The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors bowed to public opposition to development agreements during the March 18 board meeting.
Development agreements typically are contracts between the county and larger development companies that lock in a quid pro quo of mutual benefit to both parties for a specified length of time, commonly up to 20 years. They specify what each party will do to benefit the other. For example, the developer might agree to repair a stretch of county road near the proposed development.
On the other hand, the county might offer a zoning change, tax incentives or fee reductions in return for the public benefit. The developement agreement is a legally binding contract whose primary value to the developer is to ensure that the conditions existing at the time of the agreement will not be changed in the future by county ordinance or action in some way “detrimental” to the developer’s interests.
The issue began as a recommendation by the Chief Administrative Office that the board “consider … (establishing) a Development Agreement Negotiating Team consisting of representatives from the Chief Administrative Office, County Counsel and Community Development Agency,” according to agenda documents.
Dave Defanti, assistant director in the county’s Long Range Planning Division, described a development agreement in its simplest terms:
“The developer wants something of value. My perspective is that the county should get something of value in return. (At issue is) how to do them in a systematic way rather than each one as it comes in the door.”
Supervisor Brian Veerkamp added to Defanti’s explanation, cautioning, “We have not defined what’s best for our county and our citizens.” Including “strategic priorities and transparency, we need to define this process.” Veerkamp also suggested that if the county is going to have something like DAs, they should be called “County Benefit Agreements.”
County Counsel Ed Knapp explained that under state law, “(With) a DA, the county can ask for things you can’t otherwise impose on a developer.” He also noted that while a developer may ask for a number of benefits such as a General Plan amendment, zoning change or leeway on a map, “you can give some but not all. The developer would like some certainty regarding future changes in the law,” Knapp said and reminded the board that entering into a DA is completely voluntary by both parties.
The proposal as written would have authorized the “team” to negotiate the terms of a development agreement with each applicant and then present a draft to the board for approval or denial. That part of the process would include public hearings prior to board action on each draft development agreement. Conducting the negotiations, absent of related public comment, became a sticking point for many in the audience who perceived the process as a way to get around residents’ interests.
Much of the audience concern focused on the issue relative to several large residential developments proposed in the Shingle Springs, Cameron Park, Rescue and El Dorado Hills areas, such as San Stino, Marble Valley and Dixon Ranch. One Shingle Springs resident called the timing “suspicious. Why do a development agreement if you’re not going to approve a project?” she asked.
Several others suggested that signing a development agreement would be “putting the cart before the horse,” that negotiators might “do DAs that are out of appropriateness (for the neighborhood or area) and that the developer would be inoculated against future action.”
Measure Y and Rural Communities United representative Bill Center had perhaps the harshest words for the issue and ultimately for the board.
“Development agreements aren’t to protect the public,” he said. “They are to protect developer interests.” Center further advised that the county could “make things conditional which need to be done.” That is, make the approval of projects conditional upon a developer contributing things the county would consider a public benefit. “Coming up against the land-development machine … Every week, I see more and more that (what happens in this room) doesn’t even matter. People need to take things into their own hands,” he concluded.
Retired firefighter Lenny Patane said, “El Dorado Hills is not rural anymore. People are being held hostage by developers shoving these things down our throat.” Patane cited a recent survey in the community whose results suggested that 60 percent of residents want more open space. Seventy-two percent say there are already enough houses and 35 percent said there are already “too many” houses in El Dorado Hills. “Listen to our local APAC, let the people talk … Does development (equal) a better community or an invasion? It’s an invasion,” Patane challenged. The El Dorado Hills APAC is a highly active Area Planning Advisory Committee.
Another Shingle Springs resident suggested that although big developers have money, “You can’t come in here and buy people. Huge development opens (the area) up to crime and not knowing your neighbors. They don’t care about us. They don’t live here.”
Lori Parlin, Shingle Springs Community Alliance leader and candidate for District 4 Supervisor said, “I’m challenging that this item was agendized properly, so you will have a challenge.” Parlin also spoke to the perception that the item recommending a negotiating team “should have included San Stino and the other proposed developments as part of the agenda.” Background documents refer to four of the larger proposed developments which may have led to an understanding that development agreements were already being planned and therefore, should have been part of the wording in the agenda.
“Here we have staff appointing staff to direct staff,” District 1 Supervisor Ron Mikulaco observed skeptically. “I see people every day. I know what they want.” Mikulaco later moved to “table” the item understanding that meant to “kill” the proposal. Technically, “tabling” would take it off the day’s agenda but not eliminate the issue.
Assistant chief administrative officer and until Tuesday, acting director of the Community Development Agency, Kim Kerr, pointed out that, “We don’t have a structure to do this (DAs). It’s been case-by-case, but if you don’t want anything from them, don’t do it.”
Eventually the board voted to deny (kill) the entire recommendation to create a negotiating team for development agreements. But supervisors acknowledged the need for some kind of process with significant public participation to determine benefits and priorities for the county.
Board Chairman Norma Santiago summed up the issue, noting that “staff has plenty of work to do and they should invest time in other things. DAs are voluntary, and there’s a lack of clarity about what we want to do here. We need to start from scratch.”
Just before the board voted to direct staff to begin devising and defining a “framework” that will combine public, board and staff involvement in determining what constitutes and should be included in a county Benefit Agreement, Santiago took issue with Bill Center’s charge.
“What happens in this room does matter. (It matters) that we are responding to the public,” Santiago said.