By Royal Calkins
DOWNLOAD | 2018 TAMC FORA Eastside Parkway Presentation
Decisions on when and where to build a highway have always been based on traffic issues, money, politics and, in at least some cases, logic. Politics comes in because a chosen route can raise or lower property values and make or break development plans on nearby parcels. Fortunately for the taxpaying public, the process usually includes traffic studies and careful cost-benefit analyses that compare the worthiness of various alternatives. That’s the logic part.
Now, not surprisingly, some involved in the debate over the proposed Eastside Parkway apparently would like to see the process depend more on politics and less on traffic counts and cost-benefit calculations. The logic part.
They didn’t put it quite that way, but that’s the gist of recent public comments by CSU Monterey Bay President Eduardo Ochoa, hospitality industry executive Gary Cursio and John Phillips, the Monterey County supervisor who also sits on two key boards central to this story — the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA) board and the board of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC).
The long-discussed Eastside Parkway, a three-mile thoroughfare linking the Monterey-Salinas Highway to Fort Ord, would be a creation of FORA. It is an exception to most major traffic projects in the county because it does not involve TAMC or its funding sources. FORA plans to use its own development fees to cover the $18 million price tag — an estimate that almost assuredly is out of date.
What set off Ochoa, Cursio and Phillips was a Feb. 9 presentation to the FORA board from the TAMC technical staff. What the staff said was that the Eastside Parkway would do relatively little to ease congestion on often-congested Highway 68 and Highway 1 and that other upcoming TAMC projects would be more effective. Those include the planned widening of the Imjin Parkway, construction of roundabouts on Highway 68, and creation of special bus lanes on Highway 1.
The staff also calculated that the vast majority of trips utilizing the parkway would begin or end on Fort Ord property, weakening FORA’s argument that it would significantly reduce the traffic crunch for Peninsula-Salinas commuters.
One of the TAMC slides presented to FORA said the parkway “benefits local trips and Fort Ord development with some regional transportation relief. Almost no change to Hwy. 68 commute.”
Phillips raised his objections at that FORA meeting. Although the TAMC staff analysis has hardly been kept secret from the TAMC board, Phillips said it was inappropriate for the TAMC staff to have said such things without the advance approval of the TAMC directors and/or executive committee.
Cursio manages the Laguna Seca golf course and is a power within the hospitality industry. He repeated Phillips’ argument at a TAMC board meeting Wednesday. He complained that the TAMC staff had made a similar presentation to the airport board, also apparently without formal direction from TAMC’s board of elected and appointed officials. He complained that opponents of the parkway are now using the staff’s analysis as a weapon against the project.
The parkway opposition, principally environmentalists and users of Fort Ord trails, argue that the venture is an unnecessary expense that would wipe out tens of thousands of trees and help lead to subdivision development of questionable worth and dubious water supply.
Ochoa, the university president, raised the issue later in the same TAMC board meeting, shortly after he was seated on the board as an ex-officio member. University officials have tended to support the parkway in large part because it would relieve pressure to construct a traffic-soothing highway through the Fort Ord campus, a position that Seaside City Councilman Jason Campbell has labeled “extreme NIMBYism.”
Ochoa said the TAMC staff presentation had “really striking policy implications.” He said he was surprised to learn it had not been vetted by the TAMC board. As a result, he said, the presentation has become a “political factor.”
Despite TAMC’s cautions about the project, the FORA board voted 8-5 to support the “goals and objectives” of the project without evaluating the potential of other projects. The board is scheduled to take the issue up again Friday.
There you have it. In the debate over the Eastside Parkway, some key figures want to rely on spin instead of facts and figures.
Here’s my thinking: Call me naïve, but I hope that when the professional staff of an important government agency presents the results of its analysis and studies, it isn’t shaping things to suit the political leanings or personal interests of the politicians above them. Sure, at the national level, in these dreary days of Trump, everything’s about whim and politicking, but it shouldn’t have trickled down to this level quite yet.
If Ochoa, Cursio and Phillips think that the existing studies and numbers don’t support their position, perhaps they should encourage the TAMC staff to dig deeper and crunch more numbers. What they should not do is lean on their buddies on the TAMC board to make the staff shut up.
FORA officials stumbled early in the parkway process, resulting in a court order requiring them to study the project objectively instead of steering things in a preconceived direction. FORA boss Michael Houlemard keeps stressing that it needs to be an “open process.” He’s right about that, but apparently he needs to send out some reminders.
Darryl Choates is a lucky fellow.
Some will recall back when he was a member of the Seaside City Council and a strong advocate for the 380-home Seaside Highlands development. There was so much hype that the early buyers were selected by lottery. Choates’ name was picked and he bought one even though friends and relatives questioned whether he could afford it. (Later he bought a second home, in Texas, from the same developer.)
Fast forward, past Choates’ 16 years on the council and there he was getting a hefty SBA loan through a competitive process, a loan that enabled him to buy and expand Ord Market on former Fort Ord property.
And now the wheel of fortune is pointing at Choates again, this time in the form of a city of Seaside permit to open a marijuana dispensary.
Initially, it looked as though Choates’ luck had run out this time. Calling their enterprise Rare Earth, he and young partner Sahand Sultan-Qurraie were among 19 applicants for three marijuana dispensary permits to be awarded by the Seaside City Council in December. The city was hoping to get a local marijuana industry going quickly to take advantage of new state law allowing sales of recreational marijuana as well as medical marijuana. Most other jurisdictions in the area have been slow to embrace above-board marijuana ventures, but Seaside was spurred by the potential tax windfall.
The applicants, mostly experienced marijuana operators in other cities, were required to prepare detailed business and security plans, spell out their marijuana and business backgrounds, detail their plans for contributions to the community and provide staffing plans and sales projections.
Of all the applications, the one from Rare Earth contained the least amount of financial information. It also showed the principals to be seriously short of marijuana-related experience. Choates, who describes himself mainly as an investor in the venture, listed none and his partner, Sultan-Qurraie, says only that he has been involved in a marijuana-delivery operation in Palm Springs. He indicated that the rest of his business experience has been in marketing unrelated to marijuana.
The city staff weighed the various elements and ranked each applicant. Initially, Choates’ Rare Earth venture placed 11th out of 19 applicants. Later, because some of the income projections were deemed unrealistic, the numbers were crunched again but the Choates plan maintained its below-average rating.
At the City Council’s last meeting of 2017, the council settled initially on three applicants — Higher Level of Care, which will operate on Amador Avenue near the Embassy Suites hotel; Cannedge, which will be on Broadway Avenue; and Canopy/Reef, which is going into the old Shadow Box tavern property on East Fremont.
The discussion wasn’t over, however. Mayor Ralph Rubio and Choates’ minister had argued that at least one of the operations should be led by a Seaside resident, and the only person fitting that description was Choates. So Councilman Dave Pacheco, with encouragement from Rubio, made a motion to award permits to two more vendors, PharmHouse and Rare Earth, Choate’s concern, which plans to move into office space at 575 Broadway.
Councilman Jason Campbell said he was fine with those additions but suggested one more, Planteca, also headed for Broadway. All that was wrapped into a motion approved unanimously over the objections of some of the three operations selected initially.
One of the early victors noted that the competition had grown significantly stiffer and he wondered if the licensees would be held to their original commitment to donate proceeds to community organizations. City Manager Craig Malin replied that as long as the total amount of contributions remained the same, all would be well.
In an interview last week, Choates denied receiving any special treatment except for an appropriate amount of consideration for being local.
“If anyone on the council helped me,” he said, “good for them.”
While the other permit winners plan to offer a range of marijuana products, including medicinal salves and non-intoxicating tinctures, Choates and company said they will focus on high-quality cannabis intended for the marijuana connoisseur.
Although some city officials and others have expressed concerns about a potential concentration of dispensaries along the Broadway corridor now being rehabilitated, other officials say they envision Seaside becoming a marijuana-tourism destination once the dispensaries receive the required state licensure later this year.
Calkins writes a weekly column focusing on local politics and public affairs. Reader comments are encouraged (see below). The writer also welcomes communications at firstname.lastname@example.org.