A new housing project recently approved by the Monterey County Planning Commission disturbed residents who oppose the removal of trees to construct 24 units for low-tier rent accommodations.

The project will be built on a site known as Area D, located along SFB Morse Drive. The site was previously zoned for up to 31 residential units, a higher and better use of the land.

However, construction requires approximately 725 trees to be cut down — a hair-raising horror for local not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) residents fond of using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to suppress projects. Accordingly, a group known as Del Monte Neighbors United (DMNU) filed an appeal to the project’s approval June 20, 2016.

The appeal lists alternative locations for the project as grounds for its violation of the CEQA, claiming the project will better serve the environment by preserving trees if located at:

  • 17 Mile Drive, known as the Sunset Area; or
  • the Collins Residential Area.

The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) issued by the Planning Commission negated these alternative sites, stating the Sunset Area is commercially zoned – and technically in Pacific Grove, not Pebble Beach. The Collins Area requires additional accommodations from the Coastal Commission, placing it out of the Planning Commission’s control.

The DMNU denies the EIR’s accuracy, claiming the lack of consideration for the alternative sites will lead to the unnecessary destruction of 725 Monterey pines. The removal of trees to the project contributes to a total 14% loss of Monterey pine forest since 1993, which the EIR admits is “a significant cumulative impact.”

Deforestation: A rich man’s selective concern

Although the DMNU claims it “would appeal this Project regardless of whether the Project was a market rate project or an inclusionary housing project,” demographic data suggests the opposite.

It’s easy to combat the construction of below-market units in favor of trees when living in a wealthy area like Pebble Beach. The small coastal community is predominantly mature and financially endowed, with:

  • 39% of the population ages 40-64;
  • 36% of the population 65 years of age or older; and
  • 70% of residents earning an average household income of $75,000 to $150,000+ annually.

For reference, 71% of Pebble Beach households contain two or three people.

Lower-income residents of the area have slim pickings even in the peripheral valleys, especially as the greater Bay Area’s high-demand and high-cost housing crisis trickles down the coast. Currently, only 10% of Pebble Beach residents are renters — but 91% of those renters pay at least $2,000 in monthly rent, suggesting households of renters need over $70,000 to pay rent without spending more than 30% of their income.

Pebble Beach renters desperately need the below-market units slotted for Area D. The average home price in Pebble Beach is approximately $3,795,000 (disregarding separate home price tiers), effectively out of range for the 15% of comparatively low-income residents making an average of only $30,000 annually.

Additionally, construction at Area D may lead to more similar projects throughout elite Monterey Bay areas in the future. Turnover of multi-million-dollar homes in such a small community is limited, leaving most agents to rely on neighboring cities to bolster their income. Thus, the addition of rental accommodations for lower-income residents throughout the Monterey Bay area expands local agents’ potential client base and transactions, rather than making them compete with top luxury agents for limited clientele.

CEQA strikes to stall — but California strikes back

The CEQA is nearing the end of its reign over California developments. Governor Brown’s recent affordable housing proposal exempts urban infill projects in metropolitan areas from environmental review. Developers and city councils collaborate to work around CEQA limitations by placing projects on local ballots.

Although deforestation is an infrequent side effect of development in the Bay Area, the arguments it provokes emphasize the need for low-income housing in all cities. Predominantly wealthy communities like Pebble Beach unwilling to sacrifice crystalline ocean views to working-class residents ultimately diminish their local cultural and economic stability over time. Employees with reasonably priced housing able to live where they work save money on commutes and in turn, as residents who spend most of their earnings, contribute more to local businesses, balancing the cost of living for all.

Stay tuned to first tuesday Local for updates on the project’s development and the DMNU appeal.