8 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY october 26-november 1, 2023 www.montereycountyweekly.com news On the Monterey Peninsula, the lack of available water is often highlighted by public agencies, and residents that favor a local desalination project, as the primary reason the region lacks adequate housing. Just how true that is remains an open question— there are several other hurdles for new development—but in Seaside, it’s about to be put to the test. On Sept. 28, Cal Am inked an agreement with the city for the transfer of sufficient water credits to set a meter to serve the long-stalled Ascent housing project, which is planned to be built on 2.85 acres along upper Broadway Avenue. The plans call for 106 units—a mix of one-, two- and three-bedrooms—16 of which will be affordable. Now it’s just a matter of the financing as to when the dirt will get moving. The project’s developer, Utah-based Cruachan Capital, has until Nov. 15 before its approval permits expire—the project was approved in November 2019—and needs to either get the project started or ask for an extension. The development is unsubsidized, which means the market-rate units must generate enough profit to offset any losses created by the affordable ones. (Cruachan representatives did not respond to calls for comment.) And the added cost of the water credits, which Seaside has spent a small treasure in developing over the past few years by transitioning its golf course to recycled water, will be borne by the developer. No money will change hands between Cal Am and the city. City Attorney Sheri Damon compares the arrangement to “renting” Seaside’s water credits until the state’s cease-anddesist order against Cal Am is lifted. In Ascent A housing project in Seaside will be a test for how the market meets the moment. By David Schmalz As Salinas Valley cities like Soledad and Gonzales look to expand their footprints by annexing surrounding farmland and converting it into housing and other uses, there’s an ongoing debate over the rules requiring that cities and developers make up for the fertile agricultural land they’re paving over. That debate was on display Monday, Oct. 23 at a meeting of Monterey County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the influential planning agency that describes its mission as “preserving agricultural lands” and “discouraging urban sprawl.” LAFCO’s staff has spent much of this year considering a review of its policies around agricultural preservation and mitigation—a set of guidelines that have been around since 1979 (and last revised in 2010) to balance the need for development with the preservation of farmland. When a city is seeking to annex farmland to make way for new development, LAFCO is charged with ensuring those cities and their developers mitigate the loss of agricultural land, either by preserving specific sites through conservation easements or, less typically, paying an in-lieu fee to fund the acquisition of future easements. LAFCO describes its ag mitigation policy to date as “intentionally broad and non-specific,” allowing flexibility on a case-by-case basis. As part of its review, it is considering its guidelines on the ratio of mitigated acreage to acreage being annexed (generally between a 1:1 to 2:1 ratio) and whether it should allow exemptions for specific types of developments like affordable housing (which it typically has not). Yet it is a third policy element that has drawn the most feedback and scrutiny: the timing of mitigation requirements, and when they must be carried out. LAFCO’s practice has been to require that ag mitigation be “fully executed” up front, before an annexation is allowed to go ahead—a policy that LAFCO staff, including Executive Officer Kate McKenna, has urged commissioners to uphold. But that policy has proven unpopular with Salinas Valley cities, with officials saying the requirement is too inflexible and burdens developers too early in a project’s timeline. Taven Kinison Brown, community development director for the city of Gonzales, told LAFCO commissioners, “If the expense of having to pay for [mitigation] is required up front, we’re not going to get anything [built],” and noted how Gonzales has approved its own ordinance allowing mitigation to wait until a project is about to break ground. Soledad City Manager Megan Hunter echoed Brown’s sentiment— citing difficulties in getting her city’s Miramonte development moving, and concerns that cities will be unable to meet their state-mandated housing goals. “Those upfront costs can cause a project not to happen,” she said. While expressing different opinions, the LAFCO commissioners determined they need to get the ball rolling on adopting a revised policy, whatever it may end up looking like. “We need a workshop, we need it in November and we need to move on this,” LAFCO Vice Chair and Salinas Mayor Kimbley Craig said. The commissioners voted to hold a public workshop on Monday, Nov. 27 from 2-5pm—inviting public and private stakeholders alike to provide input on the agency’s ag mitigation policies moving forward. All five Salinas Valley cities (including Salinas, above) are surrounded by farmland. LAFCO is considering a policy to mitigate the taking of ag land for development. Buying the Farm Salinas Valley cities urge more flexible ag mitigation terms to allow annexation, development. By Rey Mashayekhi At one point, Seaside was considering building a pipeline from its municipal water system to serve the Ascent housing project. After some horse trading, it will now be served by Cal Am. “Those upfront costs can cause a project not to happen.” Daniel Dreifuss Daniel Dreifuss