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Deception or bumble? 

Grand jury finds language deletion suspicious

click to enlarge SKEPTIC :  Andrew Christie of the Sierra Club doubts the deletion of language that would bar the sale of property to the state for continued off-roading was innocent . - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MLLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MLLER
  • SKEPTIC : Andrew Christie of the Sierra Club doubts the deletion of language that would bar the sale of property to the state for continued off-roading was innocent .

The county grand jury stopped just short of alleging misconduct among county planning staff, but the jury’s assessment of what happened at a series of land-use hearings is far from complimentary of the department. A report released June 15 found the omission of key statements from a staff report and presentation to be “at best inept staff performance or at worst deliberate deception.”

The issue goes back more than two years to when the county began negotiations to sell 584 acres at the Oceano Dunes to the state. California had and has been leasing the property at almost no cost, in exchange for accepting liability and pledging it would continue off-road vehicle use on the tract if the sale happens. When local Sierra club officials discovered critical information was missing from a staff report, and that the omission basically bolstered the argument in favor of a sale to the state, things got ugly.

New Times wrote about the missing language last year, and the news story was eventually used by the grand jury to point out conflicting statements made by county staffers.

At issue are a map from the area’s Local Coastal Plan (all costal areas in California have a plan to indicate acceptable use of the land) and a statement that referenced the map. The map clearly shows a “buffer area” between a nature preserve and the area designated for off-road vehicle use. The map implied that the state’s use of the area was potentially in violation of the county’s general plan. That map, however, was missing from the staff report. So was the only statement that referenced it.

The grand jury concluded “the omission of the map and related language made possible the erroneous conclusion that the sale would be in compliance with county land use policy.”

The jury’s assessment goes on to say, “this report was designed to inform important environmental and financial decisions. The appearance of deliberately changing approved policy documents to indicate the opposite of their intent is disturbing. Planning staff are not policy makers and misrepresenting approved policy cannot be tolerated.”

Andrew Christie, coordinator of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, called the omission “surgical.” Christie was the first to point out the map’s omission at a January 2007 county planning commission meeting. Months later, Sierra Club lawyer Michael Jenks was combing through county documents for a related lawsuit when he noticed the reference to the map was also missing. Christie was not so generous as the grand jury in his assessment of the planning department.

“This was a $5 million land deal,” Christie said. “The county stood to gain $5 million and the state stood to gain 600 acres. In a situation like that, it’s not hard to assume that someone might go over the line to get what they want.”

Christie’s position (and the basis for the Sierra Club lawsuit) is that the off-roading on county land is out of compliance with county planning standards and so should stop. He wouldn’t speculate as to who may have stepped over the line.

Matt Janssen, a spokesman for the county, said the staff report on the sale of the property, though it’s called a “general plan conformity report,” is not binding and doesn't require the sale to comply with the general plan. It's simply for disclosure.

In other words, even though the planning commission and the Board of Supervisors later found the sale to be out of compliance with the general plan, and even though the missing map and language were restored, those findings wouldn’t prohibit the county from making the sale. In fact, Janssen said the county and state were still actively negotiating the sale in closed session meetings until December of last year. Those talks have since broken down. Janssen dismissed the omission as a “stupid mistake.”

“There was no intentional misplacement or omission,” Janssen said. “It was, quite frankly, a mistake.”

It’s not clear what effect the grand jury’s findings could have in court. In addition to the Sierra Club’s suit against the state, the Friends of the Oceano Dunes (a group that favors the use of off-road vehicles at the dunes) has sued the county over rights to use the area.

“It certainly does look relevant,” Christie said, “that the grand jury said the same thing we’ve been saying for the past two years.”

As for the county, the grand jury made several suggestions, including a recommendation that staff should be trained not to misrepresent “significant documentary evidence.” The planning department has not issued a formal response; it has until Aug. 2 to do so. The Board of Supervisors has to respond to the findings by September.

New Times staff writer Kylie Mendonca can be reached at kmendonca@newtimeslo.com.

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