In what might be the first land use corruption case to bring down a California sheriff, San Joaquin County Sheriff T. Baxter Dunn pleaded guilt in January to one count of mail fraud and resigned from office. He faces up to18 months in prison. Also pleading guilty in the federal corruption case were former county Supervisor Lynn Bedford for lying to the FBI, and former Office of Criminal Justice Planning Director N. Allen Sawyer for misusing a state office for personal gain.
The scandal involved a proposal to build a power plant at the Port of Stockton. Dunn, Sawyer and San Joaquin County political operative Monte McFall in 2001 allegedly tried to shake down two companies interested in developing the power plant. Calpine Corp. refused to deal with the men, but Sunlaw Energy Corp. agreed to pay them a commission of at least $2 million if Sunlaw got to build the power plant.
Dunn lobbied a Port of Stockton commissioner on Sunlaw's behalf and urged the Board of Supervisors to oppose a Calpine Project in Alameda County, all without revealing his financial stake. He also tapped into a police database to gather information on a Port of Stockton employee.
While on the Board of Supervisors, Bedford conducted a meeting at his home in which he and McFall pressured a Calpine representative not to pursue the port power plant. During meetings with Sunlaw, Sawyer implied that he was representing the governor's office.
Appearing before federal District Court Judge Morris England Jr., Dunn said, “I am profoundly sorry for my conduct.”
In a memorandum to employees, the 14-year sheriff accepted responsibility for his conduct but he wrote that he was involved in nothing more than a “harmless, legal business venture.”
Dunn, Bedford and Sawyer are scheduled to be sentenced in March. McFall and J. Tyler Reeves, a former aide to Bedford, were scheduled to stand for a trial beginning at the end of January, a trial in which Dunn, Bedford and Sawyer have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
THE LEGISLATIVE ANALYST'S OFFICE (LAO) has recommended that state lawmakers pass a number of measures to beef up mitigation of coastal development, measures that could raise the cost of development.
The LAO's findings were based on its investigation of the Coastal Commission's mitigation techniques. The commission has relied heavily on “offers to dedicate” (OTDs) as a way of providing physical or visual access to the ocean, and to protect natural resources. Frequently, the commission has required OTDs, which are often easements, rather than up-front mitigation as a condition of coastal development permits. However, OTDs require a third party (a different government agency or a nonprofit organization) to accept them, build any improvements and provide maintenance.
The LAO found that of the 2,700 OTDs the commission has required since 1977, 40% have never been accepted, and the commission does not even know the status of another 233. Moreover, about 80 OTDs are scheduled to expire every year through 2008.
In its mid-January report, the LAO recommended that the Legislature:
o Direct the commission to report by January 1, 2006, on the status, location and expiration date of all outstanding OTDs.
o Require the commission, in conjunction with the State Lands Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy, to develop a detailed plan for accepting, developing and opening all outstanding OTDs.
o Require that the Coastal Conservancy accept responsibility for public accessways that are required in the future, at least until a third party is found to take permanent responsibility.
o Demand the payment up front of an impact fee to cover the future capital costs related to an OTD.
o Raise coastal development permit fees and dedicate the money to the maintenance and operation of easements.
The LAO also urged the Commission, whenever possible, to demand up front mitigation. The LAO pointed to the San Francisco Bay Development Commission, which does not use OTDs as a mitigation tool.
The Coastal Commission appeared to welcome report, and state Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) appeared ready to carry at least some of the recommended legislation. The LAO report, “Improving Coastal Access and Development Mitigation,” is available at www.lao.ca.gov.
NOT OFTEN DOES A GENERAL PLAN PROCESS receive the scrutiny of a grand jury, but the Monterey County grand jury had few good things to say about the county's general plan update in a report released in January.
The grand jury found, “The Board of Supervisors employed a laid back, wait and see attitude in the development of the general plan. It failed to provide guidance and direction up front which may have saved time and funds. The Board of Supervisors and the CAO [county administrative office] have allowed special interest groups to have undue influence.”
The grand jury also reported, “The land use and planning objectives of and for the county are outdated, confusing and frequently changing, according to the supervisors and administration.”
Supervisors and the CAO must respond formally by April. After spending nearly five years and $5 million on a general plan update, the county last year scrapped much of a draft general plan and installed a new general plan team (see CP&DR Local Watch, July 2004).
The grand jury's report is available at www.monterey.courts.ca.gov/grand_jury.html.
ORANGE COUNTY HAS PARTIALLY FENDED OFF one developer's challenge of how the county spent excess building fees. During the 1990s, the county built up an $18.5 million surplus of building permit fees. Developer Barratt American sued over the surplus, forcing a fee reduction. The county used the excess revenue to subsidize operations while fees were reduced. The county also refunded $1 million in fees and bought a $5.5 million computer system.
When building activity slowed, however, the county Planning and Development Services Department started to run a deficit that by late 2002 had reached $500,000 a month. The county ended up spending $8 million in general fund money on the department, reorganizing the agency and switching to a time-and-materials fee system. Planning and Development Services Director Tom Mathews retired, more than 30 department employees lost their jobs, and eventually county supervisors fired County Executive Officer Michael Schumacher.
Barratt American's latest lawsuit was over the spending of the $18.5 million. Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Jameson ruled that the county had properly expended $14 million, but he said the county did not provide documentation regarding $4.5 million - a conclusion that county officials dispute. Nevertheless, Jameson ordered the county to reduce fees by $4.5 million.
THE CITY OF TURLOCK HAS WON a lawsuit filed by Wal-Mart over a city ordinance that bans stores of more than 100,000 square feet that devote at least 5% of floor space to non-taxable items. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger Beauchesne ruled that the ordinance was not anti-competitive and instead was a response to legitimate concerns regarding blight, traffic congestion and air pollution. The judge also agreed with the city that the ordinance was exempt from environmental review.
Turlock adopted the ordinance in 2003 because city officials feared that a Wal-Mart supercenter would force existing grocery stores to close, which would lead to vacant and run-down shopping centers (see CP&DR, January 2004).
The case is Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. City of Turlock, San Joaquin County Superior Court Case No. 345253.
FARMERS WITHIN THE PAJARO VALLEY Water Management Agency as well as agency Board Member John Eiskamp have sued the agency over water rate increases to pay for a $200 million water pipeline.
The pipeline project, which is under construction, would bringing freshwater to the coastal portion of the agency's territory, where the water would help offset an overdraft of groundwater that has permitted saltwater to intrude into the aquifer (see CP&DR Innovations, June 2004). However, the agency has spread the cost of the project among all agency customers, including inland landowners not affected by the saltwater problem. Rates have more than doubled to $160 per acre-foot, a very high price for agricultural water.
The lawsuit contends that the district should have conducted an election on the rate increase.