Guest Editorials are the opinion of the authors, and not necessarily the staff or advertisers of Sierra County Prospect.
Used with permission from Don Russell, The Mountain Messenger News
DOWNIEVILLEIf ever it was different, the High Sierra Rural Alliance
has become the neo-cons of the environmental movement: the party of
The group doesn’t like the idea of taking cut-over timber land out of
It doesn’t like replacing a long-standing fire-trap mobile home in
Downieville with a similarly sized stick-built home.
It doesn’t like the expertise of engineers and County planners,
insisting, generally, that property owners spend more money... on
The self-described environmental watchdog group’s objections and
appeal fell of universally unsympathetic ears at the Supervisors’
The first issue involved Irv Christensen’s desire to remove some
recently purchased acreage from a Timber Production Zone (TPZ) which
simply affords tax-protection to timberland. The acreage in question
is within the General Plan’s designated “community core” of Indian
Valley. The process of changing tax status is a 10 year proposition,
and Christensen is unsure of how he may choose to use his land a
decade from now. Its use cannot change for those 10 years.
The High Sierra Rural Alliance believes this is a project, and
subject to environmental review.
“This is a physical change, removing land from timber production.
Timber is very important to this County,” explained Stevee Duber,
HSRA’s project manager.
The quandary, County Counsel pointed out, is that there is nothing
but speculation to be studied. Christensen has the option to keep
growing trees: 10 years from now he may have some project in mind, at
which time an environmental study might be warranted.
After determining that entry into TPZ is voluntary, Supervisor Lee
Adams asked Duber if her objections weren’t counter-productive.
“Aren’t you discouraging people from entering property into TPZ?”
Adams asked. “Aren’t you asking for two [environmental] studies: one
now, and one if and when there’s a proposed project.”
Actually, Ms. Duber explained, she wanted a three stage review.
“As public policy is to encourage TPZ, I would think the necessity of
spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get out would do the
opposite” Adams noted.
Duber disputed the necessity of a full-blown environmental impact
study, suggesting cheaper studies would suffice.
Her arguments again failed to sway the Board.
She had proposed similar arguments when Sierra Pacific Industries
earlier requested the same change in the status of some of its land.
The Board agreed with SPI, High Sierra Rural Alliance sued, and SPI
dropped its request and paid a couple of thousand to HSRA to avoid a
continuance of the fight.
No one will be surprised when and if HSRA sues the County, and thus
the Christensens. It is what the group does.
It is the habit of the HSRA to object to proposed change: to slam
into the legal record all the environmental alphabet soup in the
English language, every environmental law and court case onto the
record. to cram as many objections onto the record as it can find.
It leaves a rich pan for the lawyers they pimp to wash.
The group’s second issue of the day is illustrative. Larry and Pat
Hudson purchased the late Gus Poggi’s property “Gusville” in
Downieville. They proposed to replace the old trailer with a new
structure on virtually the same footprint and received the Planning
High Sierra Rural Alliance appealed the Planning Commission’s
decision, claiming the new house would be in danger of washing down
the Downie River, creating havoc with downstream structures.
The HSRA was evidently unfamiliar with this part of Sierra County:
water never came close to the trailer in at least two “100 year
flood” events: 1964 and 1997.
The group’s requirement soon turned to the need for geotechnic
engineering. By the time the group’s appeal was heard by the Board of
Supervisors, the problem had become the septic system.
An e-mail sent by the group the day before the hearing can only be
described as calumny: breathless threats of a sewage-plagued Downie
River. Years of tests show the water below Downieville as pure as
“I’m stumped by the contents of this appeal,” allowed Planning
Director Tim Beals. “We’re talking about a developed residential lot
in the community core. I find the tactics troubling; some of the
purported information is a mis-characterization of the facts. There
is no septic system issue involved: it is a legal, inspected,
actually improved system. It is not in the flood plain. It’s about
changing out a single family residence that has been there for
decades to a more substantial residence.”
Beals noted that if the group was successful in its appeal, the
trailer would continue to be occupied, the septic system remaining in
Ms. Duber was invited to the microphone and again presented her
group’s demands: a geotechnical report, a study of potential problems
with the septic system, and a California Environmental Quality Act
She was joined by HSRA’s board president, Brenden McCormack. “You
must get all the information you could possibly need,” McCormack
That information, the Board of Supervisors concluded, was already in
County Sanitarian Elizabeth Morgan had already inspected the newly
improved septic system. Any insistence on further study or
improvement was disingenuous, she concluded.
The septic system is common in Downieville; there is no data showing
any threat to the river, Morgan noted. “Mandating [other than
existing] septic systems along the Downie or North Yuba Rivers
without scientific basis is irresponsible. Sweeping conclusions about
the impacts of all septic systems near the river in Downieville could
lead to undesirable precedence,” Morgan wrote the board.
An engineer had already certified the plot buildable.
There seems no evidence the home is in the flood plain.
The law shows the project exempt from California Environmental
Quality Act review in three different sections.
A chorus of witnesses complained of HSRA’s unreasonableness.
“If you push for a 100 foot setback from the 100-year floodplain,
nearly none of Downieville could be replaced: all Main Street
businesses would be gone, most all of Main Street, Pearl Street and
Upper Main could never be replaced,” noted Planner Brandon Pangman.
“Where are the facts?” demanded Robert Eshleman. “As a scientist, I
want more than allegations.”
“This is an over-reaction to what should be a no-brainer. The Hudsons
did a lot of research, exhibited due diligence in talking to the
County before buying. They have invested n Sierra County: we should
be thanking them for replacing a trailer with a home, for improving
all the surrounding property values. This group will chill potential
investors and those who would improve septic systems along the river.”
Even Loyalton’s Tom Dotta was moved to excess. “I’ve had occasion to
disagree with Mr. Beals,” Dotta prefaced in masterful understatement,
“But he’s done great work here. There is no substance to this appeal.”
The Supervisors unanimously agreed.
“A watchdog that barks at threats is a good dog, an asset to the
family,” Bulanti noted later. “But a watchdog that barks
indiscriminately at anything that moves is a nuisance.”
Bulanti was gentle in his criticism. HSRA’s initial action a few
years back was to drop a lawsuit in a lot-line adjustment case in
exchange for a few tens of thousands of dollars which ended in the
group’s coffers. Nevertheless, HSRA members seem unable to understand
consequent accusations of extortion.
They may be harder pressed to explain their concern for the community
if Downieville is red-tagged in the face of wildly expensive septic