HSRA Helps 062310

HSRA to Save Building in the County 062310
Fox to Guard Henhouse; Bill Clinton to Chaperon HS Cheerleaders...

HSRA’s recent press release (found here) outlines how the county Planning department is endangering not only the environment but building in general in the county.  
Reading High Sierra Rural Alliance’s recent press release, one thing becomes clear: they are true believers.  True believers are going to help you according to the world as they see it, and it is for your own good.
In short, High Sierra Rural Alliance is the Child Welfare Services of Sierra County planing activities.

Like all such fervent helpers, they have developed a schooled immunity to information which might intrude on their fantasy of helping.  

In the press release, they outline some material technical issues: the General Plan has never been blessed into law (implemented).  It’s already been made clear, the county can’t afford to do it.  But, HSRA/CWS isn’t satisfied with what the county can afford to do.  It doesn’t matter if they can afford it, they have to do it, for the good of the child, or the environment, or homebuilders, or maybe just HSRA.

HSRA, in their press release, outlined the problem with the stream setback definition thus:
Rather than adopt the required ordinances the County has, over the last 15 years exercised an inconsistent and at time (sic) arbitrary application in measuring stream setback requirements, including the use of the 100 year floodplain line as the beginning point for measuring the existing zoning code requirement for a 100 foot stream setback.

At first glance, this sentence makes no sense.  However, on closer examination it makes even less sense.
This reporter has heard explained several times how the “100 year floodplain” came into the picture.  The executive director of HSRA, when she was working for Sierra County Planning and Building, pulled the definition from the “subdivision” portion of the codes to apply everywhere there is water in the county.  The term used was “an abundance of caution.”  This might not be accurate; it’s the version I’ve heard several times.  
Further, the clarified definition itself constitutes the county making an effort to codify this important benchmark.  Far from applying the definition in an “in consistent and at times arbitrary” manner, there have only been two definitions, the original “normal” definition, and the 100 year flood plain definition used for a few years in “an (over)abundance of caution.”

The phrase “including the use of the 100 year floodplain line as the beginning point for measuring the existing zoning code requirement for a 100 foot stream setback” is not clear because the existing zoning code requirement calls for a 100 foot setback from the high water line.  
However, the press release, if it does indeed accurately describe “why HSRA filed,” still makes a kind of logic.
The point of the suit according to the pr, (and it is a point which might well remain when the “how high’s the water, Mama” question is resolved,) is that the county has not implemented the general plan.  Without that, as HSRA correctly states,
The County’s new zoning change attempts to redefine this measuring point without incorporating any of the flexibility and protections required by the General Plan when it was enacted over a decade ago. As a result, development in non-community core areas will not be subject to the setback requirements required by the General Plan, and development in community core areas, and in Downieville and Sierraville, will be required to obtain variances in order to develop within 100 feet of the stream zone even though many of these developments would not be required to do so under the General Plan.

The General Plan does not contain a definition of “high water line” according to a source familiar with it.  Implementing the General Plan, as HSRA insists the county do, won’t change the need for a definition, and the definition chosen by the Board of Supervisors is the most common one throughout jurisdictions in the U.S.  Indeed, our research found no others.  The allegation that this lawsuit, or at least this press release, is about the necessity of implementing the GP to protect people and the environment is thus without merit, since implementing the General Plan will still require the Board to define “high water line.”

It is unlikely this realization will deter HSRA in their suit.  Like an over-eager family helper, HSRA is creating problems by insisting on a strict and literal translation of the law, one that does not take into account the difficulty the demands impose on the county they are trying to “help”.   If HSRA is successful in their lawsuit and the county runs for cover throwing the “high water line” definition over their shoulder as they run, it will at least leave people in Sierraville, Sierra City, Downieville and elsewhere in the lurch.  Further, even if the county tosses the towel on the definition, there is still the reference to the failure to implement the General Plan that was adopted.  That might have legs to pursue the Board even after a Chamberlain-like appeasement on the “Netherlands”.

If the County refuses to rescind the definition, or if HSRA isn’t satisfied, the resulting lawsuit would break the county.  If the county lost, there would be the fat attorney’s fees for HSRA’s upstanding member of the legal community (further insults fail me); in addition, the judge might require the county to implement the general plan at any cost, which means, since the county can’t afford that, no permits could be issued, and nothing could be built.  

In the course of rescuing us from our county planning department, HSRA could easily destroy the county.  Like the social worker, HSRA is willing destroy the family in order to save its members.  

Thank you, HSRA, it’s a very special kind of help you offer us, indeed.

To be clear, HSRA has not indicated that they would pursue the suit if the county quickly ate the old definition; they might simply be satisfied to pick away at the county piecemeal, as a hobby, instead of bringing the whole shebang crashing down.

We were able to confirm that the current definition of high water mark does not change any of the setbacks already in use.

The Press Release continues:
In the meantime, the County’s failure to adopt the other General Plan required ordinances designed to protect the public from the risks of floods and preserve water quality and riparian habitat has the potential for harm. In the past, these impacts were avoided or at least alleviated by the County’s use of the 100-year flood line as the basis from which to measure stream setbacks. This approach, while imperfect, at least allowed the County to condition proposed uses, such as gas stations, in the floodplain. With the adoption of the new definition the County no longer has the discretion or authority to deny potential harmful development within the floodplain, even where there are other feasible development options that do not threaten public safety and the environment.  

We believe HSRA can not demonstrate that the County has failed to protect the public, water quality or riparian habitat.  Indeed, the court house will be clogged with people who feel the Planning department already makes any kind of development in the low lying areas difficult, and evidence could show that the County has indeed been diligent in its primary duty of protecting lives, investments, and the environment.  However, we are responding to HSRA’s press release and NOT TO THE DOCUMENTS FILED FOR THE LAWSUIT.  The suit might have differently worded allegations.

Likewise, we believe that the County has not relinquished the ability to prevent harmful development on low elevation lands.  There are lengthy processes required to do any development within the zone of what might reasonably be considered to be “flood prone.”  The purpose of those processes is to reasonably regulate development, and the adoption of a definition doesn’t change that.

This reporter has explored the idea of “100 year flood plain” in the county in regards to FEMA activities.  The County’s cooperation with FEMA in correctly identifying those areas with a 1% chance of flooding each year is a step towards the mapping HSRA has requested from the County.

The press release states:
HRSA is committed to advocating for sound planning, consistent with applicable state and local law, to ensure that our community grows in harmony with our surrounding environment. The County’s shotgun approach of simply changing the definition of the high water line without implementing the General Plan ordinances puts the public and the environment at risk, and doesn’t help property owners in Sierraville, Downieville or other communities, who want to build near streams which don’t flood. For that reason, HRSA is challenging the County’s zoning amendment.

This reporter no longer knows what, precisely, HSRA advocates.  
We think back to Planning Commission discussions and Board of Supervisor discussions, and staff reports about the ordinance and are completely unable to find a smoking shotgun.  “Shotgun approach” means to apply something broadly in the hopes of a hit instead of making a single carefully placed shot.  For example, HSRA’s allegations regarding the county’s failure to “protect the public from the risks of floods and preserve water quality and riparian habitat” is a shotgun approach, broadly fired with no clear target but hopes of hitting something.
Indeed, HSRA favored the “100 year flood plain” as the high water mark because, “impacts were avoided or at least alleviated by the County’s use of the 100-year flood line as the basis from which to measure stream setbacks” precisely because it was a “shotgun approach.”  The County’s attempt to provide a clear definition is marksmanship, not a “shotgun approach”.  

The press release seems flawed.  Like past HSRA assertions, the most dire of consequences are predicted, but there is often little evidence to demonstrate those predictions.  

However, the lawsuit itself must be taken seriously, since the consequences might be very serious indeed.

The local property rights group, the Plumas-Sierra Citizen’s Alliance for Property Rights  (CAPR) has not issued a statement, but it is known that members favor a definition of “high water line” as it is traditionally understood throughout the U.S.  The group is not a party to the lawsuit, but might take part in other ways.

High Sierra Rural Alliance might be secretly seeking grant funds to help Sierra County hire the staff and pay the costs of implementing the adopted General Plan.  Perhaps High Sierra Rural Alliance intends to offer the services of their upstanding member of the legal community for free, to help with the work.

Likely, though, the kind of “help” they’ll offer is not so useful.

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