Board Notes 031610
The Sierra County Board of Supervisors met in continued regular session on March 16, 2010 in Loyalton.
The hall was jammed with over 35 people. For a county where five cowboys in close conversation take a quarter acre, that’s jammed.
There were other items on the agenda, but most people were there to discuss the high water line ordinance.
For those not familiar with the story, it goes like this:
Back in the 1970s, when the ordinances were being put together, there was no definition of "high water line" just as there was no definition of "sky" or "pink"; everyone knew what a high water mark was, it was where the plastic bags and missing miners ended up after the rivers settled in spring. It varied a little year to year, and rivers and streams roll about in their beds, but in general the high water mark is the lower extent of vegetation, and the upper extent of the sand or gravel bar.
Come 2004 and a couple of planning department workers jump ship and decide to set up a watch dog agency to oversee the planning department, a group that eventually emerged in a new skin: High Sierra Rural Alliance. To the director of HSRA, nothing is simple, particularly when a good living can be made from jigging the system. The "high water line" became the "100 year flood plain."
Further, said person or persons discovered the California Environmental Quality Act. The act, which was intended to alert local planning folk to the realities of development and the environment, leaves a great deal of discretion to local government, and as a natural result, is a useful lawsuit tool for those who like to keep things from happening.
Sierra County has just over 3000 people; as noted, about ¼ square mile per person. All the development in the last twenty years wouldn’t have the impact of a single housing subdivision at Lake Tahoe, or anywhere.
High Sierra Rural Alliance is assumed to be an "environmental" organization, and claims to support the rural lifestyle. Their continued nit picking attacks on local people and local government have strained a claim to either environmentalism or support for rural people. At one time HSRA had currency with local moderates and liberals, but that support has eroded.
In this instance, HSRA is essentially claiming two things: the term "high water line" in the subdivision code means the 100 year flood plain; and, the County can’t change the ordinance without a CEQA review.
HSRA used the same argument at the Board meeting as had been made at the Planning Commission meeting. The PC held that the county was merely clarifying the definition of high water line, and there wasn’t a sufficient "change" to warrant a CEQA review. HSRA disagreed, and sent a letter to the County voicing that opposition. The letter, and probably a few pounds of paper, were dumped on the County a day before the Planning hearing, and again at the Board meeting, even though HSRA has known about the hearing for months. For an environmental group, they kill a lot of trees for their "evidence". Document dumping is a stalling strategy, and in the view of this newspaper clearly indicates that HSRA is confrontational, rather than facilitating change in the county.
This posture on the part of HSRA has been well met in the community. Local residents have been galvanized to action, forming in response a group which eventually lead to a chapter of a national property rights group, Coalition for Property Rights. Even community members who have not joined that group have expressed dissatisfaction with HSRA’s impact on the community. People with experience in non-profits have come forward with an offer to examine HSRA in the same detail they have used on Sierra County planning decisions, to see if their non-profit status is appropriate under the law.
The hearing at the Board meeting held no surprises. Director of Planning Tim Beals presented the situation to the board: there was no change of ordinance, as was clear from the record, so no CEQA Environmental Impact Statement was necessary. The subdivision code is not the appropriate place to find a generalized definition of "high water line". A court decision from the 1800s identified "high water mark" not for the purposes of planning decisions, but for the government to acknowledge what little kids playing in the creek know: where the high water line is.
Beals acknowledge that the county codes have weaknesses which could be exploited by the unprincipled, but we’re a small county and can’t afford the kind of changes to code a larger county like those in the south undertake. The law is functional, and the planning staff endeavor to meet the intention of the legislators. The law provides for local control through the planning commission and the board of supervisors, the county is simply trying to use that system.
Brandon Pangman, also of the Planning Department, told the room how the unique terrain of the county makes things like "stream setback" difficult, and how using the 100 year flood plain as a high water mark would put many of Sierra County’s communities in grave difficulty, because many of them are in real or FEMA imagined flood plains.
The public took the stand, with a variety of speakers, all of whom encouraged the board to pass the ordinance and let the chips fall where they may.
Robert Eshleman, local timber owner, founding member of the local property rights group, and dedicated foe to inappropriate land use regulation tried to bring reason to the discussion by citing real local flood conditions, and encouraged the Board to grow some studs and deny HSRA the chance to bog down land use in the county, not his words, but his sentiment.
Milt Holstrom, also a leader in the local property rights group, spoke in favor of accepting the definition.
Tom Dotta took the floor and eloquently explained that HSRA constitutes a special interest group, one that does not represent the community. He encouraged the board to act as for the community as a whole, not for a special interest group. He said he wants projects to move forward without rip offs and delays.
Marjean Marciniac took the floor and encouraged the board to act for the community and accept the definition. Her father, a geologist for decades, was present and empowered her to assure the board they had the right definition of "high water line". She assured the board she was environmentally sensitive and mentioned she and her husband met in the Sierra Club.
Ms. Hudson spoke in favor of accepting the definition. She and her husband Larry got a building permit to remove a derelict house trailer and build a modern home over HSRA objections (the Hudson’s case brought the community together to call foul on High Sierra). She told the board, "you’ve got a lot of support."
Heather Kenny, attorney from The Big City, was there confirming that the county also runs the possibility of law suit if they don’t stop caving to HSRA over the stream setback and other issues. In her signature long black coat (we look forward to seeing her summer attire), Ms. Kenny seemed ready to snatch leather and file papers. No one seemed to think she was bluffing.
Paul Marciniac took the stand to announce that he was a "metrologist," someone who studies measurement. He assured the board it isn’t hard to understand "high water mark".
Bill Bate, founding member and motivator for the local property rights group, spoke, on the record, in favor of the definition. He also referenced two recent ordinances that needed the definition of high water mark.
High Sierra: while having sent a letter (here), no one from the group spoke. One can hardly blame them, though no one has been lynched in Sierra County for years. Several years.
While not present, the group can hardly be unaware of community sentiment; they show no sign they understand.
County Council Jim Curtis took the floor and in perfect lawyer style spoke quite a long time to come down to this: there is good reason to believe the county is within the law; that the legislature intended for the system to work like this; the reality is the county can’t afford what it would cost to completely update the codes but continues to follow the law; and anybody can sue anybody over anything, if they’re nuts or mean enough. Not exactly his words.
Director Beals made his wrap, the board voted to accept the definition, and everyone was pleased.
It seems the crowd was saying this to the group: the community can no longer afford to have you here. It isn’t clear at this point who HSRA purports to represent, but it doesn’t seem to be anyone in Sierra county. The group has set itself up as an un-elected, un-appointed body to oversee the Board of Supervisors, who are the elected representatives of the people of the county. As County Council Jim Curtis maintained, the group has a constitutional and statutory right to question the Board and planning department. Still, at some point the group has to answer to the public.
At some point, they have to acknowledge the negative impact their recent actions have had on the county, must accept that they are on a wrong course. It remains to be seen if they can convince a judge; they did not convince anyone at the hearing.
Further, it doesn’t matter, even if they are right, they are wrong. Far from bringing any improvement to the law, their odd and constrictive interpretation of the events and regulations can only bring unreasonable constraints on the normal use of property and homes in the county. The legislature never intended that when they passed the California Environmental Quality Act. Not everyone who calls themselves an environmentalist is one; not every action called "environmental" helps the environment.
The Board accepted the definition of "high water line/high water mark" and created the necessary paperwork to make it the law of the county. It doesn’t represent a change of regulation, but merely the formalization of what was once commonly known: what a high water line is. It remains to be seen if HSRA files suit against the county.
During the break several people voiced their support for a response to HSRA, should they decide to sue the county. Money was pledged and suggestions were made for approaches to High Sierra’s funders.
This reporter was able to solicit some positive remarks about some of the group’s board members, but none for their recent actions.
After the hearing the board did several things, this reporter took pages of notes, but it all comes down to this:
They divided some government money on some community projects.
They appointed several individuals to unpaid, thankless, but very important seats, like Premo and Butler to Calpine Water, Buczkowske to the Cemetery district #2; and Barbara Weaver to the Drug and Alcohol Advisory Board;
Bitched about the Forest Service and described how relations were as deteriorated as the old dilapidated houses the FS left behind the courthouse;
Decided that the road workers have their own bargaining unit;
Heard how the auditor is strapped and needs more help;
Heard how the sheriff is understaffed and needs some positions;
Heard how the assessor is spread too thin and needs some staff;
Discussed how the positions needed were to bring money into the county;
Talked and talked and talked and talked and argued with Director of Damned if You Do and Damned if You Don’t Tim Beals, and guessed and foresaw and sent for a live chicken and dusted off the County Ouija Board, and finally resolved to talk about it at a later time.