“Give me a break.” -- Merced County Supervisor Gerry O’Banion
Merced County Board of Supervisors
Board Agenda Item PM #2
June 10, 2008
Appeal of Planning Commission approval of Minor Subdivision Application/Parcel Map Waiver No. 07-058 – Chris Robinson
Project Description and Location: The applicant proposes to divide three parcels (194.52 acres, 516.80 acres, & 315.88 acres) totaling 1,027.20 acres into 3 parcels of: Parcel 1 = 198.63 acres, Parcel 2 = 343.18 acres, Parcel 3 = 165.63 acres and Remainder Parcel = 320.14 acres. The project is located on the east side of Highway 59, ½ mile north of Youd Road in the Snelling area. The project site is designated Agricultural land use in the General Plan and zoned A2 (Exclusive Agriculture).
Senior Planner Dave Gilbert explained to the supervisors that the issue was an appeal from the county Planning Commission approval of the project. The planning department presented this project as a “reorganization” of three parcels into three plus a remaining parcel. For some reason, it could not say “four parcels.” The boundaries of proposed Parcel 2 may be the area of a conservation easement on the Merced River, which occupies parts of the three existing parcels. The other new parcels surround this parcel. Because information about the easement was not made public, it is not clear whether the boundaries of the parcel are the boundaries of the easement. Robinson will later apply for a conditional use permit to mine a portion of one of the new parcels adjoining the conservation easement, nearly touching the river. But, Gilbert said, “The change in the parcel borders doesn’t affect the easement.”
The planner explained that the proposed parcels were a part of the Robinson family planning process and “was consistent with managing 6,000 acres over time.” Gilbert also dismissed the California Environmental Quality Act cumulative impact issue saying there had only been one subdivision within a mile of the project and only nine within five miles of it – neglecting hundreds of subdivisions of agricultural land in Merced County the planning department has difficulty counting.
In reply to a letter from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, planning staff asserted that Robinson, the applicant said there would be no ranchettes and that there was no relationship between the new parcels and the anticipated sand-mine project. Robinson’s mining contractors, Central Valley Cement, according to Gilbert, also claimed no relationship between the mining project and the new parcels.
Gilbert reported to the board that the planning commission approved the proposed new parcels and that there would be no changes in land-use, which would remain in agriculture (except for the mining, of course.)
The briefest history of this part of the Robinson Ranch shows that the conservation easement on the river resulted from the 1997 flood, which blew out Robinson’s mining operations on the river, damaged the downstream bridge on Highway 59. A number of resource agencies spent millions of dollars of public funds on the restoration project contained in the conservation easement along the river (proposed Parcel 2).
Maureen McCorry, representing et al and the Valley Land Alliance, spoke against the project. She began by asking the board if they had received and read the material she submitted. Board members nodded or replied that they had.
McCorry repeated the planner’s statement that it was “beautiful land.”
“Our requests are reasonable,” she said, because of “huge natural resource issues and values at stake.” Since the mining CUP is already in the pipeline for approval, the board should combine it with the parcelization and consider them together.
“This is a California habitat issue first, not local,” she said. It involves preservation of rangeland, potential agricultural –to- agricultural conversions damaging to rangeland, and interference with the easement. “Millions of public funds were spent to preserve,” she said. “There is no way this is exempt from CEQA,” she said, naming the long list of public resource agencies involved in the restoration project.
McCorry also mentioned that the planning department had not included in materials submitted to the board a map on rangeland she had submitted of the region prepared by The Nature Conservancy for the California Rangeland Coalition.
Regarding the Fish and Wildlife Service letter, she said that the planning department had contacted the wrong branch of the Service initially, that members of the public had contacted the right branch, and that after the planning department received the Service letter, it complained to the Service for writing a letter the County had not requested.
At the end of Ms. McCorry’s five minutes, her aunt, Supervisor Kathleen Crookham, chairwoman of the board, cut off her microphone.
Cutting off microphones is not typical elected-official behavior, even in Merced. However, McCorry had submitted letters and documents that would take longer than five minutes to read, if any supervisor bothered to read them.
Chris Robinson told the board that the application is to turn three parcels into four. His family’s intent has always been to protect the environment and habitat and has a long record of doing so. (A few brave souls in the county have testified for many years that the Robinsons have a long record of doing the opposite.) Robinson said he had worked hard with the agencies during the restoration. Biologists developed the borders of the conservation easement, which cuts across the three existing parcels.
He said his family had donated first, $600,000 and later, $500,000 to the project. Splitting the three parcels into four “probably enhances the wildlife habitat,” he claimed. He asked to reserve his remaining time to answer any questions the board might have.
The public noted that the taxpayers donated millions to the river restoration project and that no mention was made of how much money the Robinson family made in years of aggregate mining on the site of the restoration project, of necessity publicly funded to try to clean up the destruction caused by the family’s mining. It is important for the public and the board to recall the long history of this applicant’s family’s mining projects before he was greenwashed by million in public funds.
Jean Okuye, president of Valley Land Alliance (although she did not announce herself that way), testified that she was concerned about the CEQA issue of continual “piecemealing” of agricultural land. She also said that Robinson had told her he would plant orchards on one of the proposed parcels (it was not clear which parcel). She said that in Denair, a farming community in Stanislaus County (to the north), the aquifer is now reported to be moving backwards, toward the foothills rather than toward the valley floor. “Foothill farming may be the problem,” she said. (Many orchards are being planted in the hills on either side of the San Joaquin Valley.)
No one else testified and the public hearing was closed.
The board and top staff from the County deliberated.
County Counsel recommended that the board continue the item to give planning staff time to consider McCorry’s letter, two CDs of documents, and the letter from attorney Marsha Burch. He suggested that the planning staff could return to the board after this review with a supplemental report.
Supervisor Crookham wanted Fincher to clarify that the public hearing was closed and that the only future testimony would be on new issues. Fincher agreed.
Supervisor Deidre Kelsey moved to continue the item until an unspecified date in order to give staff time to review the submitted documents.
Crookham said that it would give the board time to read the material.
Supervisor John Pedrozo asked, “Who’s to say that five hours before … a new letter and it has to go again, putting off, putting off. It’s not fair to the applicant … not the ‘appellate’.”
The public notes that the board of supervisors meets in closed session an hour before every meeting to discuss litigation. Pedrozo, who draws $90,000 a year plus perks and benefits from the public trough, ought to know the difference between a court (appellate) and a member of the public (appellant). That he ran unopposed this year for a second term brings into question Merced County’s capacity for self-government.
County Counsel Fincher replied that that was a possibility, but that lack of a thorough review was unfair to the applicant. He added that Robinson’s attorney agreed that delay was required.
Crookham said the documents submitted were very lengthy and that County Counsel should have been in the loop, too, to receive them. “It’s always at the last minute,” she complained. “Everybody is scrambling.” She asked that the public have more respect for the supervisors and get things in a timely manner.
Supervisor Gerry O’Banion said, “That’s a ploy. It makes me sick …There is no stronger environmentalist in Merced County than that family. Last minute fiascos from the Raptors and Maureen and whoever she represents today are continuing to try to kill any project …Subdivision? This isn’t houses, it’s allowed by the General Plan of Merced County. His project is to improve his ability to take care of that land. Just look back on the Robinson family over the years.”
O’Banion said he’d agree to a continuance only until the next meeting, next week, and repeated that the public hearing was closed except for any new information.
“It’s so disappointing that every planning issue … 11th-hour information from Maureen McCorry, the Raptors or Valley Land Alliance or any organization. Give me a break. You should have known how you felt a long time ago. You should have submitted earlier. Don’t tell me at the last moment you have to scurry around. Some people in these groups got their 20-acres ... The MAC versus some other organization? Give me a break. The decision needs to be made, up or down.”
O'Banion's reference to people getting their 20-acre parcel splits was aimed at Okuye, who recently split her orchard into smaller parcels. However, her entire orchard is in an agricultural easement, the split was clearly for estate-planning purposes, she has no sand mine in the pipeline, so the slung mud didn't stick on Okuye's barn door.
Pedrozo complimented O’Banion on saying it perfectly. “It’s a board game and I just don’t like it.” He referred to “a lot of money” Robinson said his family had donated to the river restoration project. “But we have to prolong it a little longer and I apologize.”
The public doubts Pedrozo even considered how much money the Robinson family made on the mine, the damage of which required the publicly funded restoration project contained in the conservation easement.
Crookham added that Chris Robinson’s parents were so proud of the river restoration work and that she never thought of Chris as a developer. “I’m sorry also for what we sometimes have to put people through.”
Kelsey said that when the project was presented to the Snelling Municipal Advisory Council (MAC), Robinson addressed the MAC’s concerns about oak trees, riparian habitat “and who knows what.”
The public noted that the Snelling MAC is upstream from the Robinson Ranch, whose projects tend to damage downstream resources. MACs are initiated by supervisors for unincorporated areas in their districts. Supervisors also appoint MAC members. Three groups representing downstream interests might have been contacted: a Hopeton/Amsterdam MAC, a Stevinson MAC or the Merced River Stakeholders, which represents diverse interests from Merced Falls to the river’s confluence with the San Joaquin River. The problem is that despite years of pleas from Hopeton/Amsterdam and Stevinson, Kelsey has refused to entertain creating MACs in those areas. Robinson, once an active member in the Merced River Stakeholders, did not submit his project for its review.
County Planning Director Robert Lewis reminded the board that its next meeting would consider the annual budget and the one after that would be about the General Plan Update, two engrossing topics that might not leave time for another hearing on this matter. He suggested the best time for rehearing the matter would be at the second meeting in July.
Crookham said, “’as soon as possible’.”
O’Banion said, “It should come at the next meeting. This has been delayed. Don’t wait another month. It is unfair to the project applicant. I can’t support it.”
O’Banion introduced another motion to amend the motion on the floor to state the item would be heard “at the next meeting.” Pedrozo seconded it.
Supervisor Mike Nelson said he could not support O’Banion and Pedrozo’s amendment based on the planning director’s information. Nelson described the new material as “two hundred pages of gobbledegook.”
The public noted that Nelson’s reference to 200 pages is strong evidence he had read little if any of the submitted material.
Lewis replied from the podium that he thought the planning department could get it done by the next meeting.
County Counsel Fincher, more familiar with the submitted material, said that Lewis’s assertion would live the staff only one day for full review. “I appreciate Mr. Lewis’s eagerness but that’s a lot of work,” he said.
Kelsey said that the point of order was that her motion was for “the first available meeting. We don’t want to make mistakes that would lead to courts.”
County CEO Dee Tatum, said that the administration does not “get involved in dates and times … I hear Mr. O’Banion, but Mr. Fincher is trying … if you would allow us the latitude, it will not languish.”
Tatum explained that the reason there would only be two staff days (the second taken up with printing the supplemental report) is because the report must be out for public review 72 hours before the meeting, according to the Brown Act.
O’Banion said it should be done by the second meeting, on July 1.
Tatum agreed it would be done by July 1.
O’Banion said that if the second to his amendment were withdrawn (Pedrozo withdrew it), the amendment would be withdrawn with the understanding the matter would be heard again by the board on July 1.
Pedrozo asked again if the public hearing had been already closed.
Fincher said July 1 sounded good but suggested the board inquire if Robinson would be available on that day. Robinson nodded that he would be.
Crookham said it was all clarified and called for the vote. It passed unanimously.