Supporters of the Willms Ranch parcel split walked away with a victory last Tuesday, when Stanislaus County Supervisors (sort of) approved the proposal. It takes three votes to overrule a planning commission recommendation, and only Jim DeMartini and Vito Chiesa voted against it, so the split was approved. But those who know local land use history immediately realized the current Board of Supervisors is vastly improved over previous boards.
Here’s why: In the past, Stanislaus County Supervisors opposed environmental organizations on principle. Since both the Stanislaus Audubon Society and the Sierra Club protested the parcel split, past Supervisors would have rejected the appeal out of hand. However, with Supervisors DeMartini and Chiesa both recognizing that the parcel split is ill-advised, there’s evidence of a new willingness on the Board to exercise the Supervisors’ true function, which is to promote wise land use.
And although the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) wasn’t mentioned in Bee reports, both Audubon and the Sierra Club offered sophisticated applications of CEQA pertinent to the Willms case. The Sierra Club’s Brad Barker cited a long list of reasons why the split was ill-advised, including sections from CEQA, the County’s own General Plan, and studies by the American Farmland Trust.
Those familiar with the history of Willms will remember that when a golf course was proposed for the same Willms Ranch location, Audubon opposed a favorable ruling by Stanislaus County Supervisors and won in court. At that time far fewer Valley citizens were aware of the meaning and applications of the California Environmental Quality Act. Today, despite the Bee’s strategy of ignoring CEQA altogether, more and more citizens understand its function in preventing sprawl and environmental degradation.
Supervisor Dick Monteith, who walked out during Brad Barker’s testimony, typifies past attitudes to land use. Though he didn’t vote, Monteith has always been in favor of development of almost any kind with few or no restrictions. Had he been present, he would certainly have supported the parcel split. The good news is that Monteith’s attitude is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Monteith and those who’ve shared his anti-regulatory attitudes have always realized opponents of ill-considered development are at a disadvantage because one of the few recourses is expensive litigation. The fact is, however, that sometimes local land use decisions have been so blatantly ill-advised that the litigation that followed exposed not just neglect of responsibility but egregious harm.
In the past, the Willms decision wouldn’t have caused a second thought on a Board of Supervisors united against environmentalists and the responsible land use embodied in the California Environmental Quality Act. Today, more of our leaders and citizens have realized that our future depends on better land use. That’s at least two steps forward.