|Lessons from Beachwood, one year later|
It’s been one year since Half Moon Bay paid off its $18 million settlement obligation to Palo Alto developer Charles Keenan. But even though the case is closed in the courts, it still retains a strong presence in Half Moon Bay. The city is saddled with debts that citizens will be paying off for years to come, and the future for the Beachwood property itself remains uncertain.
We wanted to ask people closely involved in the matter to comment on what lessons Half Moon Bay should draw from lengthy Beachwood case. So we sent questions to about a dozen people closely involved in the decisions surrounding the case.
Here's their responses:
Dunham: It never should’ve happened
When I look at the whole picture, and I tend to be a person that looks the whole picture, Beachwood is something that should never have happened. It’s not in the right order of things for a city of our size to have had to sustain such a judgment and have that amount of money to pay out over generations. It should not have happened. But it did!
For lessons learned: two from my many reflections are salient. We need to elect good people to the City Council. All citizens must, at least every two election years, pay attention to city politics. If Sacramento and Washington DC seem non-responsive, city politics is still a place that can remain responsible to the people. It’s one of the last places where more direct democracy is practiced for good or bad, accountable to the people. When people do pay attention and know their council members, high caliber people will be elected, those that have a broad and balanced view of what it means to run a city.
In our country, special interests, groups of people that have a single agenda, are often heard above the majority of the people, even at the local level. It’s a problem that’s endemic to our government. But never doubt that the involved and informed citizenry have more votes than special interests. Problems like Beachwood don’t occur when we the people pay attention.
The second lesson learned with Beachwood is that going to court to resolve differences doesn’t work for Half Moon Bay. We’re a terribly litigious nation, but the more a city can do to negotiate, settle, and develop win-win agreements, the better. Simply put, just staying out of courts is a lesson learned.
The current financial conditions make it even harder for us to move ahead putting Beachwood behind us. Looking at the whole picture again, it’s a miracle we’re in as good a shape as we are, tenuous as it is. Perhaps the Beachwood lessons have made us stronger.
Bonnie Dunham served as mayor of Half Moon Bay in 2008, when the Beachwood lawsuit was settled.
Coastal Commission: City chose lobbying over lawsuit
Expensive lobbyists are a waste of money when you are promoting a bad idea.
I think it speaks for itself.
The city could have supported a very strong lawsuit (joined by the Coastal Commission and the Attorney General) against the original, highly flawed judgment for considerably less money than they ended up paying their multiple lobbyists and legal / political advisors.
Sarah Christie serves as legislative liaison for the California Coastal Commission.
Mullin: Elections count big-time
Let me share a couple of brief thoughts about the Beachwood case. I'm convinced the City Council made the proper decision to settle with the owner. I had lawyers in Sacramento look at the court decision, and they strongly felt an appeal would not have been successful. By carrying the bill to reinstate the approvals, it did allow the judgment to be reduced. I had strong bipartisan support to move the bill out of the Assembly, but the lack of sponsorship and support in the Senate doomed the effort. That was a great disappointment to my staff and the Half Moon Bay council members who worked on the bill in the capitol.
In my six years in the Assembly, with budget committees aside, my staff and I spent as many hours on the Beachwood issue as with any other legislation I introduced. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it was an effort worth undertaking.
If there was a lesson to be learned, it is that actions that elected officials take have consequences, and that voting really does matter. The arguments that we made about the long-term effects of the settlement and the subsequent legislation, while persuasive with most of my colleagues, didn't move the environmental opposition at all. While Half Moon Bay had a unique, one off experience with Beachwood, the bill's opponents felt it could lead to a slippery slope in the future, and were loath to sign on.
I'm so sorry about the struggles facing Half Moon Bay now, due to the recession, and in the future paying off the settlement. It faces a heavier burden than most municipalities, but the perseverance and strength of the people I've worked with are a great asset for long term stability to your community.
Gene Mullin formerly served as state assemblyman for the 19th district. He authored a controversial 2008 state bill that would have allowed 128 homes to be built on the Beachwood property.
Grady: We’re the losers here
The lessons that should have been learned are too numerous to expound upon in a newspaper article. The ones at the top of my list would be as follows:
LESSON NO. 1 - Don't allow politics to impede good, sound decision-making. To this day, I believe that the decision to settle the Beachwood litigation and pay Chop Keenan $18 million verses appealing and having Judge Walker's decision be heard by the 9th Circuit was fundamentally flawed. The 9th Circuit is the most environmentally friendly Federal Appeals Court in the land and when your legal counsel advises you to appeal, you should appeal. At a local level, I believe the Council's decision to settle was heavily influenced by the usual petty politics in Half Moon Bay and the decision-making process regarding whether to settle or appeal was often framed in the traditional over-heated and simplified rhetoric that has surrounded Half Moon Bay land use for more than a generation. This debate was framed in the polarizing growth vs. no growth or pro-development vs. no development scenarios when in reality neither of these extremes represents a viable path for our City.
LESSON NO. 2 - Never go to war with another governmental agency. In the attempt to have AB 1991 passed by the Legislature, the law firm representing the City and its lobbyist literally declared war on the California Coastal Commission and its staff. This led to a series of battles and skirmishes that cost the city approximately $1 million, not to mention the damage done to the city's reputation. In my opinion, the $1 million that was spent on AB 1991 was a waste of taxpayer dollars.
LESSON NO. 3 - Don't count your fiscal chickens before they hatch. In preparing for the support of a $30-million-plus bond, the city laid off staff and increased its Occupancy Tax and gave raises to a number of department heads; all with the assurance that going forward, the city would be fiscally sound. This assurance was once again voiced as part of the rhetoric leading up to the last Council election. Au contraire! Fast forward to 2010 when this Fall, we will find a Council supported initiative on the ballot to again raise taxes, this time in the form of a sales tax that will last seven years. From where I sit, the abysmal condition of the City's coffers is a direct result of the Beachwood settlement. Just think how the City could utilize the $1 million plus a year we are paying for the next 30 years to retire the bond.
LESSON NO. 4 - All politics are local. Throughout the Beachwood debacle, relatively few of the City's residents were engaged. The biggest lesson that we, the citizens, should have learned is that we need to take the time and pay attention to what goes on in our City government. This is where we live and we are the biggest stakeholders in the Council's decisions.
In the end, the only winners in the settlement were Chop Keenan and the law firms. The biggest losers were we, the residents of Half Moon Bay.
Jim Grady formerly served as mayor of Half Moon Bay. In 2008, he voted against settling the Beachwood lawsuit.
Fraser: Two decades led to Beachwood
You would have to go back through more than two decades of decisions, crossroads, and litigation to even begin to look and dissect any lessons from the long-standing legal battle of Beachwood.
I am confident that when we work diligently and respectfully together on Cabrillo Highway property, we can achieve the best financial and environmental out come for the citizens of Half Moon Bay.
Marina Fraser is mayor of Half Moon Bay.
Ferreira: Not appealing was the big slip-up
The error-of-all-errors was the failure to appeal the Walker decision. All other errors are aftershocks. Lessons learned? Not likely, but here’s a few that should have been.
1. When a conflated court decision is based on the absurd notion that Old Guard city governments in the 1980s “created” wetlands by installing drainage pipes (huh?) – appeal the decision.
2. When a Council’s City Attorney says a decision should be appealed, pay attention – and appeal the decision.
3. When a Council chooses an appellate attorney for a land-use case, choose the one that has the best land-use litigation reputation – not the one with purported political juice.
4. When a Council is advised by the California Coastal Commission and, by extension, the California Attorney General’s office to appeal a decision – appeal the decision.
5. When a Council negotiates a settlement agreement that requires an unprecedented legislative act to be passed and signed into law, it should never agree to abandon the right to appeal prior to that bill’s passage – much less within just five days of entering into the agreement.
6. When a Council needs to get a bill passed in Sacramento by two legislative bodies – the Senate and Assembly – that have large Democratic Party majorities it is imprudent at best to engage in the political rhetoric of the anti-environmental right.
7. When a Council is presented with a compromise bill such as SB 863 – $10 million for two park sites – don’t snub it just because it isn’t perfectly aligned with local political orthodoxy because if it fails the end result may be nothing at all – and that’s what did come to pass.
The council’s series of irrational decision-making following the Walker decision left the City with ever worsening options until finally the grim reality of payment had to be dealt with – not so much by the council as by two generations of Half Moon Bay citizens.
Mike Ferreira is former mayor of Half Moon Bay.
Patridge: It’s time to look ahead
I am not going to discuss the trials and tribulations of the Beachwood lawsuit. The more important question is what we are going to do moving forward. The City of Half Moon Bay owns the Cabrillo Highway Property (Beachwood). The city will be good stewards of the land and we will find the highest and best use for it, hopefully recouping most or all of the debt owed.
Naomi Patridge is serving her sixth term on the Half Moon Bay City Council.