Government / Politics

Landowners reject agreement on levee repairs, Rivas blames county for not being prepared for rains

Updated Article-After Lovers Lane landowners rejected the county's indemnification agreement no action will be taken to repair levees until after supervisors hold town meeting Oct. 5 to discuss options.

This Article has been updated to show the new meeting date, Oct. 9 from 7-9 pm.

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution Sept. 26 and listened to a related topic concerning the January floods in the Lovers Lane area. The resolution was to permit the county to enter into emergency contracts that would allow repairs of infrastructure to continue. The second was a report on the status of levee repairs and to provide direction to county staff in moving forward. Neither would address the issue at hand— how to begin repairing the levees.

During its Sept. 12 meeting, the board directed county staff to meet with property owners along the damaged levees to encourage them to sign an indemnification agreement that would hold the county blameless for damages should the levees break after being repaired. The agreement also stipulated that landowners would agree to operate and maintain the levees, as well as re-institute the defunct Pacheco Storm Water District and tax themselves to cover costs. Not surprisingly, the majority of landowners rejected the agreement.

“The goal of the agreement was to ensure the protection of the county in the future if the county determined to move forward on the levee work,” said Barbara Thompson, county counsel, who then asked for further instructions from the board.

Supervisor Anthony Botelho recused himself from the discussion because he owns land in the area. The other supervisors refrained from commenting until they heard public comments. Charles Lenzi owns 40 acres affected by the floods and said he would not sign the agreement as it presently exists, likening it to “selling my soul to the county for public services that we deserve.”

He went on to say he had no idea as a landowner that he and others would be required to maintain the levee that runs alongside his property. He said in 1989, property owners approached Fish & Game, as it was then named, for permission to clean out the creek bed.

“We fought for months and could never get to first base, even using our own equipment,” he said. “When Kevin O’Neill (with the county’s Emergency Services) came onto our property with Granite Construction I saw they signed a bill to clean out the creek to the tune of close to $280,000. I have no idea where we, the homeowners, can get this kind of money to maintain the creek bed or the levees in the future.”

He asked the board, and Supervisor Mark Medina in particular, if they knew how many landowners would be responsible to maintain the levees if the agreement were signed. Thompson said she thought 13 landowners were involved, but more could be assessed. Lenzi wondered if all Lovers Lane residents would have to sign the agreement and have to abide by it. Thompson said she did not know the exact number of property owners who might be affected by the agreement.

Mahassa Altafi, owner of Dara Farms, said she was insulted by the agreement, but went on to say she is trying to work with county counsel on a compromise. She said maintenance of the levees should not be the landowners’ responsibility.

“We’re not experts about levees and there should be more county involvement,” she said. “As an individual landowner, taking on an indemnity to the county represents too much of a liability for us. My family and I would greatly appreciate you (the board) authorizing staff to move forward with any repairs to the levee system.”

Mark Schroeder said the wording of the agreement is too vague and suggested the county move ahead with the repairs and then bill the water district at a future date. He said the county would need to assist the water district to obtain permits because the landowners aren’t qualified, from an engineering perspective, to do the work, especially without permits.

Lovers Lane resident Candice Hooper-Mancino urged the supervisors to allocate money for repairs now rather than have to pay out millions in emergency repairs every year. She went on to say that she had read an article about the Tres Pinos Water District being absent one board member and how the supervisors appointed Mike Howard as the new member.

“I don’t understand why the board stepped in when one member is missing from a board and wouldn’t step in when members of the Pacheco board are completely missing,” she said. Then she pointed out that the county’s General Plan specifies that the county “…shall coordinate with other public facilities and service providers to identify and find solutions to key infrastructure and deficiencies in the county.”

She went on to point out that the indemnification agreement was a unilateral agreement that puts all burdens on the landowners. She agreed with others who commented that a water board consisting of landowners would not have the expertise or knowledge to maintain a levee system.

“If that agreement had been signed the county could have gone out and slapped on a 2 by 4 that satisfied their part of the agreement and we would have no recourse,” she asserted. “If the board cannot assist with getting the Pacheco Storm Water District active again, can it assist with combining Pacheco Water District and Pacheco Storm Water District or help get San Benito County Water District to assume it?”

She advised the board to live up to the General Plan and help by spending money now instead of having to do so every year.

“We are running out of time,” she cautioned. “The rains are coming. I heard (from O’Neill’s earlier report) that it will only take a two foot rise and we’re in trouble.”

Supervisor Robert Rivas, who at the previous meeting voted against repairing the levees until staff devised the indemnification agreement and approached landowners to sign it, said since then he had received a number of calls about his decision. He said he had been vilified on social media and accused of being corrupt, and said he was told to go back to where he came from, and then deadpanned that would be San Juan Bautista.

He went on to say the reason for another meeting was because after learning about the complexities of obtaining access to levees and creek beds he wanted to be cautious in moving forward in allocating money and protecting the county from liability.

“What happens if we assume liability and we get sued and we don’t have that money,” he asked. “I agree that this is something that needs to be handled soon. Obviously, I am a believer in climate change and over the weekend I read a periodical that basically said experts have warned for decades that global warming would increase weather extremes we are witnessing, and people would die or suffer if protective measures were not taken.”

Rivas said he worried about the role of government and the effectiveness of its response. He said everyone depends on government to prepare for emergencies and show leadership in the aftermath of disasters.

“What the statement told me was there’s no question that myself, and this board, let all of you property owners down,” he confessed. “We were not prepared for the rains. There’s no question the rains are going to happen again and we’re going to be stuck with possibly a worse situation.”

For this reason, Rivas said he met with Supervisor Mark Medina, whose district includes the Lovers Lane area, and admitted that he wouldn’t have signed the indemnification agreement. He said a quick resolution was needed and recommended a town hall meeting with residents in the affected area in order to hopefully come to an agreement.

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer agreed that an ad hoc committee should meet with residents in order to work out some kind of agreement. Board Chairman Jaime De La Cruz appointed Supervisors Rivas and Medina to the committee. Medina said people need their help and the county’s solution was to send out a letter with verbiage so vague that even Hooper-Mancino, who is the county district attorney, had problems with. He said he had to talk to Thompson to figure out what it said.

“I don’t want to complain,” he said. “I want to be a change agent and fix what is wrong out there.”

He said he and Rivas will host a town hall meeting Monday Oct. 9, from 7 pm to 9 pm at the county administration building.

“We need to fix the levee and reactivate the water district,” he continued. “We need help on how to do all of this, how to clean the river periodically and not wait 10 years. We need experts with this to tell us what to do on an annual basis, and on what permits we need to go down in there to clean it out.”

He wondered if a fix was determined by the next regular meeting on Oct. 10, how long it would take to actually do something because if it stretches into November or December, it will be too late. He hoped that the other board members would make a decision Oct. 10 to fix the levee.

When De La Cruz asked if there would be a need to schedule a special meeting, Medina challenged him,  “I want to be clear, we need to make a decision on Oct. 10. Is that understood? We need to commit to something. We’re paid to be up here to do a job.”

De La Cruz answered, “I hear you loud and clear.”

Ray Espinosa, county administrative officer, interjected that if the ad hoc committee meets with the residents on Oct. 9, there can be a scheduled agenda item on the Oct. 10 meeting, and the board could make a decision on how to move forward at that time. De La Cruz said after the board received information back from the ad hoc committee it would be able to either move forward—or not.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]