By Emerson Drake
Once in a while I have one of those moments where the curtain lifts and “understanding of the big picture” is achieved. I
had one of those when I read the Modesto Chamber of Commerce’s letter to Stanislaus County’s Local Agency Formation Commission or (LAFCO ). The letter complains that not enough of their members were aware of Citizen openings on the Commission and they protested the way LAFCO interviews and chooses the appointees. Here is the pdf of the letter:
Now I find it disingenuous when they say “despite some knowledge of this in the business community, we recently received feedback from some of our members who were not aware of the openings.” Strange since Brad Hawn, who is on the Chamber Board of Directors is one of the finalists. And with lobbyist Cecil Russell on the payroll shouldn’t the fault have been his? But it actually gets worse. Of the three signers from the Chamber the first is real estate agent Craig Lewis who, by his statements, has misled the planning Commission during the last two meetings. The second , Steve Madison, recently of Stanco fame but was on the Building Industry Association (BIA) Board of Directors when they sued Stanislaus County to remove Ag Mitigation and lost in State Court costing the taxpayers over $300,000 in legal fees. And of course Chamber lobbyist Cecil Russell is the third signatory. Their obvious intent is to do away with LAFCO’s Ag Mitigation policy. An aside here, you will notice Modesto’s logo on the bottom of page one of the letter. While speaking to Councilman Dave Geer at a recent Council strategy session, this logo is copy-written and can only be used by the City of Modesto. So I called and emailed the City Manager’s office to inquire. But Gregg Nyhoff was too busy to get back to me. The fact Mr. Nyhoff’s called an ex-officio on the letter head probably doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Why is this organized attempt to game LAFCO a concern? Well it follows a Modesto City Council meeting where Councilman Dave Cogdill seconded by Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside, passed a resolution disallowing Modesto the opportunity to have an Ag Mitigation policy of its own. Mayor Marsh was the only person to vote against the motion. The Councilwoman after the meeting said she wanted to vote for the Mayor’s proposal of 1-1 mitigation only on prime farmland but failed to explain why she didn’t. This was the second of two votes. The first vote was a special interest give away to Mike Zagaris and the Trombetta family involving Tivoli. When Tivoli, a housing development, was first discussed, land mitigation was required. But thanks to Councilman Cogdill’s “deal” all land inside Modesto’s city limits will be given a free pass for Ag Mitigation.
If the Chamber can undermine LAFCO’s determination to mitigate farmland by stacking the deck then we’ll be planting driveways where we now plant crops. Remember an acre of farmland brings in about $25,000 worth of positive cash flow for the county. It costs cities after taxes and fees between $3,000 and $5,000 for each acre of housing every year. And what is Mr’ Madison and Mr’ Lewis’ specialty? You guessed it HOUSING.
After hearing Brent Sinclair mouthing the exact same words that Mr. Lewis used at the last meeting, it has become apparent the General Plan Amendment meetings are just a dog and pony show. Otherwise Modesto would have made sure the GPA meeting was advertised as well as the recent City Plaza sticker fest. We have to hope the council appointees on the Planning Commission will listen to the desires of our citizens.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting citizens should give up. We need to redouble our efforts to retake Modesto from the same developers who brought us the housing debacle in 2008.