Confessions of a Republican environmental activist
Tree-hugging Republicans? Meet Candy Chand and her group of Rancho Murieta “greens.”
“If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.”—George Bernard Shaw
For the last six years, Rancho Murieta has been both my home and battleground. Let me explain. With a quick first impression, one might assume this is just another conservative private community with a golf course. But before you go down that path, let me share what’s actually behind those elusive gates.
Murieta is an incredible, 3,500-acre, oak-studded, wildlife-filled environmental paradise. It’s no wonder residents love it here and will do almost anything to preserve this place they call home. So, when developers Gerry Kamilos and Robert Cassano (hired by the landowners—the Pension Trust Fund for the Operating Engineers) approached our community in November of 2000 with plans to “complete” the remaining acreage, we listened carefully.
However, when they pitched a full build-out project that would bring in multiple developers, destroy thousands of oaks, leave little open space, disperse wildlife, create traffic jams, bypass annexation, terrace our hillsides and diminish our lakes, we got just a little bit miffed.
Even the golfers stopped teeing off long enough to shout, “No way in hell.”
Although those objecting were not, for the most part, the kinds of folks developers were accustomed to dealing with, Cassano and Kamilos didn’t understand just what we were made of. Most residents, including me, were moderately conservative. (Yes, I voted for President Bush. Are you going to stop reading now?) Tree-hugging Republicans? Insert music for Sesame Street’s catchy little jingle—“One of these things is not like the other.”
But no matter what our party affiliations, we all shared one common denominator: We loved the natural beauty of Murieta and didn’t want to see it destroyed.
Our neighborhood was filled with committed people who knew they had something valuable to protect. Imagine men dressed in khakis and women tastefully draped in pearls having lunch at the country club, plotting the day they’d gladly lie down in front of bulldozers to save the community they loved. No, the citizens of Murieta were not the usual suspects.
With virtually no political map to follow, we did what any budding, untrained activists on a mission would do: We organized, gave ourselves a nifty name and started a petition. We called our group the RMDCCC (Rancho Murieta Development Concerned Citizens Committee), then drafted a controlled-growth document and began a signature drive.
Many neighbors offered their help. Multitudes joined our committee, which at that time consisted of Brad Sample, a doctorate environmental scientist who is proud to be the only Democrat in the group; Tom Brierton, a law professor; Janis Eckard, a successful real estate broker; Ted Hart, a longtime resident and pilot; Terry Hanson, a retired naval officer; and me, an author. In addition, our group included Ray Tisdale and Les Roosa, who both owned homes near some of the first two projects destined for development.
Surely, we thought, if we could show Sacramento County our community overwhelmingly supported preserving Murieta, the Board of Supervisors would stand up and take notice.
I know. I know. What can I tell you? We didn’t have a clue what we were up against.
To every yin there’s a yang
Despite how strongly we felt about protecting Murieta, a few residents who felt the opposite, and actually wanted the proposed growth because of the dollars it would generate for local projects (a community center, pool, etc), attempted to organize. Within months, their efforts deteriorated, but, in the meantime, tensions among neighbors grew. At times it got downright ugly—angry letters in the local press, a mailing from our Community Service District warning citizens not to sign the petition, intense lobbying of local boards’ directors (who no doubt felt they’d been caught in a political tug-of-war), threats of recall, and a few neighbors who, even after years of friendship, no longer acknowledged each other when their shopping carts crossed paths at the grocery store. But, eventually, most of us learned we shouldn’t fall prey to classic divide–and-conquer tactics.We realized we had to focus on the real enemy (the developers), and not each other, if we were going to survive as a community.
Despite the opposition, in just six short weeks we gathered almost 2,100 signatures, which, in a town with less than 2,400 homes, we felt was quite an accomplishment. Next, we made an appointment with Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli and proudly handed him our enormous stack of petitions. “Did he need more signatures?” we asked. Because, if necessary, we were sure we could track down those last few shy neighbors and get them to sign, too. “No,” he assured us. It wasn’t necessary. We’d already made our point.
The petition took us both far and nowhere all at the same time. It brought us to multiple county workshops and facilitation meetings with supervisors, planners and a growing number of developers who were now actively pursuing the project: Warmington, Woodside, Reynen and Bardis, Corinthian, Cassano Kamilos Homes, and Foothill Partners. But, in the end, resolution eluded us all.
During this stressful time, some members of our committee privately battled each other over detail points of potential negotiation. Should we accept projects that saved more oaks if it meant hills would be destroyed? Should we accept projects from developers who demonstrated little regard for wildlife? Was it an all–or-nothing battle or one of great compromise? And, mostly, was it ever wise to tell builders your bottom line?
In the heat of these internal debates, Janis and I broke down and cried. For a moment, we even considered instigating a mutiny. But within just a couple of days, we all came through, united to one common cause: our commitment to each other and to preserving Rancho Murieta.
Activist boot camp
In no time flat, a few neighbors who had signed the petition, but had otherwise not been involved, decided we needed help. They sent us e-mails, caught us having lunch at the country club (or wherever they could nail us down) and attempted to enroll our group in “activist boot camp.” We were doing it all wrong, they informed us, offering an endless list of well-meaning but unsolicited critiques.
First of all, they said, I had to stop kidding around.
In the future, I was forbidden to be sarcastic at public meetings. I could not smirk at the developers or, worse yet, laugh, even when they said and did things that, in my opinion, were absolutely outrageous. And I was under no circumstances ever to roll my eyes. Didn’t I know the developers could read body language like a book? Hadn’t I ever played poker? (Actually, no. Go Fish, sure. But poker, never.) I was admonished to shape up and be more like Brad—serious, scientific and factual.
On the other hand, Brad needed to lighten up and make his points more understandable to the average guy. The good graces of Ted and Janis were to be spiced-up with more raw emotion. “Don’t be afraid to show a little anger,” they were advised. And Terry was asked to tone down his emotion, just in case someone might get “offended.” Basically, to be successful, we were told we had to be people we weren’t.
After trying this out at the next meeting—with horrible, robot-like results—we realized pretending to be anyone other than ourselves was never going to fly. So, we gladly dropped out of activist academy and went back to doing what had worked well for us in the past, with each individual bringing to the table their own unique style, personality, abilities and talents.
In between meetings, we spent countless hours researching Murieta history at the Sacramento County Planning and Community Development Department. In its entirety, this history consisted of a unique filing system—several large cardboard boxes scattered with hundreds of loose documents, some 30-years-old. Early on, Tom and Terry discovered two pages out of a 1973 board-certified final environmental-impact report, which indicated Murieta’s 3,500-acre community was intended to maintain 53 percent (1,806 acres) of undisturbed vegetative open space (in addition to our golf courses, lakes and parks). Excited with our find, we went public with the information.
In response, residents who had lived in Murieta for years began searching through their attics and garages for old Pension Trust Fund sales brochures. When Ted and a few of his neighbors found the long-forgotten pamphlets, we discovered the old environmental docs also were validated in multiple sales packets, clearly indicating the open space/wildlife preserve amenity widely had been pitched to potential buyers. There it was: a clear indication that folks had bought property in Murieta based on the original open-space promise.
This created a little problem.
The promised open-space acreage was in direct conflict with the present plans to build out our community. So, the next questions to the county were: If half of Murieta was intended to remain a wildlife preserve, how did the developers get this far in the planning process? Why weren’t their projects kicked out during the course of their initial application? Who at the county forgot about Murieta’s open-space specifications? How can anyone lose something as significant as 1,806 acres of raw land? Who dropped the ball? Most importantly, who was protecting the citizens of Murieta?
Clearly, the county and the developers had some explaining to do.
And explain they did
Once cover-your-rear kicked in, county planners and developers joined forces to discover where our mysterious 1,806 acres of lost open space went. And because claiming that aliens catapulted the land into outer space seemed a little far fetched, they settled on plan B.
Within a few months, they set up a slick presentation at a county workshop, accompanied by a slide show filled with color-coded graphs, and proceeded to explain how our open-space acreage wasn’t lost at all but miraculously had been rediscovered, conveniently located all along in our sewage plant, a historic cemetery, a maintenance yard and land near an active airport runway. And, I want you to know, they dared to pitch this crap to the community, as well as to the Board of Supervisors, with a perfectly straight face.
When our group first heard this tactic, we thought it was an easy shot, naive activists that we were. I mean, who in their right mind would fall for such nonsense? Who sends Bambi to a sewage plant? Who has a romantic picnic in a cemetery? Who takes family hikes near a runway? I’ll tell you who. Desperate developers, that’s who.
Yet when we dared to question their open-space calculations, the presenters, and even a few of the supervisors, looked at us like we were the ones out of our minds. (What look, you ask? Imagine the suspicious glance you’d give your 82-year-old uncle—not-sure-if-he’s-senile-but-bless-his-heart-you-suspect-he-is—if he interrupted your perfectly lovely Thanksgiving dinner with sordid details about his sexual romps with Marilyn Monroe, escapades he swears happened just last week. Yes, that look.)
Obviously, we just didn’t understand good, solid planning logic. “It makes sense,” you see, “because we say it does.”
While waiting for the draft environmental-impact report, we kept ourselves busy with research, phone calls and meetings. But, in our struggle to overcome high-powered and experienced developers, we sometimes got a bit sidetracked.
A hike with my best friend, Cheryn, through an open field looking for a protected species—the Swainson Hawk—proved futile. We were half way through endless acres of dry stickers, dressed inappropriately in flip-flops, when we realized we didn’t have a clue what a Swainson, let alone its nesting habitat, looked like. “Let’s see, it’s bigger than a bread-box and it lives in a tree. Hurry, and for goodness sake, don’t forget the camera.”
Yes, sometimes we got sidetracked. Sometimes we laughed. Sometimes we cried. Sometimes we failed, but sometimes we were wildly successful.
We learned how to use the facts to our advantage, e.g., that reservoir lake levels were actively being depleted by encroaching development, that there was a lack of sewage capacity, and that there had been a detrimental terracing of hills (with proposals for as much as 30-foot cut-and-fill). In addition, Ron Hand’s discovery of faulty oak mitigation (dying oaks, planted to replace already dead oaks, which were unfortunately planted by developers in all the wrong places) was a big help.
Our unofficial motto soon became, “You throw enough pasta at the wall, and sooner or later something will stick.”
Santa with a bomb
During our trial-and-error phase, I was jolted into reality by a frightening experience. An intimidating, late-night confrontation with one of the pending Murieta developers unsettled me to the core. Afterward, Brad set me straight. There were millions of dollars on the line, he explained, and the investors were furious. I better start taking things seriously if I expected to stay out of trouble.
Completely unprepared for the battle, I realized he was right. What the heck was I doing anyway? Was it safe to pursue such well-funded opposition? Did I really need the headache? Wouldn’t it be easier to just pack up and move away? All the self-doubting questions developers simply adore.
The doubts grew even stronger when that same developer asked to meet with me alone. (Trust me, I can already hear you groaning. And, yes, I agreed to go, which I admit now was not entirely a genius move. But, in my defense, I did it for a simply marvelous reason: I met with him alone because … drum-roll please: I. Was. Curious.) Staring at the ground and refusing to look me in the eye, he quietly mumbled, “All right, Candy, what do you want?” Uncertain of his intentions, I sheepishly asked, “What do you mean?”
Glancing up, only this time with feeling, he tried again: “What do you want?” Silence. New Angle: “What do you need?”
“What does that mean?”
“Come on, Candy. What’s it going to take?”
Angry I’d placed myself in such a precarious situation, and confused about the intent of his questions, I mentioned something about wildlife, fewer houses and more open space, then quickly made an excuse to leave. I drove home feeling uneasy about the entire encounter.
While not accustomed to selling-out my neighbors but knowing what I know now, perhaps I should have asked for $10,000 dollars in unmarked bills, a one way ticket out of here and, just to liven up the deal, a cute little black and white horse. (What can I tell you: I’m still waiting for the pony my dad promised me when I was five.)
Halfway into our six-year battle, activists began experiencing the fallout from overwhelming additional pressures. Our families, marriages and careers were often put on the back burner as the development took up most of our time, energy and focus. Additional tensions were added when our credibility was called into question. We were sometimes referred to as “crazy,” “NIMBYs,” “extremists” and, worst of all, “liars.” While it’s true we made a conscious choice to get involved, none of us had any idea the personal sacrifices our commitment would entail.
During the Christmas season of 2005, I decided to ease the tension by dressing up as Santa so as to deliver beautifully boxed cookies to friends and neighbors. When I got to Janis’ home, she shyly accepted the package, said thank you, then quickly retreated inside. Since it was clear she didn’t recognize me, I decided to call her later that evening. Relieved to discover I was her North Pole visitor, she went on to explain she hadn’t opened the decorative box because she was terrified the costume and gift were simply a ruse to blow up her house with a cleverly disguised bomb.
What? Exploding cookies? Delivered by Santa? On Christmas? It was clear we all needed to take a break, sip some egg nog and lighten up before New Year.
How to fight developers (or die of exhaustion trying)
Despite the never-ending pace, we attempted to leave no stone unturned by continuing to sift through piles of research, engaging in hundreds of phone calls and meeting with representatives from local, state and federal agencies.
During one such meeting in 2005 with the state commissioner for the Department of Real Estate, I asked for enforcement help with the proposed development’s negative impacts on our lake levels. The commissioner was a heck of a nice guy. The deputy commissioner was nice, too. Really. I could do lunch with them anytime. They even seemed rather sympathetic to our cause, but the bottom line was they couldn’t offer much help. Why? Well, you see, they explained that their enforcement department doesn’t really enforce anything after the houses in a subdivision are sold. “So,” I asked, “can you tell me why you have an enforcement department?” (Uncomfortable glances all around the table.)
Nevermind, I thought. I better not ask any more “trick” questions.
In the spring of 2005, Sacramento County released a draft environmental-impact report that appeared to validate the developers’ open-space-in-the-sewer theory. Great. Traffic on the Jackson Highway was a significant impact, but despite a firm letter from Caltrans demanding the builders’ fully mitigate, the county determined the impact was simply “unavoidable.” Perfect. Sewage and water issues were questionable, but, in their opinion, not enough to create a problem. Thank you very much. It was obvious the fox was still watching the hen house.
But under the California Environmental Quality Act, public comments are encouraged. And boy did the public ever comment. Many thoughtful letters were sent to the county, questioning grading, traffic, water, lake levels, oak loss, sewage, wildlife, open-space numbers and the need for cumulative impact studies, as well as an updated master plan. These were valid concerns supervisors simply could not ignore, unless they intended the final report, if certified, to be challenged in court.
Keeping the faith
As activists determined to protect our community, we still harbor great hope. Over the last six years, our district’s supervisor, Nottoli, has been amazing—tuning in to our questions and consistently making himself available to our endless concerns. I’m convinced that without the diligence and integrity of this man, Murieta would have been paved-over three years ago. Without a doubt, Don Nottoli is my hero.
In addition, Supervisor Illa Collin has shown great interest in preserving the unique quality of our community, land near the Cosumnes River she sometime refers to as the jewel of the East County. Both Nottoli and Collin have been a tremendous help encouraging county staff, their colleagues, the developers, and our citizen’s committee to reach a fair compromise—one that embraces full environmental accountability.
Unfortunately, in early January, Illa retired, leaving our community with potentially one less vote. Although a couple of politically savvy people have told me newly elected Supervisor Jimmie Yee historically has supported growth, my hope is that he will weigh the information fairly and that the environmentally friendly aura of Collin will permeate the office Supervisor Yee now inhabits.
But money talks
A simple Google search of several Murieta developers (and their attorneys) turns up a stream of political contributions that run the gamut from county supervisors to the governor of California. While one could argue developers who donate so generously to politicians are merely engaging in their patriotic duty, others might argue they’re priming the pump in hopes of receiving special consideration as their projects come forward for a vote.
In addition to the money received in the form of political contributions, growth offers government a consistent tax-revenue stream, making it difficult, even for the most well-intended supervisor, to turn away a big, old, tempting cash cow.
For a little vindication, in March of 2006, the planning staff issued their official report and, much to our surprise, they recommended a complete denial of the first two projects up to bat. The report pointed out many of the problems—terracing of hills, oak loss, open space, etc—we’d been battling for over five long years. Our group resisted the urge to do an obnoxious victory dance while chanting the phrase, “I told you so.”
Not so fast: By late April of 2006, after the developers had a “come to Jesus” meeting with county staff, the planners did a 180, praising the projects with a spiffy new addendum. There was no time to cry. There was no time to laugh. But there was a little time for some opportune swearing. One thing for certain: The roller-coaster ride was becoming exhausting.
While at the bottom, we reached out to higher authorities. And, lo and behold, Murieta appeared on several state and federal radar screens. Consequently, the county received strong written comments from then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer (just two days before he left office to become state treasurer), as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the deputy commissioner of the DRE (Yes, he finally came through with a remarkable letter). Regulators made it clear: The projects were being piecemealed by not properly reviewing the cumulative impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
In response to the newfound support, we felt vindicated and relieved, while staying wary of overreaching our confidence.
As should be expected, it wasn’t just the county that noticed the government letters. Soon afterward, a developer began sending me a series of e-mails, using a particularly interesting new strategy. His tactic? Guilt.
Oh, he wasn’t criticizing me. He wanted to make that perfectly clear. He simply was concerned about my “faith.” And he was only bringing it up because he considered himself to be my “Christian brother.” Didn’t I realize God wanted me to worry a whole lot less about trees and deer and, instead, care more about people who desperately needed homes? And to prove his point (that the Almighty was really, really annoyed with me—enter stage left: Cecil B. DeMille-style thunder and lightening—he quoted scripture about being good stewards of the land).
Just when I thought I’d heard it all. Bible quotes? From a developer?
You’ve got to be kidding me.
I e-mailed back explaining to my “brother” that I was pretty darn convinced his real concern was more about profit than houses for mankind. And, just for good measure, I went on to explain that I’d actually read the good book (yes, cover to cover) and nowhere had I found a single verse that even slightly implied greed should triumph over justice. However, if he discovered any scriptures to the contrary, he was more than welcome to send them my way. I never heard from him again.
The hearings begin
Just a few months ago, on January 10, our citizen’s group was thrilled when about 250 citizens filled the Board of Supervisor’s chambers to overflow capacity, asking that the final environmental-impact report be sent back for proper cumulative review, and that a new master plan for Murieta be initiated before any projects were approved. Yet despite multiple letters and testimony from citizens, as well as correspondence from state and federal regulators, staff publicly dismissed all concerns.
To hear them blow-off citizens was one thing (we were used to it), and we had certainly heard them dismiss government agencies before, but to watch staff take the podium and boldly contradict a man as powerful as Lockyer told me they would stop at nothing to defend their document.
In that moment, I had to wonder: When did this become such an enormous war of wills? When did this become such a battle of egos? When did county employees, who obviously entered the field because of genuine concern for natural resources, become more centered on defending their document, rather than defending the actual environment that document was designed to protect in the first place?
The meeting ran until 10:00 p.m. Because of the lengthy testimony, and need for additional information, the Board of Supervisors were unable to reach a decision. In response, they agreed to continue the hearing to Wednesday, April 11, at 6 p.m.
Waiting and hoping
While we await the final hearing, things temporarily have quieted down. But don’t let the silence fool you. Murieta is experiencing the proverbial calm before the storm. There’s no doubt that soon our lives will, once again, take on a new, energized focus as we pour ourselves into last-minute organizational efforts, rally the troops and, most of all, prepare emotionally for the battle.
In the meantime, I’ve gone back to writing and Tom commutes on the weekend to his new home in Colorado. Janis has escaped into decorating—enveloping her entire abode in soothing shades of taupe. Terry abandoned retirement for a challenging part-time job, and Brad likes to surprise me with an occasional bottle of wine when he feels I’m acting particularly stressed. Ted continues to fly his plane. Les is working longer hours than ever, and Ray is planning yet another getaway cruise with his wife.
While we stand strong against the destructive nature of the proposed development, we remain grateful for our present lifestyle—taking long walks around our peaceful lakes, waking up to a family of deer right in our own backyard (except when we discover they’re devouring what little is left of our supposed-to-be-deer-resistant-but-it’s-not landscape), experiencing the joy of neighbors gathering for a casual barbecue on the back deck, or getting together for an elegant dinner at the club. But, most of all, we fully embrace Murieta’s spectacular natural beauty anchored by a charming, small-town, friendly atmosphere.
Granted, we may not be your typical salt of the earth environmental-activist types, but we learned how to make the developers take us seriously. Even to the most cynical observer, it’s obvious we love our community, that we completely grasp what’s at stake and have absolutely no intention of giving up until we’ve won.
Passion, they say, comes from the soul. You just can’t learn that in activist school.