Popular Tulloch event target of lawsuit

Calaveras County is looking to quiet Lake Tulloch Resort’s oft-debated Bump parties in court, seeking a permanent injunction against events the county describes as a “public nuisance.”

The Sept. 4 lawsuit centers on whether Bump parties, which routinely draw between 1,500 and 3,000 attendees, qualify as a legal land use under the resort’s decades-old administrative use permit.

Resort owner Bernadette Cattaneo believes they do. Despite a handful of written warnings, Cattaneo has no plans to apply for a separate county permit she feels she doesn’t need.

“I don’t think their ordinances are broad enough to cover what we do here,” Cattaneo said. “I’ve spoken with four other counties that border us, none of them have something that would fall into our (conditional use permit) category and all of them say ‘You’re grandfathered-in under your old permit.’”

The county, citing multiple Bump-related noise and traffic complaints, disagrees. County Counsel Janis Elliott declined to comment directly on ongoing litigation, though she was able to address the broader topic of code enforcement policy in an email last month.

“The county’s code compliance policy is that as long as the landowner is seeking the entitlements necessary to legalize all uses on the property, there will be no administrative code compliance action or legal action,” she wrote.

“If a landowner chooses not to file an application for entitlements after being put on notice … The county can either pursue administrative code compliance, which results in fines and penalties, or can go to court to resolve the issue if fines and penalties are not likely to stop the illegal use.”

Elliott went on to write the county “only investigates written complaints turned into the (Code Compliance) department.” Those complaints are not made available to the public, leading Cattaneo to question when or whether complaints referenced in the lawsuit were put on file with the county.

Code Compliance Officer Todd Barr declined to comment except to confirm the existence of complaints on file against both Bump parties and Mountain Ranch’s unpermitted Wood Whomp festival.

He said those complaints had not yet been referred to his office, adding only that he was not aware of any written complaints received regarding unpermitted land uses at Ironstone Vineyards.

Cattaneo’s wariness over applying for a conditional use permit (CUP) is backgrounded not just by suspicion of those written complaints but by the recently proposed retooling of the permitting process itself.

The recent effort to streamline a bulky special events approval process has heightened scrutiny of county compliance policy, thanks in large part to a conditional use permit that has eluded not just Cattaneo’s Bump parties, but the Kautz family’s Ironstone Vineyards concert series and Stewart Alberts’ Wood Whomp.

Only the latter organizer has faced administrative fines, a fact that’s left Cattaneo feeling singled-out.

“I’m very disappointed that my business is being targeted,” Cattaneo said last week. “The county cutting us off from doing (Bump events) is going to effectively shut us down.”

“The problem with an application for CUP is there is no guarantee you’ll get it,” she added. “Their application fee is $4,764, just to turn it in.

Intended as a means of vetting those events with more than 1,000 expected attendees, the CUP application process involves a rigorous public hearing and environmental review, one Planning Director Rebecca Willis admits can take months and cost applicants upwards of $10,000.

That includes permit hopeful Ironstone Vineyards, who paid $11,402 for a CUP and two planning amendments applied for in April. Willis hopes to have Ironstone’s application wrapped-up this spring. She reports while the county has yet to receive a written complaint on the application, agency comments on the Ironstone permit have run the gamut from Air Pollution Control’s concerns over dust mitigation and “exposed serpentine gravel” to City of Angels’ alarm over traffic impacts at two Highway 4 intersections and along Murphys Grade Road.

“We are trying to accommodate everybody, trying to be business friendly,” Willis said Wednesday. “But I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all process. Some events are more of a public health and safety issue than others and when you’re talking about the spillover they see (at Tulloch), that’s a safety concern.”

Lake Tulloch Resort has, like Ironstone Vineyards, entered into law enforcement contracts reimbursing the county for per-hour costs associated with pulling deputies from patrol to backstop special events.

Cattaneo’s contract, for two deputies per every 250 attendees, comes in well above the cost of an older agreement signed between the Sheriff’s Office and the Kautz family.

“The bill for the last bump was $9,500 to the county as per my contract with (the Sheriff’s Office)” she explained.

That’s some $8,000 more than what Ironstone owner Steve Kautz quoted as enforcement costs at his last event, a markup that Cattaneo sees as but one many policy gaps in the county’s approach to CUP-sized events.

As of 2007, Ironstone’s contract stipulated they must reimburse the Sheriff’s Office for one deputy per 1,500 people.

“I’m very passionate about government taking advantage,” she said. “The other thing is, I’m not selling tickets, I don’t get a dime for tickets sold, all I do is provide food, alcohol and rooms and I allow people to sell the tickets. So I’m really starting to feel (the county) doesn’t like me.”

“We used to be somewhat consistent about charging for one deputy per 1,000 people,” Capt. Jim Macedo countered last week. “But we’ve learned from experience that you need to have flexibility in staffing, because some events require more attention than others.

For Macedo, contract consistency “has always been a goal,” but one that necessarily takes a backseat to public safety. “We’re just trying to avoid subsidizing events where we’re not being reimbursed. We have contracts, with Hogan, with (East Bay Municipal Utility District), those ones you sometimes don’t have to staff at all, so you just need flexibility.”

Longtime District 4 Supervisor Tom Tryon agreed. He said it has always been the county’s intent to take an even-handed approach to permit policy.

“They’re being handled concurrently,” Tryon said of the county’s approach to Wood Whomp and Tulloch. “Ironstone is different, they’re getting their permits. But we’re looking at Wood Whomp the same way as (Lake Tulloch Resort). It’s just tougher to find someone in charge of (Wood Whomp). So no, we’re not just targeting one over the other.”

Contact James DeHaven at james@calaverasenterprise.com.