Supervisors Ignore Senator Wolk’s Concerns; Rubber Stamp Conaway Ranch Agreement

Conaway-RanchThe Board of Supervisors went into the meeting on February 8, where the issue of the Conaway Ranch Agreement was revisited, acknowledging that the meeting was in place not to revisit substantive concerns but rather to deal with the formal issue of erring on the side of caution, regardless of whether the first meeting violated the Brown Act.

But if the first meeting did violate the Brown Act, this one may have as well because the Board of Supervisors really was not taking in new information and opening up a true public process, instead it was rubber stamping the results of the previous meeting.

Senior Deputy County Counsel Philip Pogledich spent some time addressing what he called myths, but in reality it looked more like technical spin.  For instance, he argued that there was no sale of water to Southern California through this agreement and that sales to the Metropolitan Water District are beyond the scope of county authority, under state law.

He further argued that this was not an easement agreement and finally he argued that since this is not a project, there are no water transfers or habitat projects, therefore there is no meaningful review of concrete projects that are ready for environmental review, thus the project is exempt under CEQA.

Responding to a question from Supervisor Provenza, Mr. Pogledich also acknowledged there was no link between this agreement and the Davis-Woodland Joint Powers Water agreement.

Senator Lois Wolk came to the chambers speaking on behalf of her colleague in the Assembly, Mariko Yamada – both of them former Supervisors.  She pointed out that this is the first time she came to the county with an objection and that she did not like having to do so, as she believes this is not her place.

“A week or two ago, we did try to work on the staff level to share our substantive concerns but we were told that there really was no interest in discussing the substance of our concerns, that in fact this was a formal proceeding to deal with the Brown Act issue,” she told the board.

She focused on the four to six thousand acres of easement.  She said they have worked hard to strengthen the role of local land use agencies on the process.  The process has been to strengthen to the point where, if cooperation does not occur or it is not given proper weight, then the county or another local agency would have cause to contest an action or even litigate if they chose to.

She said that when she first saw the agreement on December 16, 2010, “I was truly surprised that this agreement conceded a total of six thousand acres of habitat easement to the new owner to dispose of with only ‘the right to comment’ and you exempted it from the moratorium and future ordinance.”

She continued, “You were willing to do so on the promise that the developer would stand in partnership with you in gaining meaningful participation in the BDCP (Bay Delta Conservation Plan).”

“As I read the agreement and I read it that night, I think the partnership language remains weak,” she said. 

“I was further surprised to see in the agreement the further concession that would require most of the land to be restored to seasonal flood plain habitat.  In doing so, the county is essentially conceding to an elimination of agriculture in that area and conceding to actions that will fundamentally change the way the Yolo Basin Wildlife Area 16,000 acres has been operated.”

Senator Wolk would present five ways by which the county could strengthen their hand and the agreement.  The Board did not even mention any of these during their discussion.

Former Supervisor Helen Thomson, who had been one of the principles who made the arrangement, clearly disagreed with her successor to the state legislature and her ally.  She argued that this agreement was a balance of issues.rice-fields
Overall she sees it as supportive of agriculture as it caps the transfer of water to 80,000 acre/ feet until 2034. Along the same lines, it supports keeping water in the county and protects ground water.

She argued that this was not a hastily reached agreement, that she spent a great deal of time on this in subcommittee, and that she along with Supervisor Mike McGowan had spent a lot of time bringing this to the board itself, discussing what happened in the subcommittee meetings and then getting direction from the board.  She believes that that direction shaped the agreement, not just the subcommittee.

She thinks this is a management plan for the resources of the ranch and public access.  Former Supervisor Thomson sees this as only an open door, not the final answer on what happens with Conaway Ranch.

The environmental community is divided on this issue.  The Yolo Basin Foundation, for instance, expressed concerns about setting aside the area without considering long term impacts on wildlife area and also the downstream impacts must be understood first.

On the other hand, Bob Schneider, from the non-profit organization Tuleyome, has been consistently supportive of this agreement which Tuleyome argues would result in, “A reduction in the unsustainable mining of groundwater resources that originated in Pleistocene rainfall, and a shift from dependence on local wells that experience ever-increasing water-quality and health concerns to a surface-water supply that will help the cities comply with ever-more restrictive water-quality objectives for-effluent-disposal-to the-Sacramento River-and the Delta.”

Furthermore, they argue that the county benefits from “Water rights with early priority dates that secure our citizens’ water supply even as demands on the Sacramento River increase.”

Finally, they argue that the county gains “commitments from the Conaway Ranch landowners about farming and habitat restoration or enhancement that can serve as a beginning to resolving questions about the conservation use of the Yolo Bypass.”

“Statements about the BDCP over the past half-year by various Yolo County officials have focused almost entirely on protecting existing land uses and related benefits to local governments,” they continue.  “As conservationists, however, we find among the Delta issues many opportunities for restoring historical ecological conditions and beneficial uses of the public’s waters that are exciting and worthy of serious consideration.”

“The Conaway agreements include commitments by all parties to maintaining agricultural uses of the Conaway lands, as well as to substantial habitat restoration within Ranch lands (the details of any restoration are not established in the agreements). Commitments to study other conservation options are included, as well. We believe that these commitments are a positive step toward a recognition that the Yolo County lands will inevitably contribute to the BDCP and other issues of statewide conservation concern,” they conclude.

Supervisors Duane Chamberlain and Jim Provenza, who voted against the first agreement, remained steadfast against it this time as well.

Jim Provenza presented a PowerPoint in which he illustrated a Board Letter to the California Natural Resources Agency.

He argued that flood protection afforded by the Yolo Bypass must be maintained. 

“The County cannot accept changes in the Yolo Bypass that increase the level of flood risk to local properties,” Supervisor Provenza quoted from the letter. “The design and operation of the Conservation Measure must not have an adverse effect on the flood protection function of the Bypass.”

yolo-basin-wild-lifeAlso, agriculture in the Yolo Bypass must be preserved.  Mr. Provenza argued that the rice alone generates $50 million in production to the economy.

“Agricultural activities in the Bypass are a significant contributor to the County’s agricultural economy, the operation of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, and the flood protection afforded by the Bypass,” he quoted.  “The Conservation Measure must include appropriate design and operational criteria to avoid jeopardizing agriculture – particularly the cultivation of rice – in the Yolo Bypass.”

Moreover the Wildlife area must be protected.

“The habitat, recreational, and educational opportunities afforded by the Wildlife Area make it an invaluable asset to Yolo County and the surrounding region,” Supervisor Provenza quoted from the letter.  “The Conservation Measure should not jeopardize the Wildlife Area and, if possible, it should be enhanced and preserved in perpetuity as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (‘BDCP’).”

Furthermore, “All appropriate steps must be taken to identify and fully mitigate local economic impacts of the Conservation Measure, including but not limited to,  its effects on County revenues and the agricultural industry.”

Supervisor Duane Chamberlain also noted that the county was essentially abandoning this land as an agricultural area, and along those lines warned that the county risked losing tax revenue.

Supervisor Chamberlain warned that plans for construction would interfere with the bypass’s main function, which is flood control capacity, and cause the water to back up into the Sacramento River, actually causing serious flooding.

“When you slow that water down,” he warned, “it piles up and floods.  That’s one of the problems I saw immediately in this, you are putting a plug in the bypass.”

“The Yolo bypass is designed mainly for one thing, flood control, that’s got to be the number one priority,” he added.  “If you leave in rice like it is, the water flows, it’s great habitat the way it is.”

“There is no surplus water in the summer if you’re going to farm Conaway Ranch,” Supervisor Chamberlain said and added, “That’s another thing that bothers me is [sic] that you’re selling out Conaway Ranch.”

He argued by taking three or four acres of rice out that will cost the county three or four million dollars a year. 

“You’re talking about we’re going to get a couple of million dollars strung out over a couple of years, that’s nothing,” he added.  “This is one of the worst agreements I have ever seen the county get involved in.”

Supervisor Jim Provenza said about this agreement, “On balance I don’t see us getting much, where it does, the language is very weak.”

He added, “What we give up here is land use authority that we are exercising against anybody else.  Everyone else has to bring forward a project first, we are sitting here blindfolded not knowing what’s coming before us, saying go ahead, do what you want, we waive our rights.”

He called it a “capitulation” and added “it weakens us and sets a bad precedent for rolling over when somebody with a lot of money wants to do a project.”

I want to offer a few brief comments.

First, I am stunned, and this time sincerely, that Senator Wolk, who really is the expert in our region on the issue of water and the delta, was just completely rebuffed and ignored by her former colleagues and allies.

Second, if there was a Brown Act violation before, the language of Supervisor Matt Rexroad in the newspaper and the statement that Lois Wolk gave about this being about the Brown Act rather than substance might put the county back into a violation of the Brown Act.  If they saw this as an opportunity to simply rubber stamp the agreement that came out of the previous meeting, then it drifts perilously close to a very insincere and closed process. 

Under the Brown Act, the idea of open process restricts governmental bodies from predetermining the outcome.  It’s a tough case to make legally, but there may be enough here in this case to at least pursue.

Third, there was an interesting exchange between Jim Provenza and Don Saylor.  Jim Provenza asked some questions of Chad Roberts on habitat.  While he was doing so, Supervisor Saylor interrupted by suggesting this was inappropriate. 

In fact, the Board of Supervisors frequently asks questions of members of the public, particularly when they have expertise.  Indeed, the council which Don Saylor was on previously at times does this, as well.

Supervisor Rexroad ruled that Mr. Provenza was in bounds and he proceeded.  This is an interesting sign that business for Don Saylor in his new home will be a bit different from his days on the council when he could count on the majority to back him whenever he chose to flex his muscles.

Overall, this is a disappointing agreement.  I agree with Jim Provenza, the county did not get that much.  I understand the county feels it did not give away that much either, but it seems the signing off on the agreement had some meaning and they could have at least followed Senator Wolk’s rather modest recommendations.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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11 thoughts on “Supervisors Ignore Senator Wolk’s Concerns; Rubber Stamp Conaway Ranch Agreement”

  1. hpierce

    As I understand it, the Brown Act is a “sunshine” or “disclosure” requirement… not a “process” mandate… it is meant to inform and avoid collusion, not meant to let every opinionated individual, every special interest group to have a “place at the table” for decision-making… if you want the latter, move to New England states where they make many decisions by town meetings… you have implied that it is a violation of the Brown Act for an elected to go into a meeting with their mind “made up”… what if there was some need to add an ordinance that required the council to acknowledge the ‘law of gravity’? Would you insist that the electeds not make up their mind beforehand?

    As I understand it, the Brown act has a primary purpose to avoid the collective minds being made up before the action.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    You are missing a point here. If the objection to the original meeting is that it was not properly noticed and therefore the public did not get the chance to weigh in before the decision, and the purpose of this was to ensure that the Board was in compliance with the Brown Act, then doesn’t defeat the purpose of their being in compliance if they are ignoring public input having already made up their mind?

    Normally you would never be able to prove that, but you have Rexroad’s comments in the paper and Lois Wolks’ comments about the staff’s response to a meeting.

  3. davehart

    This water/land use deal is complicated enough without having the Board of Supes appear to be dismissive of public input. Maybe the deal is a good one and maybe it isn’t. As a voter with somewhat above average background in water policy (I’m no expert) and therefore respect for the complexity of the issue, I am for the first time really alarmed by the Board’s response to our area’s state senator who has studied the heck out of the subject. If all of her concerns were not confidently and openly addressed in open session by one or more of the Board members as DPD suggests in this blog, then more time is warranted to come to a decision. Public policy takes time in a democracy. It’s inconvenient. It’s frustrating. It’s necessary. Unless, of course, you’re Hosni Mubarak.

  4. Sue Greenwald

    [quote]there was an interesting exchange between Jim Provenza and Don Saylor. Jim Provenza asked some questions of Chad Roberts on habitat. While he was doing so, Supervisor Saylor interrupted by suggesting this was inappropriate. In fact, the Board of Supervisors frequently asks questions of members of the public, particularly when they have expertise. Indeed, the council which Don Saylor was on previously at times does this, as well.—David Greenwald[/quote]In fact, David, during Don’s very short stint as Mayor of the city of Davis, he actually engaged one citizen (Barbara King)in an extensive argument when she tried to speak at public comment. It was only time I have seen a Mayor interrupt a citizen at public comment for the purpose of contradicting and arguing with the citizen in the eleven years that I have served on the council.

  5. Rhinochaser

    Sue, I don’t think that you should be the one to give a lecture on how to treat others in a public hearing. Your berating of Ruth to the point of sending her to the hospital, takes that right away from you.

  6. Sue Greenwald

    Rhinochaser: Double standards of behavior should be pointed out. I said to Ruth: “You lied about my motion” when the term “misrepresented” would have been preferable. I apologized, and didn’t do it again.

    I was raked over the coals for this transgression. I should add that both Don Saylor and Steve Souza, on different occasions, bellowed the F-Y words at me, and never apologized. They were, however, shrewd enough not to do this on camera, although there were witnesses to both events.

    My concern is a pervasive double standard of behavior that occurs so often in politics. “Civility” or the lack thereof, and charges concerning appropriate behavior are frequently used as political weapons — usually by those who are the worst offenders.

  7. E Roberts Musser

    I was extremely disappointed that the majority of three on the BoS was not even willing to listen with an open mind to what was being said by Lois Wolk, Jim Provenza, and the public (including our own Steve Hayes who has a wealth of experience in the water area). Jim Provenza and Lois Wolk had it exactly right – what’s the rush? There was sufficient time to strenghten the language in the contract and do a bit of investigating.

    However, an attorney has filed a suit against the County for its failure to do a CEQA review. I have no idea how much chance he has at succeeding, but frankly I hope he does succeed…

    Saylor’s little tantrum against Provenza was extremely unprofessional, but I’ll chalk it up to inexperience. However, Saylor definitely appeared to be Helen Thompson’s toady, essentially regurgitating her arguments…

  8. Adam Smith

    Of course, it is entirely possible that the BOS had previously considered the points that Helen and Jim Provenza made, and decided that there was no new substantive information.

    I am sure that there are multiple valid points of view about this issue. Our elected officials decided to ensure that the residents of Woodland and Davis have an adequate supply of good quality water to drink and discharge into our rivers and streams. It is going to cost more than the inadequate water you are drinking and discharging now. Personally, I think they made a very good decision that will benefit our communities over the next 30 years.

    Most of you complaining about the outcome of this meeting asked for there to be another hearing you were sure that there had been a technical violation of the Brown Act. That opportunity was provided, and now you are complaining that the BOS didn’t change their minds? Is it possible that you weren’t really concerned about the Brown Act, but you really just wanted a different decision? Did you approach this issue with an open mind? It would appear that you may have approached this in the same manner that you accuse the BOS of doing.

  9. E Roberts Musser

    AS: “Most of you complaining about the outcome of this meeting asked for there to be another hearing you were sure that there had been a technical violation of the Brown Act. That opportunity was provided, and now you are complaining that the BOS didn’t change their minds? Is it possible that you weren’t really concerned about the Brown Act, but you really just wanted a different decision? Did you approach this issue with an open mind? It would appear that you may have approached this in the same manner that you accuse the BOS of doing.”

    Actually, I believe your assessment in incorrect here, w all due respect. Many of us are not necessarily against this contract, but feel the language needed tightening – it is far too loosey goosey. It is based on very rocky assumptions that may never come to pass. The state itself does not know what it is going to do, nor do we know what the landowners are going to do. Yet the contract assumes certain favorable things to the county, but does not guarantee anything. So what may happen, bc of such weak language, is that if the state or ranch owners choose to do something entirely different, we as a county can complain (have a seat at the table), but we as a county can be completely ignored (which is the likely scenario). It would not have hurt one iota to have taken the time to tighten the language in the contract to the county’s benefit – after all a lot of money is involved…

  10. Adam Smith

    Elaine –

    I appreciate your thoughts, and perhaps you are open minded about this matter. However, the written record of your comments shows something different. You have written on numerous occasions about your opposition to increasing water costs and to your general opposition to this agreement. And to my knowledge, you have never written any passage that this might be a good deal for the county, except for tightening up a few loose ends.

    The BOS and county staff have been considering this issue for months. They are much better informed than you or David, or most of the folks on this blog. They made a decision in December. Complaints about technical issues from those who didn’t agree led them to have another hearing. They decided the issue in the same manner. Now those of you who have always been against this have decided they didn’t have an open mind because they didn’t change their vote after hearing Lois Wolk and Steve Hayes speak. Can we please move on to the next order of business? This has been decided. As President Obama reminded us shortly after his election – “elections matter”. Vote them out if you think they made a bad decision.

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