CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

No, Jefferson. Let it go …

Our evil elf of a U.S attorney general is whining about pot again, this time in a letter asking Congress not to renew the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment.

The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which became law in December of 2014, prohibits the Department of Justice from spending any federal funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws. It must be renewed each year—and Sessions is requesting it not be renewed this time around.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives,” Sessions wrote in the letter, first made public by Tom Angell of MassRoots.com.

This comes at a time when an overwhelming majority of Americans (including 65 percent of police officers!) are in favor of some form of legalization, and more and more states are starting to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

One of the law’s namesakes expressed annoyance with Sessions’ letter.

“Mr. Sessions stands athwart an overwhelming majority of Americans and even, sadly, against veterans and other suffering Americans who we now know conclusively are helped dramatically by medical marijuana.” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican who represents parts of Orange County, in a statement to the Washington Post.

Opioids are at the center of the worst drug epidemic facing Americans today—while marijuana is decidedly not. However, to Sessions, there is virtually no difference between opioids and marijuana, considering he recently described pot as just “slightly less awful” than heroin. Of course, the American Journal of Public Health published a study in September 2016 citing evidence that opioid use is lower in states with legal medical marijuana, but what do they know with their “statistics?” Pesky facts …

The DOJ actually challenged the amendment under President Obama, but it was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This ruling leaves it up to Congress to decide whether to remove Rohrabacher-Farr from the yearly appropriations bill—but the amendment has received strong bipartisan support ever since it became law. Conventional wisdom dictates that Congress would be reluctant to go against the clear will of the people, but how often does conventional wisdom come into play in Washington, D.C., these days?

California is having none of this nonsense, and is making moves to become the first sanctuary state for cannabis. In anticipation of a legal showdown with Sessions’ DOJ, the State Assembly passed AB 1578 on June 1; the bill would prohibit state and local law enforcement from helping the feds enforce federal prohibitions against those adhering to California state law. The bill by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, passed in a close 41-33 vote.

The measure faces stiff opposition by law enforcement and Republicans, for reasons ranging from interference in federal and local interagency cooperation regarding other crimes, to claims that it violates federal law.

“The hubris of California Democrats believing they can flout federal law on immigration and drug policy is beyond words,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) during the floor debate.

Jones-Sawyer’s retort: “AB 1578 ensures that our limited local and state resources are not spent on federal marijuana enforcement against individuals and entities that are in compliance with our laws.”

Rep. Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), a co-author of the bill, said: “People who are compliant with California law and operate within the legal cannabis market should not have to fear that a state or local agency will participate in efforts to punish or incarcerate them for activity that the state and its voters have deemed legal,” according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The Tenth Amendment Center, a constitutional-law and states’ rights advocacy group, claims there is solid legal standing for the measure. “Provisions withdrawing state and local enforcement of federal law in AB 1578 rest on a well-established legal principle known as the anti-commandeering doctrine. Simply put, the federal government cannot force states to help implement or enforce any federal act or program,” founder Michael Boldin said in a post on the group’s website.

Jones-Sawyer said the bill could be edited to make it clear that cooperation in moving against illegal operations according to state law could continue. A Newsweek report estimated that 1,400 dispensaries are operating illegally in Los Angeles alone, and Jones-Sawyer would like those businesses shuttered, while protecting those adhering to local and state law.

The bill faces an uncertain future as it moves to the State Senate.


MEANWHILE, HERE IN THE VALLEY…

The City Council of Cathedral City recently passed a moratorium on new dispensaries south of Interstate 10.

The city of 53,000 has 10 licensed dispensaries operating, with another opening soon—that’s around 4,800 residents per dispensary. By comparison, Palm Springs has six dispensaries servicing 44,552 residents (or 7,452 residents per dispensary). The move is designed to help ensure the continued success of existing dispensaries in what is a comparatively saturated market.

Cathedral City dispensaries may also see fewer customers in the future, as Palm Desert and Coachella are slowly moving toward allowing retail cannabis businesses.

The measure passed 3-2, with Greg Pettis and Shelley Kaplan opposing.

Published in Cannabis in the CV

Cathedral City has faced some tough times in recent years.

Developers have broken promises. Redevelopment in the downtown area, along Highway 111, has seen ups and downs.

These are just a couple of the issues Cathedral City’s City Council is dealing with as the November election approaches. Mayor Stan Henry is running unopposed for his seat, while two City Council slots are up for grabs. Incumbents Gregory Pettis and John Aguilar are both running for re-election, and are being opposed by Sergio Espericueta, a member of the city’s Planning Commission.

The Independent recently reached out to all four candidates. Espericueta (right), however, did not respond to a request for an interview.

“We have a couple of challenges, one of which is to maintain our balanced budgets,” Mayor Henry told the Independent. “We’re doing a very good job. We actually have two-thirds of our budget in reserves, which is one of the goals the current council wanted to have. The other issue is development in our downtown and northern area, and we’re currently working on both of those things. We’re in the process of working on development agreements with developers to work on our downtown area. We have a developer that’s building a hotel and retail north of Interstate 10, at Bob Hope Drive and Varner Road, so both of those are good things that will help with our ability to keep the budgets in a balanced position.”

Henry cited economic development as a challenge the city faces.

“We definitely need to do more, and that’s one of the reasons we need to make it a high priority, and I’ve made it a high priority,” Henry said. “We’ve hired an economic director to make sure that we get the right type of development in Cathedral City. We don’t want a developer to come in, make all kinds of promises, land-bank it and not do anything. We’ve had that in the past. We’re making sure in our development agreements that we know it’s going to take time to do the development, but we want to see time frames and milestones … or we get the land back, or keep possession of the land.”

Henry said he believes the downtown area is on its way toward success.

“I think the downtown area needs some multi-housing,” he said. “It’s going to be a great area for entertainment and restaurants. Are we going to get big boxes there? No, we’re not. But we’ll get great assets for our downtown area and make it very vibrant.”

Henry said his biggest accomplishment during his four years on the City Council—two of those as mayor—has been making sure the city has balanced budgets.

“We almost depleted all of our reserves, and after talking to our finance director, there were projections that we’d be in the red,” he said. “We’ve turned that around and balanced our budgets. We’ve added staffing appropriately where we’ve needed to. Plus, we’ve had developers looking at us now who never have in the past.”

Gregory Pettis (right)—one of the valley’s longest-serving public officials—has been serving on Cathedral City’s City Council since 1994.

“I think our downtown area continues to be a challenge, coming out of the relinquishment of a development agency and trying to find ways to partner with developers to make it financially viable for them,” Pettis said. “We’re beginning to see things coming together.”

He said the city is seeing an improvement in the number of vacant storefronts.

“We have very little vacancy in the city,” he said. “We have a couple of large big boxes that are vacant … but our smaller centers are still full, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find (space), so we’re actually going to have to start to build some more smaller commercial centers. It’s the larger centers we’re having some issues with. It’s educating (large retailers) about the city, and that they don’t have to be in Palm Desert or Palm Springs.”

Pettis feels his greatest accomplishments during 22 years on the City Council have been bringing in new businesses, and annexing new land into the city.

“I can point to Big League Dreams and bringing them in,” he said, listing some accomplishments. “The annexation of (areas) north of I-10, and now we’re getting ready to annex Thousand Palms, which will take us all the way to Washington Street north of I-10, which will open us up for numerous development opportunities for the city. The building of the two movie theaters at the civic center. Those are all great things that have happened for our city.”

Pettis said that while Cathedral City enjoys low crime rates, there’s more work to be done.

“We continue to see the lowest crime rate in the Coachella Valley,” he said. “It’s a good thing, but … we need to continue to do better, and we need to work hard on prevention so that our young people have opportunities and don’t slip into something their older brothers and sisters fell into. … We’re fully staffed in our police department, but we want to add some additional officers and increase the amount and quality of their training. We’re also going with body cameras to increase accountability.”

John Aguilar (right) is running for his first full term; he was appointed to the City Council two years ago when Stan Henry became mayor. He expressed more serious concerns about Cathedral City’s economic challenges, and mentioned mistakes made by previous councils.

“There was a blend of factors that have created vacant land that has gone undeveloped, and I think prior administrations didn’t take advantage of development offers to the city; I think they decided to wait for something better,” Aguilar said. “I think that’s a missed opportunity. I also think the recession hit when redevelopment began, and caused it to dissolve. That was a huge hit. But I think the city is recovering, and we have some good proposals that we can’t talk about until the development deals have been vetted.

“We’re seeing reinvestment. The (Coachella Valley Repertory) folks have purchased the old Cinemark facility, which is going to be great and bring live theater downtown. We’ve had a new investor come into the Mary Pickford Theatre, which is great, because that brings people downtown.”

Aguilar said one of his top priorities is to increase diversity.

“One of the reasons I wanted to become more actively involved is because I believe in transparency in local government, and want to increase diversity within the ranks of the city and also within the commissions in the city. Historically, there’s been a lack of representation, especially from the Latino community, on the council and its commissions. I think strengthening our life-safety divisions in police and fire has been a vital factor. We’ve hired a new fire and police chief, and they’re both fantastic.”

Aguilar added that the city has taken proper steps to keep the crime rate down.

“Our crime rate compared to other communities in the Coachella Valley—it’s quite low,” he said. “It still requires that we be very vigilant in monitoring crimes, especially crimes against persons. We promote community-watch organizations; we’ve hired a homeless liaison to try to make sure the homeless problem is handled compassionately, and our local businesses and communities won’t be harmed in the process. I think we’ve done a good job.”

Published in Politics

We’re getting older. We’re getting more Hispanic. And we’re getting a heck of a lot bigger.

Those are the conclusions that can be drawn from a series recently released Coachella Valley growth projections. The state of California earlier this year released statewide figures broken down by county, and the folks at the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) were kind enough to release brand-new Coachella Valley-specific projections to the Independent.

The numbers are striking: SCAG projects that while there were 443,000 people in what the association classifies as the Coachella Valley in 2008, there will be 604,000 of us in 2020—just seven short years away. And in 2035, there will be 884,000 of us.

“When you think of our growth over the years, it’s been slow and steady,” said Cathedral City Councilmember Greg Pettis, who also sits on the boards of SCAG and the Riverside County Transportation Commission. “This is an explosion.”

That explosion will largely take place in the East Valley. While the population of every city in the valley is projected to grow by at least 20 percent, Indio is expected to grow from 73,300 people in 2008 to 111,800 in 2035—a 53 percent expansion.

However, the projected growth in Coachella makes Indio’s growth look quaint: The city of 38,200 people in 2008 is expected to balloon to 70,200 in 2020, and 128,700 in 2035, making it the valley’s largest city. (For what it’s worth, the city of Coachella is updating its general plan, and documents show that city officials there are projecting 155,000 people by 2035.)

But the biggest growth won’t happen in any city at all. The unincorporated areas of the valley are expected to see half of all the population growth between 2008 and 2035: While 87,500 people lived in the Coachella Valley’s unincorporated areas in 2008, a whopping 308,600 people will be in those areas in 2035. A SCAG map shows that much of this expansion in unincorporated areas will take place north of Interstate 10 and in the areas south and west of Coachella.

The projections from SCAG and the state show that as we grow, the Coachella Valley’s percentage of Latinos will rise, while the percentage of “non-Hispanic whites” will fall.

Meanwhile, we’ll get older, too. State figures show that Riverside County will be leading California in terms of growth rate. Expanding the timeframe out a bit, these state figures show that between 2010 and 2060, Riverside County’s population will expand by 92 percent (with the Coachella Valley growing at a higher rate than the rest of the county). However, seniors will see the highest percentage of growth: The number of people age 65 to 74 in Riverside County is expected to grow by 210 percent; the number of people between 75 and 84 by 255 percent; and people 85 and older by a whopping 531 percent.

While projections definitely can be wrong—the Great Recession, for example, blew holes in some earlier projections—it’s clear that our little valley will go through a whole lot of change over the next generation.

Reasons for Optimism

The good news is that local leaders said they’re working to prepare for this “explosion,” and in some ways, we’re ahead of the curve.

For example, when it comes to area’s roadways, we’re doing OK.

“So far, we’ve been able to keep up with growth and traffic,” said Tom Kirk, the executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments. “This time of year, some of our roadways are taxed, because we have so many visitors, but our roads are still far less congested than in Los Angeles and other urban areas. We’ve done a good job of keeping up with that.”

He pointed to the fact that Riverside County voters approved—and renewed—a half-cent sales tax measure that funds transportation projects as one reason the valley’s roadways remain relatively viable, and said that impact fees on new developments have—and will continue to—provide funding for new roads.

Pettis noted that Interstate 10 has seen a steady series of interchange improvements, and that there’s a possibility of more new or expanded interchanges, including ones at Da Vall Drive, Landau Boulevard and Jefferson Street.

Kirk also brought up moves that area governments are making to go beyond vehicle-based transportation. Specifically, he mentioned the proposed Whitewater River Parkway, a bike/pedestrian/“neighborhood electric vehicle” pathway—46 miles, at an estimated $70 million cost—that would connect all of the valley’s cities.

“It’s a big part of our plan to move people from point A to point B,” Kirk said.

Kirk also said he feels that the valley is well-prepared to handle the increase in water needs that will come with a large increase in population, noting that the Coachella Valley Water District and other area agencies have long-term commitments to secure the water supply.

“Also, we tend to use less water in newer developments than older developments,” Kirk said.

The recent Coachella Valley Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, prepared by the Coachella Valley Regional Water Management Group, examines many of the water issues facing the valley, and comes up with a comprehensive plan for our water supply. The plan does ring some warning bells, though, including the fact that our local aquifers are decreasing due to over-pumping, and that projected Colorado River water may not be available due to drought and climate change.

Speaking of comprehensive planning, the city of Coachella is putting the finishing touches on its general plan update. Luis Lopez, the city’s community development director, said the plan is the blueprint for the city’s much-larger future.

I asked him: Is the city of Coachella ready to become the valley’s largest?

“As a small-city government, we need to grow and mature and sophisticate into a large city,” Lopez said.

Lopez added that the city is working hard on transportation matters, to make sure future residents will be able to get around the area. He said city planners are putting an emphasis on making streets more pedestrian-friendly, and improving access to public transit.

Officials are also preparing for new developments, such as La Entrada, a 7,800-home project located south of Interstate 10 and east of Highway 86.

“It’s basically like a new town up there,” he said. “We need to create connectivity with the project.”

Causes for Concern

Of course, with growth comes change. Lopez conceded that as more and more agricultural land is gobbled up by homes and development, his small, agricultural town will cease to be so small and agricultural.

“Currently, we’re more rural, with more open space. As those areas become urbanized, there will be a significant change in character,” Lopez said.

Of course, character is just one of many potential worrisome changes. For one thing, less agricultural land means less agricultural business.

And speaking of business: If the size of the valley doubles, where will all these newcomers work?

Pettis cited employment as a potential problem. He said that if plans and proposals to expand College of the Desert (presuming the college can ever get beyond a recent series of scandals and misdeeds) and the Palm Desert campus of the California State University at San Bernardino could come to fruition, that would be a great start. He also said community leaders need to look at expanding the health-care industry (especially considering the increase in the senior population) and getting “some kind of manufacturing” into the desert.

“It needs to be a focus,” he said.

Speaking of a focus, everyone the Independent spoke to agrees that the valley needs to keep the money train that is tourism on track. Pettis is especially hopeful about a proposed (and long-delayed) resort hotel in downtown Cathedral City that he said could bring 500 to 600 jobs.

However, the valley may not need as many jobs, per se, if there were greater rail connectivity to the rest of Southern California. Housing is cheaper in the Coachella Valley than it is in much of Los Angeles and Orange counties, so more people who have jobs in those metropolitan areas could decide to make the commute if the commute were cheaper and easier than it is now.

Both Pettis and Kirk talked up the importance of twice-a-day, seven-day-a-week rail service to Riverside, Orange County and Los Angeles; currently, Amtrak offers only three days of service between Palm Springs and Los Angeles—and the train arrives in North Palm Springs at the ungodly time of 12:36 a.m.

“We have a lot of people traveling (from the Coachella Valley) to Riverside or Moreno Valley every day,” Pettis said. “Well, they’re stuck on the freeways now.”

Finally, Kirk said that the concern that figuratively keeps him up at night is a problem that neither he nor other local leaders can control.

“I do believe for those of us who live in and love the state of California, there’s much that worries me. There are systematic, big picture concerns” when it comes to state government, especially when it comes to funding education and infrastructure, he said.

The Great Unknowns

One of the more interesting aspects of the projected growth involves the fact that so much of it is expected to happen in unincorporated areas. As mentioned above, as of 2008, 87,500 people—or not quite 20 percent of the 443,000 people that lived within the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ jurisdiction (which, for some reason, includes the Blythe area)—lived outside of an incorporated area.

In 2035, that number is projected to be 308,600, or 35 percent of the total population of 884,000.

In the past, when a large number of people moved into an unincorporated area, the residents would often band together to incorporate and create a new town or city, or an adjacent city would annex the area. However, “the game is different today,” Kirk said, considering that governments at all levels—and especially at the state and county levels—are navigating through financial problems.

“I think it’d be a struggle for a new city to be formed, and a very big challenge for older cities to expand,” Kirk said. “That means the challenge is going to fall upon the county’s shoulders to service these populations.”

That’s not to say that the area’s cities don’t have expansion plans—for example, Coachella is planning some annexation of land involving the La Entrada development, Lopez said, and Pettis noted that Cathedral City has designs on the Thousand Palms area. Still, it’s safe to say that many of the largest-growing areas in the valley will wind up unincorporated.

The biggest concern that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has about this extra burden is finding qualified law-enforcement officials to handle it all—especially if growth comes quickly.

“Deputy sheriffs and correctional deputies are required to meet strict requirements to ensure they can handle the demands of a career in law enforcement. The hiring process for a new deputy sheriff can take between eight and 12 months, with another year of training. The skill level and experience takes even longer to achieve, so you need to consider the lead time necessary to reach the intended goal,” wrote Riverside County Chief Deputy Rodney Vigue, in response to an emailed list of questions from the Independent.

These requirements, when combined with the projected growth explosion, have Vigue concerned.

“Less than 1 percent of the candidates who apply for a deputy sheriff position are hired, and all the agencies in the Coachella Valley and throughout the state are competing against each other for the same candidates,” Vigue wrote.

Vigue, like Kirk, expressed concerns about the state’s financial picture.

“The unforeseen impacts the state may have on existing funding sources and any future cuts have the potential to force local communities to evaluate budget priorities,” Vigue wrote. “For example, the recent influx of state prisoners into the county correctional facilities and into our communities, as a result of the state corrections realignment, has strained local obligations. This impact is not only being felt from a county perspective, jail-overcrowding and a rise in crime, but also from each city that is trying to make the community safer. The shift from state responsibility to the county has strained an already overburdened correctional system, which will take years of planning and funding to overcome.”

So, in other words, as the Coachella Valley gets older, more Hispanic and a heck of a lot bigger, don’t expect everything to be smooth sailing.

“The department will need to look toward innovative programs, technology and volunteers to assist with controlling crime and maintaining the quality of life we currently enjoy in the Coachella Valley,” Vigue wrote.

Published in Local Issues