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From the Monterey County
Foes say petition quota met
Rancho San Juan: Project opponents could force referendum
By LARRY PARSONS
Oponents of the big Rancho San Juan subdivision said Thursday they've collected enough signatures to put the 2,600-acre project before Monterey County voters.
Project foes began circulating petitions against the 4,000-home growth plan just north of Salinas after county supervisors narrowly approved the project in mid-December. They need 8,697 signatures of registered county voters to force a referendum on the controversial development.
"We have a comfortable margin of safety," said Julie Engell, chairwoman of the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition.
Petition circulators say they already have gathered about 12,000 signatures and should reach the group's target of 13,000 by Wednesday, when they plan to turn in the petitions to county election officials.
"It was a big job and we didn't go into it lightly. We anticipated we would be able to do it," Engell said.
If election officials determine there are enough signatures, the Board of Supervisors would set an election date -- either a special election or the next general election in 2006. The signature-validation process could last up to two months.
Engell said the successful petition drive shows county residents "want a different approach to growth... and we want it to be sensible."
The Rancho San Juan area was designated as a growth area by the county in the early 1980s and has generated heated debate almost from the outset.
Opponents claim the huge project would create more traffic congestion, tap overpumped North County water tables and create homes unaffordable to most county residents. The city of Salinas opposes the project, saying it would create traffic problems and drain other city services.
Supporters contend Rancho San Juan would be a carefully planned community balancing jobs and housing and would provide a large number of affordable homes.
In a Dec. 14 decision on a 3-2 vote, the supervisors gave the go-ahead to the first phase of Rancho San Juan -- the 1,147-home Butterfly Village golf-residential subdivision by developer Moe Nobari -- but called for a review of the overall Rancho San Juan plan.
Mark Blum, attorney for Butterfly Village, said he wasn't surprised by the petition campaign's apparent success. He contends Rancho San Juan was misrepresented by signature gatherers.
"If you get enough paid signature gatherers you can get 10 percent of the voters... to support anything," Blum said. "That's particularly true if you misrepresent the facts."
The supervisors could set a special election or set a Rancho San Juan vote for the next general election in 2006, Blum said.
The county and Nobari could also challenge the validity of the opponents' petition, he said.
"There are a number of legal considerations," he said. "No decisions have been made."
Blum said he wouldn't comment on possible responses until the signature-gathering period ends next week.
Engell said signature gatherers found opposition to Rancho San Juan among residents throughout the county.
Larry Parsons can be reached at 646-4379 or email@example.com.