Property Rights and Renters
There is a lot going on right now about property and water rights. Laws apply to everyone equally, but they don’t impact everyone equally. People who live in rural places are being especially hard hit, because laws that make sense in an urban area, where there are more people and more money, impact rural people especially hard.
But the trouble doesn’t only land on property owners, people who rent and lease also bear a burden, because landlords have to pass costs on to tenants.
Where We Live
The pioneers who founded the towns in our county had to contend with some very difficult terrain. Steep land, narrow canyons, thick forests; many of their efforts have been washed away by flood and avalanche. In addition, early developments didn’t consider stream water purity or aquifer contamination. Mercury in our rivers continues to be at least an economic problem.
Since those early established towns in the county, we’ve learned a lot. It’s been a while since a flood washed Downieville down the canyon, and Sierra City has been where it is for quite awhile now.
Likewise, we’ve all learned a lot about the environment. People who would never consider themselves "environmentalists" do all kinds of very pro-environmental things. They do hazard fuel reduction and watershed restoration on their lands. They take part on boards which focus on preserving the health of the land and the purity of the water. Some fence cows away from streams to keep streamside erosion and fecal contamination to a minimum, and others sign large portions of land into conservation easements. Many cousins who use septic tanks carefully avoid products which are dangerous to water and soil. Local people report diesel spills, turn in poachers, take part in voluntary river and highway clean up, and do a host of small but important things to keep our environment clean and care for the land.
In short, we understand that our mountains and forests clean the air and filter the water that people elsewhere use, and we are good stewards.
Further, we pay experts to help us take care of the environment. Elizabeth Morgan probably knows more about the top twelve feet of Sierra County soil than anyone. She and her staff know the law and they have a practical knowledge of the county. Likewise the Planning and Building departments, while small, have accumulated a practical expertise on building in our special topography. They are also experts on the regulations which govern their work.
Further, we have the Planning Commission, whose role is to mediate the law so that landowners can use their property and still protect the environment and the rights of neighbors.
It isn’t that the system never fails, no system is perfect, but this system is more likely to "error on the side of caution," meaning it likely prevents things it doesn’t need to more often than it allows things it shouldn’t.
Sometimes even when the system is functioning well, some people aren’t satisfied.
For example, the "high water line" is an important concept right now, and the county is being sued over the definition.
Why is it so important?
Is the high water line the place the creek or river gets to most years, or is it the place it gets to every 100 years or so? It makes a lot of difference, because houses within 100 feet of the high water mark of a water course or lake require a variance. If the houses are already there, they are legal, non-conforming, which means they are "grandfathered-in" but anything which requires a permit after that (which is almost everything) will also require a variance, and might also require an environmental impact report, which can be very expensive.
All of these costs impact renters, and they also negatively impact our local economy. We’re all willing to pay a little more to live here, but at some point the burden simply becomes too great. Protecting property rights is one way to ensure a viable community.