Michael DeLapa, Executive Director, LandWatch Monterey County
Laura Davis, Board Member, LandWatch Monterey County

There’s been a lot of buzz recently, and it’s not from honeybees. The buzz has been about sustainability and, more specifically, sustainability in Monterey County’s hospitality industry. But what does “sustainable” actually mean? And how does the hospitality sector—hotels, restaurants, vintners, and other visitor-serving businesses—support sustainable practices?

Sustainability has been defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability and land use are inextricably tied because it is through local land use decisions, ones made by Monterey County and its 12 cities, where present and future needs are weighed.

Instead of short-term profits, long-term benefits are the focus in sustainable land use, with an emphasis on community health and wellbeing. It recognizes the value of preserving natural resources in order to sustain economic growth and ecological balance.

Sustainable land use decisions consider how the layout and organization of a city or county can impact a myriad of factors, such as energy use, live-ability, economic vitality, social equity, and community health. For example, the layout of a city can determine the amount of traffic to be generated, which can impact commute time. Commute time in turn influences the amount of time people have for their families and other activities they care about.

Smarter co-location of housing and jobs is critical to sustainability. Recent examples in Monterey County include the Tanimura & Antle seasonal worker housing at Spreckels Crossing, and the Pebble Beach Company’s inclusionary housing project near Del Monte Park. Both developments reduce traffic by creating housing near job sites. In the case of Tanimura & Antle employee housing, a convenience store integrated into the development reduces the need to travel downtown for small errands. And, when downtown travel does occur, it is significantly more streamlined because of a bus stop on site. These are simple alterations that make an enormous difference—in the lives of the employees who live there, and in the wider efforts toward a more sustainable community. Additionally, as a result of these business practices, both companies have gained well deserved public recognition. If other large employers in the hospitality industry followed the examples of Tanimura & Antle and the Pebble Beach Company to provide workforce housing near their jobs, they would reduce commutes, relieve traffic congestion, and improve the quality of lives for their employees.

Reducing climate change and its impacts is also linked to sustainable land use. Through smarter land use patterns and improved transportation systems, sustainable communities reduce greenhouse gases as well as traffic. Therefore, part of responsible and intelligent land use involves reducing vehicle miles travelled (VMTs)—a measure of greenhouse gas emissions—before approving development projects that exacerbate them. VMTs can be reduced through better public transportation and urban design that is more biking- and walking-friendly. Intersections can be designed so that vehicles are unimpeded by traffic signals, thereby further reducing vehicle emissions because drivers don’t have to stop but merge instead through “roundabouts.” Cities that are designed for public transportation, biking, and walking are more environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable; and they are more desirable places to live and visit.

Monterey County’s hospitality industry is uniquely positioned to support more sustainable land use practices. Not only do these industries directly benefit from sound land use, they also have strong community presence and influence, which give them a significant voice in local politics.

Leadership in sustainable hospitality could take many forms, including support for infill developments, improvements to public transportation, and more walkable and bike-friendly communities. Hotel owners could advocate for smarter land use policies, such as urban growth boundaries, that prevent urban sprawl, protect agricultural land, and maintain the special character of our area. Vintners could support strong prohibitions on developments on steep slopes, conversion of oak woodlands, and protections for wildlife corridors – all important land use policies.

It’s no secret that virtually all of Monterey County groundwater aquifers are unsustainably managed, and have been for decades. In 1946, the California Department of Water Resources identified saltwater intrusion in the Salinas River Basin, and, for the past 70 years, the problem has only worsened. By definition, new agricultural and urban developments that extract more water from an already depleted groundwater basin are unsustainable. And with climate change models predicting hotter and dryer weather and more variable precipitation, old water management practices are bound to make sustainable land use even more challenging and important.

Long-term land and water management are critical to preserving agricultural land, which is especially relevant in Monterey County, whose history and character are defined by agriculture, including the rapidly growing wine industry. The 2011 LandWatch publication Land Use and the General Plan discusses the devastating impact of converting farmland to residential subdivisions. For example, in addition to the loss of farming revenue, public costs increase significantly when land is converted. Furthermore, the urban sprawl that replaces farmland poses a threat to the nearby land that is still being used for agriculture, as conflicts between residential and agricultural uses inevitably arise. This motivates many farmers to abandon farming, which becomes more onerous and costly as conflicts increase, in order to pursue the easy profit of converting their land to residential use.

Strip malls and endless suburbia are not huge tourist draws. Cookie-cutter developments do not serve as examples of enduring beauty. On the other hand, Monterey County’s agricultural tradition, when practiced sustainably, is such an example. That is why John Steinbeck was moved to describe it in his writing, and it is why the descriptions in his books are still moving today. There is nothing transcendent or enduring about the urban sprawl, strip-mall landscape.

Everyone, including hospitality, benefits from smart land use decisions that preserve Monterey County’s unique offering of rich agricultural land, pristine ocean views, vast open spaces, and clean, fresh air. As these become scarcer worldwide, they become more valuable. Even setting aside the numerous other reasons for doing so, from a financial perspective alone, it is imperative that we preserve and protect these assets.

In the minds of both residents and visitors, Monterey County evokes images of Salinas Valley farmlands immortalized by John Steinbeck, of open spaces sprinkled with lupine and poppies, endless azure ocean interrupted by the occasional sailboat or breaching whale, rejuvenating coastal breezes and abundant fresh produce. These are some of the assets that define and differentiate Monterey. Sustainable land use is a crucial part of maintaining them.

Collaboration between the hospitality industry and LandWatch would signal serious support for sustainability. Imagine the impact when visitors to Monterey County have an experience, start to finish, filled with examples of a thriving, sustainable approach. Customers are happy to support sustainability. Taking these steps will allow hospitality businesses in Monterey County to brand themselves as truly sustainable, and to have an impact that is ultimately more profound, lasting and meaningful.