Fort Ord Demands A Different Approach

This article by Gary Patton on Fort Ord ran in the Monterey County Herald on Sunday, August 24th.

Development On Fort Ord Is DifferentThere is a huge difference between “ordinary” development proposals and the development proposals that have been and will be considered on the lands of the former Fort Ord. In the case of Fort Ord developments, the public owns the land. This changes (or should change) everything.

In the case of a typical development, local government acts as a “regulator” of land use. Its basic job is to make sure that proposed developments are consistent with the public interest. In carrying out that responsibility, local officials typically defer to what the developer-landowner suggests. It does makes some sense, after all, to let a developer-landowner use his land in the way he wants, as long as basic public policy requirements are met.

In the case of developments on the former Fort Ord, however, local government is not a “regulator.” Thanks to an amazingly generous gift from the federal government, the local city council or Board of Supervisors (on behalf of the citizens) is the actual “owner” of the land. This means that local officials shouldn’t be reviewing proposals as though they were typical development projects. Instead, they should be deciding how these valuable public assets can best be used to achieve what the public wants. The fact that the public owns the land makes development on Fort Ord fundamentally different. At least it should.

What’s actually happening belies this difference. The local governments have either sold, or plan to sell, their Fort Ord lands to developers (often at an extremely low price), and then to revert to their typical “regulatory” role. The City of Seaside, for example, sold city owned land to KB Homes, and earned $850,000 from the sale. That asset, formerly belonging to the citizens, is now being “resold” by KB Homes, and each one of the 380 homes approved will sell for over $500,000. That’s a total to KB Homes of more than $190,000,000 gross revenues. If the best thing for Seaside was to sell off this desirable land (a debatable proposition) shouldn’t the citizens of Seaside have gotten more than $850,000 for the property? This question is made all the more poignant by the fact that the KB Homes development includes no homes that can be afforded by a family with an average or below average income.

Marina is now considering a proposal that would dwarf the KB Homes project. The developer of “Marina Heights” proposes over 1,000 new homes, on land that will soon be 100% owned by the city, and that the city then proposes to sell to a Los Angeles-based developer. The Mayor of Marina is strongly urging that 80% of the new homes in “Marina Heights” be sold at market prices – which begin at the $500,000 per home level. Do the citizens of Marina really think that this is the best way to utilize their land? If the answer is “no,” then citizens should get involved now. The Marina decision is not yet final.

Sam Farr is urging FORA to require that 50% of the new homes built on Fort Ord be reserved for families and individuals who have an “average” or below average income. That is truly a “modest” proposal. Under Mr. Farr’s plan, 50% of the homes would still be sold to those in the higher income brackets who can afford a home that starts at $500,000. Since the Fort Ord lands are 100% owned by the public, specifying that 50% of the new homes should be made available for the average income resident seems more than fair.

If the cities were creative, they would not need to sell their Fort Ord lands to developers. The cities could:

There are other strategies possible, as well. The key to all of them is recognizing that the Fort Ord lands are different. The public owns these lands, and public officials should be trying to maximize the public opportunities available because their communities are now the owners of some of the most valuable real estate in the world. To turn these lands into typical “development projects” is to miss an historic opportunity.

Gary A. Patton is the Executive Director of LandWatch Monterey County. LandWatch is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to “promote and inspire sound land use policy through grassroots community action.”

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posted 08.26.03