasts in late January, the global price for almonds ticked up 5 to 10 cents a pound.
In addition to water-related cutbacks, farmers are likely to bulldoze older, less productive orchards, Baker said. Low prices will accelerate that sort of culling, he predicts, and by 2011, the state's almond acreage is likely to drop.
With the nut market weak and water scarce, Seth said he's getting frequent offers from farmers looking to unload orchard land.
"A year ago, everybody still wanted to buy," he said. But now, Seth said, he's not interested. Land appraisers say nobody else is, either.
Orchard land prices don't appear to be dropping yet, but the market is difficult to judge because almost no land has changed hands in the past few months, said Mike Iliff, an agricultural appraiser for Fresno Madera Farm Credit.
"We're kind of at a pinnacle," Iliff said. "We're not quite sure what's going to happen."
10% water cuts to Manteca & Lathrop possible...Dennis Wyatt
California’s drought is about to hit home.
The South San Joaquin Irrigation District board Tuesday may notify the cities of Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy that they are facing the strong possibility of having their 2009 treated water deliveries reduced by 10 percent.
If it happens - and SSJID General Manger Jeff Shields warns it is increasing in probability with every passing day without major snow in the Sierra – the cities will be asked to tighten up efforts to conserve water by enforcing rules against hosing down sidewalks, gutter flooding, watering yards between noon and 6 p. m., and a host of other restrictions.
Congressmen Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa sent a letter Feb. 2 to new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that reads, “Unless the months of February and March bring above average rain and snowfall, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to provide no Central Valley Project Water to South-of-the-Delta agricultural service contractors. A zero allocation is unprecedented in the history of the CVP.”
The State Water Project last week indicated it may reduce its original projection on water deliveries downward. Several months ago the State Water Project indicated they would only deliver 15 percent of water allocations.
The SSJID watershed on the Stanislaus River is in better shape than much of the state despite this being the third driest year in the 100-year history of the district.
Even so, if there is a severe water shortage the state could exercise emergency powers to shift water.
SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District share historic water rights to 600,000 acre feet on the Stanislaus that was established with the original Melones Dam the two agencies built in 1925. In the agreement to replace the dam with the New Melones, the Bureau of Reclamation gave the two districts the right to split the first 600,000 acre feet of run-off that flows into the 1.2 million acre reservoir.
In the 2007-08 water years, the two districts received 587,366 acre feet or all of the inflow. Based on existing snow conditions, the inflow to New Melones is projected at 265,300 acre feet. If that pans out, SSJID would receive 132,500 acre feet instead of 300,000 acre feet. The run-off is the third lowest in history. There was only 261,100 acre feet of run-off in 1923-24, the driest year recorded on the Stanislaus River.
The district board also may invest $75,000 for a real time management system of irrigation line openings and closings to keep a tighter track of water than manual notes taken by ditch tenders.
At the same time, they also may notify Stanislaus County Parks and Recreation Department they may operate Woodward Reservoir at minimum level of 198 feet instead of at 210 feet. The reason is the surface area of the water is less. Woodward Reservoir is estimated to lose between 20,000 and 30,000 acre feet of water a year. Keeping the water at higher elevation in deeper reservoirs reduces losses due to evaporating and seepage. That will have two impacts. First, Woodard Reservoir user fees account for a third of the Stanislaus County Parks and Recreation Department’s annual revenue.
Second, less water could lead to less seepage which ultimately will impact underground aquifers tapped by farmers who don’t use surface water.
San Francisco Chronicle
The Bay Area as an ecosystem...Editorial
When it comes to development and preservation, Bay Area communities tend to be myopic and provincial. Some crave growth, others abhor it - and, as often as not, their local desires do not necessarily reflect the best interest of the region, which is to guide growth into areas where it has the least detrimental effect on natural resources and makes the best use of existing job centers and transportation systems.
"Regionalism" is something elected officials and other community leaders talk about at seminars and editorial board meetings. But the reality of Bay Area politics is that anti-growth factions often have a lot of clout in the inner areas that could handle more growth, and pro-development forces often call the shots in the outer areas where growth means paving over farmland and open space.
The case for a regional approach to land use has rarely been spelled out so eloquently as in a new report, "Golden Lands, Golden Opportunity," produced by the Greenbelt Alliance and the Bay Area Open Space Council. This two-year study, which incorporated input from a wide breadth of more than 100 government and nonprofit entities, carefully cataloged the threats to natural resources in the nine-county region. As the report noted, plants and animals are "losing the places they need to survive." Children are losing outdoor options. "And," it added, "climate change is raising the stakes."
This was not in any way an anti-growth manifesto. It acknowledged that an estimated 1 million more people will "call the region home" by 2020. The report was not just about preserving habitat for wildlife - it was about maintaining quality of life for people.
"A number that I found was surprising was the 62 percent of Bay Area kids under the age of 15 who don't have a park within walking distance of their home," said Elizabeth Stampe, communications director for the Greenbelt Alliance. "It's actually worse in lower-income areas - that (62 percent) is just the average."
One of the striking features of the report is its optimistic tone. Many longtime residents of the region, who have seen their communities paved and development encroach on erstwhile tree-studded hills and flat cropland, may wonder if it's too late.
In a sense, the down economy could help create an opening for discussions of regionalism.
"There really is a great deal of hope," said Bettina Ring, director of the Bay Area Open Space Council. "I think it is a great opportunity to step back and say: 'What do we need to look at first? There's not quite as much development pressure, here is an opportunity to seize the moment.' "
The timing of the report is perfect in other ways. The drought is raising awareness of the value of watersheds. The Slow Food movement is elevating interest in the need to preserve agriculture within the region. Moreover, the threat of an accelerating climate change is forcing policymakers to contemplate dramatic ecological changes in the region. The Bay Area is emerging as a global leader in both advancing commercial development of green technologies and in embracing public policies that reduce carbon footprints.
The quality and variety of the open space in this region is not just a weekend luxury for the people who live and visit here.
"It's an integral part of the economy," Stampe said. "What would we have if we didn't have this farmland, and the hills, and the coast? It wouldn't be the same at all."
Of course, regionalism can be like a New Year's resolution: espoused with conviction, then lost in the day-to-day return to bad habits. Last fall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation (SB375) by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to provide incentives for local governments to work together to reduce carbon emissions in their land-use planning.
The prescriptions in the report are many: linking trails, maintaining parks, protecting and connecting habitats, acquiring open space, encouraging "infill" growth that has less impact on air, water and other natural resources. Our politicians always talk about "smart growth," but still this region lost nearly 200,000 acres of agricultural land between 1984 and 2006. Perhaps the wave of foreclosures in some of those hot, dry subdivisions on land that once held crops will finally cement the message that sprawl is not just bad aesthetics. It's bad economics.
The timing should be right for a regional strategy to preserve our natural resources - and the quality of life that makes this such a special place.
Millions to fix damage from fence building
Development: An attempt to tidy up around the U.S.-Mexico border fence
What it means: Too little, too late. Shoot first, ask questions later. ... If you can shake your head in disgust while saying it, then you've probably found the right cliche for the environmental fiasco surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border wall. By June, Homeland Security plans to pass $50 million to the Interior Department to restore wildlife habitat and cultural sites damaged by construction and maintenance. During the past two years, the agency has already given approximately $40 million for the same purpose. But compared with the giant money-suck that is the wall itself, even $90 million is little more than a nod in the right direction. The agency has so far completed roughly 601 miles of fence at a cost that's oscillated between $200,000 and $15.1 million per mile. And that money came without environmental strings attached, because hordes of environmental regulations (including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act) were waived during the fence's construction. Talk about shutting the barn door after the horse is gone.
- Terray Sylvester/High Country News, hcn.org
Poor grades handed out in prairie dog recovery
Development: Environmental group releases a report on prairie dog management
What it means: In most of the country, Monday was Groundhog Day. But for Westerners, it was Prairie Dog Day. And the rodent is in trouble, with bulldozers rolling over its habitat, ranchers dropping poison and shooters taking target practice. Of the five species of prairie dog, two are already on the endangered species list and the other three are probably headed there. Now, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians has released its annual report card on prairie dog protection. None of the 12 states and three federal agencies rated got a gold star - in fact, the average grade was a D. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got a C-. Of the Western states, Arizona did best, with a B, but most rated D+ to D- for failing to take any steps toward prairie dog recovery.
Lauren McCain of WildEarth Guardians highlighted the irony of prairie dog policy in an Associated Press story: "(State and federal) agencies have financed and encouraged the poisoning of prairie dogs over the years while pumping millions of dollars into recovery efforts aimed at other species that rely on the prairie dog."
- Jodi Peterson/High Country News, hcn.org
Tree catastrophe just over the hill
Development: Dead trees could threaten Western watersheds
What it means: Folks in Los Angeles may not think about pine beetles when they turn on their water faucets, but 2 million acres of dead lodgepole pines ought to have everyone worried.
Trees all over the West are dying twice as fast as usual, made vulnerable to disease and beetles by a long-term drought and warmer temperatures most scientists blame on global warming. Within seven to 10 years, said Forest Service official Rick Cables in a speech on Jan. 30, those dead trees will "fall to the forest floor like pickup sticks." Severe wildfires will likely follow, and without trees to shade and hold the snowpack, early snowmelt "will roar down the denuded slopes, filling our rivers and reservoirs with sand and gravel and ash, leaving big gullies, and - heaven forbid - taking out small communities."
National forests supply 51 percent of the West's water, and water from the Rocky Mountains ends up in 10 of the 11 Western states. If we don't invest in our forest watersheds now, Cables warned, we'll face catastrophic costs when the West's trees crash and burn.
- Emily Underwood/High Country News, hcn.org
Contra Costa Times
Dry spell: California farmers struggle with impending drought...Ken McLaughlin
GUSTINE — Farmer Lax Iyer is standing on the side of a country road that splits his almond orchard into two different worlds — one abloom, the other in danger of choking in a cloud of dust.
The trees on his left appear sickly because they depend on water from the Central Valley Project — increasingly scarce "federal water" that comes from hundreds of miles away. The trees on his right are healthy trees that get all the water they need, because they rely on an irrigation district that enjoys water rights stemming from when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
Within months, the trees that rely on the federal water — an investment of more than a million dollars — could be dead.
Never since the Central Valley Project was authorized in 1935 have California's farmers been so worried about the lack of water. Three years of too little rain combined with pumping restrictions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have created a nightmare scenario: The federal government might soon cut off the state's largest supply of agricultural water — for the first time in California history.
"I really don't know what I'm going to do," said Iyer, 50, an Indian immigrant who fears his cherished 13-year-old business — his American dream — could collapse.
But as Iyer's patchwork of water sources so dramatically illustrates, when it comes to water and farming in California, even in the midst of a drought there are haves and have-nots. Some farmers draw their water from abundant wells. Some get their water from the huge state and federal water plumbing projects that decades ago irrigated dry valley land and built California's agricultural industry. Some of the luckiest have long-term water rights obtained in the '30s and '40s. Others are hooked into more environmentally progressive water distribution systems, like the one in the Salinas Valley.
The drama sure to play out in the next few months will demonstrate which parts of the state's water network are fragile and which are secure — and may lay the course for California's water future.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation won't announce this year's water allocation until Feb. 20. But late last month, state water officials announced that California's snowpack — which feeds the state's elaborate systems of reservoirs and canals — was only 61 percent of normal. The drought, officials warned, could become the worst in modern California history.
Water shortages are a severe threat to the state's agricultural industry, which uses 80 percent of the water consumed by Californians to produce more than half of the country's vegetables, nuts and fruits. The industry, the state's largest, generates more than $36 billion annually in sales. It provides 1.1 million jobs in a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation — 9.3 percent.
Already many farmers are letting their fields lie fallow. Fresno County's farmers plan to grow about half the lettuce they did last year. Other farmers are panicking and spending millions of dollars to dig expensive wells that mostly yield poor-quality water.
A new University of California-Davis study estimates that $1.6 billion in agriculture-related wages — and as many as 60,000 jobs across the Central Valley — will be lost in the coming months because of the drought.
In the hard-hit west side of the valley near Fresno, the drought's epicenter, the farming economy is already crumbling. The unemployment rate in Mendota, the self-styled Cantaloupe Capital of the World, now stands at 35 percent.
Businesses in Mendota that sell chemicals and irrigation equipment are reeling. Feed, fertilizer and small trucking companies are seeing their business dry up. "And, of course, it all trickles down to hairdressing shops, restaurants and other small businesses in town," said Sarah Woolf of the Westlands Water District, which provides water to more than 600 family-owned farms in western Fresno and Kings counties.
The district, like 3 million agricultural acres around California, depends on the federal Central Valley Project. The project, which mostly provides water to farmers, is complemented by the nearly half-century-old State Water Project, a similar system that irrigates 755,000 acres of farmland and provides water to 23 million Californians. State water officials in October said they expected farmers' water allocation to be about 15 percent of their contracted amount, but it could be less. Many farmers expect the federal allocation to be "zero percent."
The delta is the switching yard for California water, the place where the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers come together.
A finger-size fish called the delta smelt is on the verge of extinction, so a federal judge has restricted pumping that kills the fish, reducing the amount of water that flows south to farmers in canals.
"We're only in the third year of a drought and really starting to feel its impacts," said Westlands' Woolf. "Normally that doesn't happen until the fourth or fifth year."
The environmental restrictions have angered farmers.
"It does hurt," said Iyer, the almond farmer. "You would hope that people are more important than fish."
Doug Obegi, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said environmentalists aren't insensitive to the plight of farmers: "It's just that we've created a water policy that doesn't work for fish or people."
So what's going to happen?
Farmers, of course, are praying that more rain in the next several weeks will allow federal and state water officials to increase allocations — at least enough to let them save orchards, if not this year's crops.
Farmers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are also pushing to build new dams and reservoirs. And a strong movement has revived the idea to construct a Peripheral Canal to redirect water flowing from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers directly to man-made aqueducts headed south. But environmental groups have vowed to fight the proposals.
Newman almond farmer Jim Jasper, 63, sighed: "Mark Twain once said that in California 'whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.' "
But sometimes, Obegi said, a crisis can get warring sides to focus on solutions everyone can agree on. The Natural Resources Defense Council, he said, is advocating the concept of the "virtual river" — a combination of water-use efficiency, water recycling, improved groundwater management and the capture of storm water that normally runs into the ocean.
Amid the debate, the fertile Salinas Valley — which didn't participate in either the state or federal water projects — is a model of water management that is good for the environment and good for farmers. The water in Monterey County's reservoirs is low but should be adequate to get farmers through the year.
"I think our ancestors had the foresight to put in a system that constantly recharges our aquifers," said fourth-generation farmer Dirk Giannini, 36.
It was a crisis in the Salinas Valley that led to a solution that has won plaudits from both environmentalists and farmers.
The problem was saltwater intrusion, where seawater gradually replaces freshwater pumped from wells near coastal land. The solution was to send Monterey County's wastewater through advanced treatment — yes, that includes toilet water — to irrigate farmland in the northern part of the Salinas Valley around Castroville.
By next year, the availability of water to farmers will be even greater after a rubber dam is completed on the Salinas River. The dam, which will be able to go up and down to address environmental concerns, will inject even more water into the sophisticated recycling system, in addition to recharging aquifers.
But the farmers in Steinbeck Country aren't gloating.
"We really feel for those guys in the Central Valley," said Chris Drew, 33, production manager for Sea Mist Farms in Castroville. "We are eternally grateful for the people who planned for us to have this water."
New York Times
What Will Save the Suburbs?...Allison Arieff, By Design...1-11-09
For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with suburban and exurban master-planned communities and how to make them better. But as the economy and the mortgage crisis just seem to get worse, and gas prices continue to plunge, the issues around housing have changed dramatically. The problem now isn’t really how to better design homes and communities, but rather what are we going to do with all the homes and communities we’re left with.
“Aerial #65″ by Sarah McKenzie. (Courtesy of the artist)
In urban areas, there’s rich precedent for the transformation or reuse of abandoned lots or buildings. Vacant lots have been converted into pocket parks, community gardens and pop-up stores (or they remain vacant, anxiously awaiting recovery and subsequent conversion into high-end office space condos). Old homes get divided into apartments, old factories into lofts, old warehouses into retail.
Projects like Manhattan’s High Line show that even derelict train tracks can be turned into something as valuable to citizens as a vibrant public park. A brownfield site in San Francisco has been cleaned up and will house an eco-literacy center for the city’s youth. Hey, even a dump (Fresh Kills, on Staten Island) is undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis into a recreation area.
But similar transformation within the carefully delineated form of a subdivision is not so simple. These insta-neighborhoods were not designed or built for flexibility or change.
So what to do with the abandoned houses, the houses that were never completed or the land that was razed for building and now sits empty?
Lands cleared to make way for houses that were not (and may never be) developed. (DigitalGlobe, Sanborn, GeoEye, U.S. Geological Survey; 2008 Google Imagery)
Take as an analogous example their symbiotic partner, the big box store. As I learned in artist Julia Christensen’s new book, “Big Box Reuse,” when a big box store like Wal-mart or Kmart outgrows its space, it is shut down. It is, apparently, cheaper to start from scratch than to close for renovation and expansion, let alone decide at the outset to design a store that can easily be expanded (or contracted, as the case may be).
So not only does a community get a newer, bigger big box, it is also left with quite an economic and environmental eyesore: a vacant shell of a retail operation, tons of wasted building material and a changed landscape that can’t be changed back.
The silver lining in Christensen’s study are the communities she’s discovered that have proactively addressed the massive empty shells they’ve been left with, turning structures of anywhere from 20,000 to 280,000 square feet into something useful: a charter school, a health center, a chapel, a library. (And, in Austin, Minn., a new Spam Museum.)
The repurposing of abandoned big-box stores is easier to wrap one’s head around: one can envision within a single volume (albeit a massive one) the potential to become something else.
But exurban communities are a unique challenge. The houses within them are big, but not generally as big as, say, Victorian mansions in San Francisco that can be subdivided into apartments. So they’re not great candidates for transformation into multi-family rental housing.
I did visit a housing development last year that offered “quartets,” McMansions subdivided into four units with four separate entrances. These promised potential buyers the status of a McMansion with the convenience of a condominium, but the concept felt like it was created more to preserve the property values of larger neighboring homes than to serve the needs of the community’s residents.
There has been a nationwide shift toward de-construction (led by companies like Planet Reuse and Buffalo Reuse, the surgical taking-apart of homes to salvage the building materials for reuse, but often the building materials used in these developments aren’t of good enough quality to warrant salvaging.
I don’t have the perfect solution for how to transform these broad swaths of subdivisions, and while I’ve heard much talk of the foreclosure tragedy, I’ve heard nary a peep about what to do about it.
A recent article in The Times spotted an emerging trend of kids usurping the abandoned pools of foreclosed homes for use as temporary skate parks. (Interestingly, this was big in the ‘70s, as you can see by watching the rad skate documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”) It’s a great short-term strategy for adolescent recreation (and for ridding neighborhoods of fetid pools, which often harbor West Nile virus), though it’s not a comprehensive solution to the problem of increasingly abandoned, ill-maintained and more dangerous streetscapes.
But there are some interesting avenues to be pursued. Part of President-elect Obama’s proposed massive public works program, for example, is to be dedicated to clean tech infrastructure. Included in this is the intent to weatherize (that is, make energy-efficient) one million low-income homes a year.
One can already see how those in the construction industry can begin to make the shift from new construction to home retrofitting. It’s the centerpiece of “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems,” the best-selling, Al Gore- and Nancy Pelosi-endorsed book by environmental activist Van Jones. Though we hear a lot in the news about new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design/) buildings and incentives for implementing the latest green technology, it’s often the case that fixing leaks and insulation are just as effective in reducing the carbon footprint of single-family homes (which account for about 18 percent of the country’s carbon footprint).
As people increasingly stay put — and re-sell homes less — this retrofit strategy makes sense. Millions of homes, not just low-income ones, are in need of the sort of weatherization the Obama plan describes. The non-profit Architecture 2030, established in 2002 in response to the global warming crisis, is leading a major effort in this arena with the goal of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the building sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed and constructed.
And after decades of renovation-obsession that has simply gotten out of hand, it seems a prudent time to swap Viking ranges for double-paned windows and high-efficiency furnaces. It’s the perfect moment to fix what we’ve got. Despite their currently low numbers, green homes typically re-sell for more money than their conventional counterparts.
I still dream that some major overhaul can occur: that a self-sufficient mixed-use neighborhood can emerge. That three-car-garaged McMansions can be subdivided into rental units with streetfront cafés, shops and other local businesses.
In short, that creative ways are found not just to rehabilitate these homes and communities, but to keep people in them.
Saving the Suburbs, Part 2...Allison Arieff, By Design...2-3-09
A scene from the film “The Road.” (Macall B. Polay/2929 Films/Dimension Films)
If some of the readers of my last post have their way, suburbia could eventually evolve into something straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road,” where a desolate, polluted land is dotted with abandoned homes and buildings that have been stripped of all valuable parts, and lawlessness (and cannibalism) rules the streets.
Others, who advocated letting the land take over, might enjoy reading Alan Weisman’s vivid description of how that process would work in “The World Without Us”: “[P]ipes burst but if you lived where it freezes and rain is blowing in where windows have cracked from bird collisions and the stress of sagging walls … eventually the walls lean to one side, and finally the roof falls in.” (There’s a terrific video on www.worldwithoutus.com that shows “Your House Without You”: mold and bugs jump in immediately, wildlife moves in by year 50, plant life takes over by about year 100.)
Though a healthy contingent of commentators on “What Will Save the Suburbs?” advocated either burning suburbia down or simply letting nature take its course, the opinions offered ran the gamut from using them to relocate displaced Palestinians to turning them into self-sustaining communities.
Other ideas? Here are a few: Mind your own business, city dwellers! Start a cult. Move the homeless in. Turn all those homes into schools. Sack the planners! (Alternatively, please don’t vilify planners.) Convert these homes to low-income housing (or don’t even think about such a crazy idea). Rezone. Give contractors the incentive to build better and greener. Transform those homes into satellite prisons. Let people work from home one day a week. Watch now as the “white flight” begins! Stop driving and walk more!
And one of my favorites: Put all the McMansions into abandoned big box stores for greater energy efficiency, creating an instant community in the process.
One unanticipated discovery that became clear from the commentary was just how deep an animosity exists between urban dwellers and suburbanites. Perhaps “saving” was the wrong verb to use in the title. True, there are many fantastic suburbs (I grew up in one) but that doesn’t negate the reality of places like Rio Vista, Calif., where an upscale 855-home development called Hearth and Home at Liberty (a name so cruelly ironic it surpasses irony altogether) was abandoned last year, leaving graded streets, a few model homes and little else. Exploring what to do with the extreme — semi-abandoned, half-built subdivisions from Merced, Calif., to Lake County, Fla. — was done with the broader intention of rethinking how all communities might better be designed, built and experienced.
This is not unexplored territory; good ideas abound, but most remain just that — great theory, little practice. Some suburbs get it right; some cities do, too. But too many, especially in recent years, just haven’t.
Housing starts were off 15.5 percent in December. Whether they return to “normal” later this year, or next year, or the year after that, it is crucial that the industry learns from its recent mistakes, which have ranged from overbuilding to product homogeneity. New (and existing) homes and communities, and the people who reside in them, whether they’re on Lexington Avenue or Quail Ridge Lane, can benefit from any number of creative ideas, designs and efforts already underway not just from the “housing industry” but from your friends and neighbors, too.
Richard Register has been thinking about the imperative of ecological urban (and suburban) redesign for decades. The author of “Ecocities” and founder of Ecocity Builders, Register advocates returning healthy biodiversity and agriculture to cities, and designing them in such a way so as to bring convenience and pleasure to walking, bicycling and transit. He explains that we should now be thinking about strategies for removing development: “It’s time for an intelligently phased withdrawal from it. This can happen by default or by design. By default would be a catastrophe.”
In their recent book “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs,” architects and academics Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson ) would agree. They see suburbia itself as flawed (which die-hard suburbanites may not appreciate) and, like Register, they recommend urban strategies to solve suburban problems.
The book’s numerous case studies show that this strategy has its merits. Increasing density, transit and walkability often (though not always) can help to revitalize struggling communities like MetroWest in Vienna, Va., which shifted from 69 houses to 2,250 transit-oriented residences (suburban renewal seems impossible by the way without a serious acknowledgment of the need for density), and Mashpee Commons in Mashpee, Mass., once a shopping mall but now a New Urbanist-style development with varied housing and open-air retail.
Rendering of Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts.
While many in the development/building/construction industries continue to argue the financial impossibility of sustainable developments (and insist that consumers aren’t really interested in sustainable homes), KRDB architects in Austin, TX, went ahead and proved them wrong with SOL (solution-oriented living) Austin. Included in the 38-home, net zero energy development are 16 affordable modular housing units (for cultural and economic diversity), tree plantings and community parks, joint-access drives (to reduce impervious cover), varied setbacks (so, unlike most developments, one isn’t confronted with a sea of identical houses but rather a more heterogeneous array). Recognizing a trend away from larger homes for both economic and environmental reasons, the architects have designed the largest property at 1,816 square feet, the smallest at 1,090.
SOL Austin (Courtesy of KRDB Architects)
Example of a modular home (Casey Dunn; courtesy of KRDB Architects)
Free Green is a service that offers what most developers won’t: green home plans to home-buyers. Free green home plans from “Comfortable Cape” to “Suburban Loft.” And they’ll help find builders to build them. Consumer interest and demand in greener homes seems to be driving change in the industry — a sort of bottom up approach to innovation. So if you can’t find a subdivision offering the house you want, Free Green is helping facilitate a proactive alternative.
In keeping with this apparent new era of personal responsibility, the only-slightly-tongue-in-cheek collective Wannastartacommune.com started by Stephanie Smith, Buckminster Fuller-acolyte and founder of the green design lab, Ecoshack, gives a new attitude to an old idea, urging residents of cul de sacs or condos to come together with their neighbors to share resources. Suggestions for collaboration include a shared compost pile, weekly potlucks, neighborhood recycling programs, barter services and shared childcare. Their pilot project, Cul-de-Sac communes, is already underway.
This tendency — let’s call it extreme neighborliness — is so old-fashioned as to seem innovative. Startlingly basic and wholly actionable, it’s a bright spot in a dark time.