The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors heard from multiple property owners Tuesday during the first day of the public hearing to adopt the county’s General Plan update and certify its Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The county’s General Plan is a long-term blueprint reflecting the community’s vision for growth over the next 20 years. That’s supposed to be accomplished by setting policies that comply with state requirements and balance public and private interests as they pertain to the nine elements of the plan, which are land use, housing, circulation, resource production, conservation, noise, safety, open space and environmental justice.
The Planning Commission adopted the update last month, and passed it on to county supervisors for a final review.
Supervisors made it through the introduction, the land-use element and part of the circulation element before finishing up on Tuesday.
During discussion of the introduction section, the use of the word “shall” versus “may” in various parts of the plan divided supervisors and community members. Many residents were concerned that “shall” was too restrictive. By contrast, using “may” would be too vague and nonbinding, others argued.
Landholders and large developers spoke up in public comment on the land-use element, which lays out the basic framework for where development is expected to occur and how the county can support that. Many protested the update’s new land-use designations on their properties that they felt would bar or significantly delay their plans for development. More generally, residents expressed concerns that the land use element’s goals to promote “clustered” housing would detract from the county’s rural character.
A wide swath of land in the 1996 General Plan was designated “future single family residential,” which gave a “false impression” that housing development was appropriate anywhere in the county, Planning Director Peter Maurer told supervisors at the meeting. The update’s recommended change to encourage infill development – developing vacant or under-used parcels in areas that have already been developed – is based on the county’s lack of capacity to provide public services and infrastructure to more dispersed populations.
“The focus on land use and where this differs the most from the prior plan is we are trying to direct the growth toward our existing communities … to provide housing and employment opportunities within those communities, rather than the more dispersed populations that resulted from the prior plan,” Maurer said. Because providing services and infrastructure to more spread-out populations is extremely costly, a lot of the area that was previously designated as future single family residential is now designated as working land or resource production – land preserved primarily for agricultural or timber uses. That was because they were deemed unsuitable for residential housing developments.
“We’re trying to focus our growth where we can accommodate that. I think that’s probably one of the most fundamental issues and one of the most controversial issues associated with this plan,” Maurer said.
There is still plenty of land available for development, and many undeveloped parcels that exist to accommodate various housing types throughout the county, Maurer said.
On the second day, supervisors also supported an additional policy Maurer crafted in response to concerns with fire access discussed in the circulation element, which focuses on the county’s transportation system. The policy requires new discretionary development to provide two points of access unless the local fire district and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) find that the one point of access meets minimum ingress and egress requirements.
The conversion of land use designations to resource production drew the concern of multiple landholders, one of which included Robert Brunker of Brunker Land and Cattle. That surfaced during the land use element discussions, and again in the resource production element discussion.
“I feel like my rights have been taken away from me in this situation,” Brunker told supervisors.
The proposed plan issues a directive to “establish mitigation measures” for land designated as resource production.
Those measures include acquisition of a conservation easement, purchase of banked mitigation credits for use by a land bank operating in Calaveras County for use within the county and payment into a fund to restore, enhance and improve resource production-designated land.
Copper Valley Developer Tom Hicks was concerned with the vagueness of these measures, citing that the cost of obtaining a conservation easement was not explicitly stated, for example.
District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper said he was torn between balancing environmental protections and private property rights by changing land use designations without the consent or approval of landholders.
District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi emphasized that the conversions to resource production are necessary to preserve the agricultural lands and open space that draw visitors and new residents to the county. By contrast, favoring large housing development projects across the county could transform the landscape of the county and have economic impacts down the road, he said.
“There has to be a balance,” Garamendi said. “We can’t have a house under every tree. By setting aside conservation easements, by doing mitigation, it gives us a vehicle to preserve those things that make us special.”
Mitigation is not expensive when put into context of what a multi-million dollar project costs, most of which is passed onto a consumer when they buy their home, he added.
District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills was concerned that the county hadn’t yet determined where the prime agricultural lands are located. He suggested that a “local importance” ordinance should be in place to define what areas of the county should be resource production.
Supervisors announced multiple times throughout discussions that the General Plan can be changed up to four times per year.
At noon Wednesday, the board was still discussing revisions to the resource production element.