Developer deserves more than a fine

There is no excuse for what developer Andy Meghdadi did last week on property he owns in the foothills just east of town. He knew it was wrong but did it anyway.

Meghdadi has city approval to build a subdivision there and had permission to cut down 33 trees to make room for houses. Instead he toppled 115 trees, 82 more than allowed. Many of these were large and venerable blue oaks, some no doubt dating back to before John Bidwell’s arrival here.

Meghdadi’s scorched-earth operation was a wanton act of defiance, the result of making a cynical business decision in which he figured he would turn an adequate profit on his project no matter how the city chose to punish him. He thumbed his nose at city officials, cranked up his chainsaw and went to work, and the name of his subdivision, Terra Bella, or “Beautiful Earth,” became a sick joke.

What aggravates the matter to the point of outrage, however, is that Meghdadi has done this before.

Three years ago this same developer ignored city-issued conditions on his Nob Hill subdivision and cut down numerous trees before a raptor-nesting survey could be conducted. Meghdadi’s feeble excuse then was that he hadn’t had time to read all the conditions the city required for plan approval. The council fined him $22,000, but it’s now painfully clear that the amount was insufficient. Meghdadi obviously saw the fine as a paltry sum easily absorbed as he sold off his 97 houses.

Meghdadi’s Nob Hill transgressions led to a special meeting of the City Council to see what could be done in the future to avoid such incidents. City staff told councilmembers it could not afford to have its building inspectors turned into project monitors, watching over developers on a daily basis to make sure they were following city requirements. The public, staff said, would still have to serve as the eyes and ears of the city when it came to watching over such projects.

Such a system works only if city staff responds promptly to alerts, and in this case that didn’t happen, say the neighbors who called in. Several hours passed, and many more trees were cut down, before someone from the city showed up on the scene. The neighbors have hired an attorney, who in a letter to the council is already pointing a finger at the planning division of the Community Development Department.

The division already has enough on its plate, in no small part because certain councilmembers don’t do their homework, come to meetings ill prepared and often ask frustrated staffers to do unnecessary research and produce unneeded reports. We’ve heard such complaints from these professionals, whose work is often dictated by the whims of politics.

Meghdadi’s actions and attitudes are symptomatic of the troubled growth this town is experiencing. Along with unimaginative longtime local developers who, in the absence of competition, refuse to consider new and better ways of building, we have a council majority that coddles these developers, who in turn give them significant campaign contributions every election year.

At the same time, that council majority shies away from establishing adequate development impact fees and resists imposing stiff fines when policy violations occur. They argue that such costs only get passed on to homebuyers. That may be true, but without properly proportionate fees and fines, the rest of us pay the price of poorly planned and executed growth.

We urge the council to come up with a creative means of penalizing Meghdadi, one that sends a strong message to other developers who don’t take seriously their contracts with the city.