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Secret Water Deal Alleged in Monterey County

MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) - Environmentalists sued Monterey County this week for a document they say will show it cut a secret deal with a horse racetrack developer and a water business, despite the state's drought.

"This lawsuit is about transparency and fairness in matters of water," Susan Goldbeck, attorney for Helping Our Peninsula's Environment (HOPE), told Courthouse News.

The March 28 complaint in Superior Court claims Monterey County entered into a secret agreement with Monterey Downs, a racetrack and residential developer, and California American Water, or Cal Am, which provides water and wastewater to several California communities, including the Monterey peninsula.

Monterey Downs is a proposed development that would include a thoroughbred racetrack, a horse training facility, a pedestrian-only retail village, 1,280 house and condo units and open space.

The large development is to be built on part of the old Fort Ord Army Base, which was closed in 1994.

The Fort Ord Reuse Authority, established immediately after the base closed, has been distributing parts of the nearly 27,000 acres to various public jurisdictions while retaining nearly two-thirds of the area for open space and recreation.

Monterey Downs has submitted its initial Draft Environmental Impact Report and the agencies involved could complete a final report in coming weeks, according to Seaside planner Teri Wissler Adam.

The project is controversial, Goldbeck said, particularly because there is not enough water in the Monterey Peninsula for the water it would require.

Enter Cal Am, a private business with a proposal project of its own: the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project. It calls for construction of several slant wells to draw water from the Carmel River, and construction of a desalinization plant for ocean water.

HOPE's lawsuit claims that Monterey County Supervisor David Potter and County Counsel Charles McKee entered into secret negotiations with Monterey Downs and Cal Am, to hammer out a deal to supply water to the proposed project.

"These negotiations culminated in a fully executed Memorandum of Understanding," the complaint states.

Goldbeck said the negotiations and the terms of the deal cannot be kept secret. She said the California Public Records Act requires that the memo of understanding be disclosed.

"I have it on good authority such a document exists," Goldbeck said. "I am absolutely confident."

HOPE filed a public records request in December, but county said it could not find such a document, Goldbeck said.

"They haven't denied the MOU wasn't done, they just said they couldn't find it," Goldbeck said. She called it a violation of the officials' duties.

"It was underhanded, sneaky and not in the public interest," she said.

Monterey County Counsel Charles McKee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Goldbeck's office is in Pacific Grove.

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