General Plan Coordinator Brenda Gillarde calls Calaveras County planners’ most recent sketch of area forest, wildlife and population centers an early “milestone” in the latest push to update a decades-old county land-use map.

What’s more important, at least for Gillarde, is that this milestone marks all the right spots.

“There were comments made that there were things in a previous report that were not correct,” she explains, characterizing last month’s release of a novel-thick general-plan “setting section” as a first step toward overhauling that flawed 2007 draft of a “baseline” county zoning and development map.

Gillarde said the earlier effort, hamstrung by inaccurate maps and, too often, an unresponsive planning department, petered-out before the county could even develop a description of land-use conditions on the ground.

Gillarde said this time around county planning staff and recent board-approved consultants from Sacramento-based Raney Planning and Management will be all ears when it comes to stakeholder comments.

That’s the only way, she said, to move the needle on what’s become a years-long slog toward a completed general plan update.

“What this represents is an update that takes into account concerns expressed on that (2007) baseline report,” she added. “We hope that we’ve caught everything; we’ve certainly given it our best effort.”

The latest general plan update comes only weeks after county planning commissioners rebuffed Castle and Cooke Calaveras’ long-planned 800-home Sawmill Lake development in Copperopolis.

Commissioners chalked-up that snub to questions surrounding Sawmill’s fit within a legally porous 1986 general plan, though the development was also dogged by concerns over a lack of adequate water infrastructure, fears Gillarde predicts could continue to plague future development.

“We know water supply availability in parts of the county is being tapped down so far it’s unsustainable,” she said. “So you’ve got dry spots where you keep drilling new and deeper wells and eventually it taps out.”

“When you allow mass dispersed development to occur at the five-acre level, you don’t have enough population density to support an infrastructure system,” Gillarde added.

“Same thing goes for the roads: You don’t have enough of a population base to develop adequate fees to maintain roads, so you’ve got all these country roads that are substandard but you can’t generate enough revenue to fix them. … In certain parts of the county we’re already seeing these repercussions.”

Unlike those who worked on earlier brush-ups of the county land use map, today’s general plan coordinator feels she can more or less count on support from area environmental groups.

Representatives from the Calaveras Planning Coalition, a loose collective of environmental and community nonprofits, have, Gillarde said, mostly lined-up behind her team.

That’s thanks in large part to the philosophy Gillarde and others hope to build around: concentrated development in and around existing communities at a minimal cost to natural resources and agriculture.

“Overall, (Planning Coalition) comments on this new philosophy are that they’re in alignment,” Gillarde concluded. “They may have issues with individual parcels in certain areas, but overall they’re embracing this new direction in terms of having more focused development and leaving biologically sensitive and agricultural viable areas in designations where those uses can continue.”

“This setting section is very well written and our center applauds the amount of valuable information we see,” agreed John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, an environmental advocacy organization.

Buckley said the release, which touches on everything from endangered species to air quality and groundwater contamination, is both thorough and thoroughly unreadable.

“We know it’s not supposed to be a bestseller,” he explained, “but the essence is often buried in very dry wording, and because it’s so dry and so technical, most citizens won’t be able to see where the county wants to improve and update its general objectives.

“We’ll be providing comments on wording suggestions to hopefully promote clarity,” Buckley added.

County planners expect to digest comments from Buckley and nearly 100 others by the end of February. They hope to put those remarks to work on three as-yet-incomplete components of the setting section set to wrap-up sometime in the next few months.

Contact James DeHaven at james@calaverasenterprise.com.

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