By David Armstrong

The Carmel-by-the-Sea Planning Commission voted 4-0 on Wednesday, March 13, to put a hold (a ‘continuance’) on its approval of a design concept for a three-story Eighth Avenue building project. The project would result in the loss of 16 trees to accommodate the owner of the adjoining property who wants to use 1,103 square feet of city right-of-way for his ambitious development.

The vote came after public testimony at the commission’s monthly meeting in city hall by seven members of the CRA Board of Directors, plus a speaker from Friends of Carmel Forest, former council member Victoria Beach and the CRA’s attorney, Pamela Silkwood. All 10 public speakers argued that by failing to submit the matter to the Carmel-by-the-Sea Forest and Beach commission – as is usually done – and by providing scant details about the project to the public in a timely manner, the city has not afforded concerned residents due process.

Architect Eric Miller and attorney Anthony Lombardo represented property owner Thomas Fountain at the late afternoon meeting. Lombardo objected that the applicant had waited “for over a year to build on the property, which he is entitled to do. It’s incredible to me that there was ‘no public process.’ I’ve never seen a city that has more public process.”

Wednesday evening following the meeting, Mayor Steve Dallas, in a telephone call to CRA President Barbara Livingston, said a special snap meeting of the forest and beach commission may be held. He told Livingston that he was not calling the meeting as mayor, but said he had heard from someone who had watched the video of the meeting that a continuance could burden the applicant with a hardship. Should anyone in a position to do so call a special meeting, it would fast-track the project, just as residents are asking for more time.

The city council last month directed city staff to move forward with advancing the project, as requested by Fountain, the property owner. If opponents elect to challenge the council’s directive and can prove violations of law and policy, the long-pending project could be stopped in its tracks.

Among other things, the CRA is calling for an environmental impact report to be written before construction can begin. In addition to felling 16 trees, the construction of two upscale condominiums and a parking garage, as seen in architect Miller’s latest renderings, would require excavation on a hilly slope and alter the topography of the last rustic block in the downtown business district.

Further complicating the matter is the developer’s publicly stated readiness to pay for an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant sidewalk on the north side of Eighth between Junipero and Mission, where mature trees now stand. Opponents argue that the sidewalk is not needed, as there is a perfectly fine crushed-granite walking path on the south side of that block of Eighth.

Arguments were passionate on both sides.

Former Mayor Ken White, a member of the CRA Board of Directors, told commissioners that giving the building carte blanche would overturn “103 years” of community procedures. “These trees didn’t just happen,” White declared. “They were planted. This didn’t go to forest and beach. There is public concern that they haven’t had a chance to weigh in. We should demand an environmental review.”

CRA board member Georgina Armstrong read out a bill of particulars opposing the project.

Noting that the plan has morphed from a residential/commercial project in April 2017 into a strictly residential plan that now involves an abandonment of the city’s right-of-way, she said, “The California Environmental Quality Act states that you can’t ‘piecemeal’ a project to avoid environmental review. This is a piecemeal project.”

Moreover, she continued, “The gifting of public land for private use is illegal under the California constitution…In order to abandon the public right-of-way, there must be evidence that it is no longer needed for public use.”

Additionally, she said, in part, “This site is a forested green belt and, since this project would destroy it, the matter should have gone before the Carmel Forest and Beach commission.

“There was a failure to look at the residential guidelines for this project. First, it is a three-story building; second, it calls for the installation of a retaining wall. And third, the natural topography will be altered. For these reasons, I am asking you to agree to withdraw the design concept review until these other considerations have received further analysis.”

Commission vice chair Gail Lehman observed, “This is a lot of information from a lot of people,” adding “I am not comfortable with going forward at this time.” Commission chair Michael Le Page agreed that the project has changed, and while all parties have acted in good faith, there should be more time to consider it. Commissioner Stephanie Locke quietly assented. The most avid backer of the project, commissioner Julie Wendt, wanly provided the last vote to unanimously approve a continuance.