Sunday, December 30, 2007

A foggy day

Today it was foggy all day long. Not the kind of overhead fog that can be confused with overcast, but ground-level, sitting-in-the-clouds mountain fog.

It was drizzly at times. It was mysterious at times. But mostly it was just damp, and gray.

Sometimes I could see across the meadow. Sometimes I could see only 50 feet.

We don't have many days like this. Fog is a more of an occasional and fleeting visitor. But not today.

I ditched my plans to take a good long walk with the dog. Too gray, too wet.

Maybe we'll get in that walk in tomorrow, celebrating a sunnier day, the end of the year, and longer days to come.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A gift that lasts

We don't often have the opportunity to give a gift to future generations—something that will benefit people of all ages, abilities, ethnic backgrounds, and income levels. But when we work together to protect special natural places, that's exactly what we're doing.

You can help leave a lasting legacy by endorsing National Wild and Scenic River designation for our local Mokelumne River. Foothill Conservancy's website has a simple online form that takes less than a minute to complete.

By taking a few seconds to fill out that form, you can help ensure that the National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne will come to pass. It's a gift that really lasts.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Local global warming naysayers at odds with world business leaders

Our neighbors at the Amador Citizens for "Responsible Government" have been running ads in the BuynSell Press congratulating three Amador supervisors for voting against the Cool Counties initiative. The ads say that global warming concerns are based on "junk science."

That puts them at odds with 150 global business leaders including PG&E, Swiss Re (a huge insurance firm), Sun Microsystems, Shell Oil, DuPont, Hewlett Packard, Nokia, Johnson & Johnson, Volkswagen and others who recently signed the Bali Communique. That document asks the U.N. to adopt legally binding greenhouse gas emission limits.

Here's a quote from the communique:
The scientific evidence is now overwhelming. Climate change presents very serious global social, environmental and economic risks and it demands an urgent global response.
I may be wrong now, but I would guess that the combined scientific expertise of the 150 signatories to the document is probably a little greater than that of the local group.

Meanwhile, the California Attorney General's office has published a new website on global warming. It includes a nice section debunking the allegations of global warming naysayers. Check it out.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Calaveras Supervisors move to limit sprawl

It used to be that land use planning in Calaveras County was anything but smart. The county has been one of the fastest-growing in the state, with no constraints on the conversion of ranches and oak woodlands to golf courses and subdivisions, complete with overtapped groundwater and leaky septic systems. But it looks like those days may be over.

A few weeks ago, the Calaveras Board of Supervisors held a visioning session to establish a policy framework for the county's general plan update. It was most promising, with all five supervisors -- even Libertarian Tom Tryon -- agreeing that new development should occur in existing communities rather than sprawling all over the countryside. They even talked about incorporating the Ahwahnee Principles or the Land Use and Development Principles adopted by several Calaveras communities.

Then last week, the supervisors lifted the year-old subdivision moratorium put in place at the beginning of the plan update. But they didn't return to the bad old days of virtually unfettered growth.

Instead, they unanimously adopted policies to shape new development. The policies aren't binding -- the board will still look at each subdivision proposal -- but the clear message is "if you want us to approve your project, this is what it needs to be." The resolution even suggests to staff that they bring noncompliant applications to the board for an early decision rather than putting everyone through the time and expense of California Environmental Quality Act review.

The policies are intended to focus development in existing communities and limit sprawl. They express a clear preference for projects that
  • Create new parcels only in areas where public water and sewer are available (except for single parcels and parcels over 40 acres)
  • Protect onsite open space and habitat
  • Provide roads built to county standards
  • Promote affordable housing

And in the resolution language adopting the policies, the supervisors made clear they expect similar policies to be part of their general plan:

WHEREAS, during the October 23, 2007 workshop, the Board unanimously stated that the General Plan update, and in particular the Land Use Element of the General Plan, should include goals, policies and implementation measures regarding criteria for future development within the unincorporated area of Calaveras County that limits the use of groundwater and onsite septic systems to serve that development and should instead encourage high density development served by public surface water and public sewer with preservation of onsite open space as well as other associated infrastructure to serve the development such as roads built to county road standards;

Meanwhile, despite a moratorium on general plan and zoning changes, every month new well-and septic-dependent parcels are being created in rural Amador County, many in high fire zones. How smart is that?

Putting the dam before the plans

Amador Water Agency General Manager Jim Abercrombie has embarked on an early marketing effort to promote raising Lower Bear Reservoir. He's trying to sell the public on the idea by telling anyone who will listen that the county will need the additional water supply by 2030.

Abercrombie has come to this conclusion before the county or any of its cities have concluded their general plan updates -- and before the feasibility studies on Bear are even done. Last time I checked, the general plans -- not Water Agency estimates -- will determine our county's eventual population.

At the same time, Abercrombie is admitting that the Foothill Conservancy has been right about local water supply for more than 17 years: the county can more than double its population on existing water supply. And that doesn't even take into account growth in rural areas not served by the Water Agency, which includes vast parts of the county.

At last week's Regional Planning Committee meeting, AWA engineer Gene Mancebo said the Water Agency has enough water to supply another 16,000 Amador households.

Sixteen-thousand new homes is a lot. In comparison, the largest proposed new subdivision in Amador County is Gold Rush, outside Sutter Creek. It's a proposal for about 1,300 homes.

Sixteen-thousand homes would house a lot of people, too. Based on an average population of about 2.3 people per household, that's 36,800 more people than live in the county today.

Mancebo also said the agency hopes to provide 20 percent of total water supply from recycled water in the future. Since I wasn't in the room, I'm not sure whether he meant "add 20 percent to existing supply," but if he did -- or if an additional 20 percent could be developed through recycling plus efficiency -- that would free up enough potable water to add nearly 14,000 more people without building an expensive dam (15,0000 acre feet existing supply x 20% = 3,000 acre feet. 3,000 af x 2 HH per acre foot x 2.3 people per HH = 13,800 people).

Adding those two population figures results in a startling total: 50,600 people. So what the Water Agency is saying, in effect, is this: we expect Amador County to add more than 50,000 new residents by 2030. That's more people than live in fast-growing Calaveras County today.

Let's take a minute and think about that from a total planning perspective. If Amador County were to grow by more than 50,000 people, where would they live? How would we move them around our already gridlocked roads, many of which cannot be expanded due to lack of funds and the limits of topography or existing buildings?

How would we serve them with underfunded volunteer fire departments? Where would the children go to school, when the cost of new schools far exceeds developer fees? How many new libraries would we need? Would we need a new hospital? New parks and recreational facilities? How many new police officers and sheriff's deputies would have to be hired? Where will the adults work, considering that the price of oil is going to make commuting an increasingly uneconomic activity? They can't all be retired.

Not to mention this question -- the one that probably matters most of all to local residents: what would happen to our cherished rural character?

We need to plan our county based on what local people want to protect and what they want to change. I have yet to hear anyone say publicly that 50,600 additional county residents by 2030, or even nearly 37,000 new residents, is part of their vision for our county's future.

It's clear to me that Abercrombie has put the proverbial cart before the horse. While it is the Water Agency's job to supply water for the county, it's not their job to decide how fast or how much we're going to grow before our general plans are complete.

So when you hear and read those "we're going to need more water" stories, remember what that means -- more than doubling the county's population in the next 22 years. If you think that's a bad idea, be sure to let local officials know.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why fund new dams before agencies push conservation?

On Saturday, The (Stockton) Record published a story that tried to encapsulate the complex issues surrounding Mokelumne River watershed and river protection, water conservation, global warming and plans for more water supply. It's a subject worthy of a full series and far too complex to capture in one story, but reporter Dana Nichols did a pretty good job, considering.

It appears to me that except for a couple of notable exceptions, the water and government entities who use (or want) water from the Mokelumne have been slow to urge their own ratepayers and residents to use current supplies efficiently.

This morning I did a quick search of the various agencies' websites, looking for water conservation information. As I mentioned in an earlier post, putting information on a website is probably the cheapest way to get that information out to the public and in this electronic age, one of the most effective.

Two Mokelumne-related agencies have good water conservation information on their websites:
The rest of the Mokelumne-using (or wanna-be user) agencies -- San Joaquin County, Stockton East Water District, the cities of Stockton and Lodi, North San Joaquin Water Conservation District, Amador Water Agency, and Woodbridge Irrigation District -- have precious little information on their websites, have buried it so deep that I couldn't find it in a quick search, or don't have websites at all.

It certainly begs this question: Why should taxpayers put millions into developing more water supply on the Mokelumne -- anywhere from $35 million to $500 million, according to The Record story -- before more Mokelumne water districts demonstrate a true commitment to conservation and efficiency?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's a start

Using water more efficiently is the most effective and lowest-cost way to increase water supply and decrease wastewater treatment demand and cost. And it's certainly better for the environment than building or expanding dams on our remaining rivers -- think Prius vs. Hummer. Smart water agencies across California have recognized this reality and implemented water conservation and efficiency programs.

For example, today's Record includes an article regarding a Stockton water agency that is giving away -- yes, giving away -- 500 superlow-flow toilets. The article says that use of a toilet like this over a person's "140,000-flush lifetime" could "save enough water to fill a dozen swimming pools."

Local conservation and river advocates have been urging local and regional water agencies to take similar steps. So it's good to see Amador Water Agency taking a step, however small, in that direction.

At its last board meeting, the Agency discussed a pilot conservation program for the Camanche area. Here's what the Amador Ledger Dispatch had to say about it:

Abercrombie submitted several options to reduce consumption and decrease water waste that could possibly include discounts and rebates to customers who use efficient appliances or a water smart irrigation controller.

"The agency would provide a free self-survey kit to guide customers through a step by step home water assessment," he told the board. "Customers who complete the survey would be eligible to receive a free water-wise activity kit, which would include a low flow shower head, kitchen and/or bath sink aerator, a watering gauge and other tips."

And TSPN added:

Finally the Agency as also toyed with the thought of a financial reward for a reduction in water use. However, there are also other factors that the Agency has to keep in mind, such as the increased work load on existing staff to implement such a pilot program as well as a possible reduction in revenue from decreased water usage. The board agreed that smart water use is a primary focus of the Agency and decided to pursue the test program and develop a budget for such a purpose. If the pilot test proves successful the agency plans on expanding into other service areas. For more information about how you can conserve water contact the Amador Water Agency at 223-3018.

It's a start. However, the cheapest way for an agency to educate ratepayers is to post information on its website. Once the web posting is done, there's virtually no cost. The next cheapest way to reach people is through the mail. Having people answer phones is an expensive way to provide tips.

But if you look at the AWA site, there's precious little about conservation. Contrast that with Foothill Conservancy's website, which has had water-saving tips on its home page for months.

If the agency is truly serious about conservation, perhaps it should change its home page to include useful information on conservation and efficiency instead of showcasing a link to a water industry PR site about the state's "water crisis."

You can read more about California dam hype and water reality on Friends of the River's website.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Why bother?

I am not often discouraged. You cannot work on conservation issues in Amador County and be a pessimist -- it would just be too overwhelming. But sometimes I have to wonder why those of us who care about our county spend so much time participating in processes that seem rigged from the get-go.

Take the Kirkwood Mountain Resort expansion proposed for the Eldorado National Forest off Highway 88 -- the public land you and I own. In spite of many comments pointing out the myriad flaws in the expansion proposal -- destruction of scenic vistas and wildlife, increased traffic for intersections already at gridlock on busy ski days, and more -- the Forest Service has just approved the proposal pretty much as Kirkwood asked.

I know that big, powerful interests usually get their way in our world (Kirkwood's primary owner is a wealthy friend of the Bush family). I know that the Forest Service usually gives downhill ski resorts pretty much what they want, regardless of the damage they do to the environment (Kirkwood got an F in the last Ski Area Citizens' Scorecard). I figured that the fact Kirkwood was recently touting the plan to the media as if it were approved -- before the decision was made public -- was a bad sign.

But somehow I held out some small hope that maybe this time, it might be different. Foothill Conservancy and others -- including the U.S. EPA -- had pointed out the project's many deficiencies in detail, forcing the Forest Service to do a great deal more analysis. I had also heard that new Eldorado National Forest Supervisor Ramiro Villalvazo is "as green as they come."

But when I learned tonight that Supervisor Villalvazo had essentially given Kirkwood everything they asked for, my hopes were destroyed like the boulders Kirkwood plans to blast away on its cross-country ski trails. If Supervisor Villalvazo is as green as they come, someone's going to have to redefine green for me. Of course, he is only one player in a largely dysfunctional agency controlled by politicians who see nature as nothing but a profit center.

And tonight I cannot help but think of the resource agency people I know who struggle to do their jobs with integrity in spite of the politics of the day. How sad they must be to see a once-fine agency drop to this low level. How hard it must be for them to do what's right in the face of the political pressure that has so corrupted our national institutions.

Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot -- the fathers of our national forests -- are rolling in their graves.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

River offers something for everyone

Yesterday I helped out with Foothill Conservancy's umpteenth Mokelumne River Cleanup on the river's Electra run. Spending the day down by the river reminded me how much the Mokelumne offers something for everyone.

The land-locked Kokanee salmon were spawning, so the beach was full of people fishing. There were tiny kids with tiny fishing rods, just extracted from their plastic and cardboard packaging; teens with rods bent and fish on; whole families together, fishing and playing on the beach. They were joined by more seasoned anglers, too -- men with waders and better gear and nets --who were reeling in fish after fish.

The river was low, so the Kokanee were easy to spot in the water. It looked like you could walk in and simply net them. I heard one young guy say, "I have fish lounging against my legs."

Raptors could see the Kokanee, too. A mature bald eagle and an osprey were diving for lunch, oblivious to the volunteers picking up trash, anglers on the banks, and kayakers navigating the rapids.

Farther downstream, a fly fisherman was working just below the rapid know as The Slot. Below the Highway 49 bridge, a couple was panning for gold.

The fall color on the river is especially wonderful this year. The California grapes, oaks, cottonwood and other riparian plants are trending from pale yellow to deepest red. Contrast that with the river's range of blues and greens, and it's hard to imagine anything more lovely.

Since Electra is heavily used, some river lovers avoid it. There's plenty of evidence of damage to the river banks (why is it that people insist on driving right down to a river that's only 50 feet from the road -- even going so far as to pull out big boulders put there to keep cars off the bank?), and sometimes a fair amount of trash. One couple working the cleanup said they hadn't been there for years because it's so popular. But after a few hours at Electra, they were once again taken in by the river's beauty.

People who aren't river-oriented tend to forget that we have this wonderful resource for recreation, relaxation, and recharge a short drive south of Jackson. But plenty of people know it's there. And as our county becomes more urbanized, places like Electra, where we can get out with friends and family and bask in the glory of nature, will be even more precious than they are today.

You can help keep the Mokelumne a river future generations can enjoy on a fine fall day by signing on to support including the Mokelumne in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thoughts on fire and sprawl

Watching the fires in Southern California is sobering. While we don't face the Santa Ana winds here in the Central Sierra, our forested areas and chaparral are, much like those to the south, fire-adapted ecosystems. Fires are a normal part of the ecology.

When we fill the forest and chaparral with scattered houses, creating the so-called "wildland-urban interface," we create a greater risk of the kind of destruction we're seeing down south this week.

We may not have the Santa Anas, but we can get some fast-moving fires of our own, like the Power Fire that burned in the North Fork Mokelumne canyon in 2004. That fire could have jumped Highway 88 and burned west into populated areas of the county with impunity had nature not intervened in the form of cold rain and wet snow. Let's all hope the south state gets that kind of break soon.

As Amador County updates its general plan, the county would do well to consider how to protect life and property through land use planning that takes the reality of fire into account.
It makes no sense from a fire protection point of view to encourage the development of more small parcels and homes in the county's rural areas. Compact, town-centered development is a much better way to address the human, environmental and economic cost of fire.

Excellent recommendations related to sprawl and fire are found in the latest publication from the Sierra Nevada Alliance, Dangerous Development: Wildfire and Rural Sprawl in the Sierra Nevada. Everyone who cares about land use planning in the Sierra and California should read this publication.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A tale of two counties: compact development and the general plan

Calaveras County is beginning to update its general plan. To help guide the process, the supervisors held a "visioning" meeting last week to discuss the county's future. As reported in local and regional newspapers, the board came down solidly on the side of avoiding sprawl in favor of town-centered, compact development.

Even Supervisor Tom Tryon, a property rights advocate and former Libertarian candidate for statewide office, supported locating development where it can be served with municipal water and wastewater systems.

Two of the county supervisors supported incorporating the Ahwahnee Principles into the county plan. Supervisor Steve Wilensky supported incorporating principles adopted by local communities in Calaveras District 2.

It was encouraging to see the Calaveras supervisors recognize that compact, town-centered development can protect the county's agriculture, natural resources, water quality and community character.

Contrast that with Amador County. First, we have the new defenders of sprawl, the Amador Citizens for Responsible Government, emerging to support the Placerization of Amador. Funny how what they say sounds exactly like the complaints of developer Bob Reeder at the county General Plan Advisory Committee meetings.

Then there's a pretty clear split on the GPAC between members who see the wisdom of town-centered development and a strong general plan, and those who want to continue the ad hoc, project-by-project sprawl that has characterized local growth over the last 40 years. The latter are trying to make the general plan as toothless as possible.

The cost of continuing sprawl development patterns has been brought to light at nearly every GPAC meeting over the last year. We've talked about fire, water, recreation, schools, roads, air quality, historical and cultural resources, agriculture, wildlife, economic development and more. In every instance, compact development has less impact than sprawl. In every instance, the things people love most about the county are better protected by concentrating development in compact communities than by chopping ranches and forestland into subdivisions.

At its early meetings, the GPAC came up with a pretty good vision statement for the county's future. There was broad agreement about what the county should be like 20+ years from now.

As the GPAC -- then the planning commission and board of supervisors -- continue slogging toward a general plan, they need to keep that vision in mind, and ask: Will this get us to the future we envision?

If the answer is no, the general plan is clearly heading down the wrong path. If the answer is maybe, that's the wrong path, too. And if the general plan is just too fuzzy to serve as a clear path to the vision at all, we'll end up looking like Placer, not Amador, County in the end.

Once you have a destination in mind, it's better to develop a clear route than to wander in the wilderness in hope that you might just get there one day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Open letter to Raheem Hosseini re his global warming editorial

Today's Amador Ledger Dispatch includes a fine editorial by Raheem Hosseini on the county supervisors' recent rejection of the Cool Counties initiative and his disappointment at the lack of public outcry. I started to write Raheem an e-mail in response, but decided to publish the content here, instead . . .

Hi, Raheem:

Just so you know, it's not that local enviros like me don't understand the implications of global warming or think the county shouldn't get on board. We just try to be judicious regarding which battles to fight, where, when, and how.

Public hearings on issues of this type are opportunities for demagoguery and seldom lead to anything very positive or productive. And chiding the supervisors after the fact isn't productive at all, at least not from where I sit.

At the risk of sounding like the older person I am fast becoming, I have to say that I was much quicker to jump to a fight when I was 25 than I am now. It's not that I don't have as many opinions, or that they are any less strong, but I have a different perspective on how to get things done.

For example, I'd rather slog through countless hours of review and edits and discussion of county general plan goals and policies that can reduce local GHG generation for the next 20 years (as I have been doing over the last six weeks) than spend just one hour in a hearing that will have little impact in the long run --- especially if it means listening to people who know nothing about the issue go on and on about it.

Of course, since the Ledger isn't covering the General Plan Advisory Committee meetings, you don't know about all the work that's going into those goals and policies -- or the conflicts playing out between people who want the plan to actually do something and those who are trying to make it as toothless as possible.

So from my perspective, expending a lot of energy on the Cool Counties resolution didn't fall under the category of time well spent. That may disappoint you -- it's obvious you wanted more from local enviros on the issue than we gave you this time -- but please consider that sometimes a lack of outcry may just mean that the would-be outcryers (sp?) are out working their fingers off making real change rather than jumping at opportunities to beat their heads against a wall.

That never works and you just end up with a headache.

Thanks for being out there using your bully pulpit to advantage. Loved the redacted W-2 reference.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who's being "responsible"?

There's a new group in the county, the "Amador Citizens for Responsible Government." Sounds good, right? Who's opposed to responsible government?

But like many things, what sounds good may not hold up to closer scrutiny. This particular group's thoughts on what constitutes responsible government are pretty questionable.

The group opposes efforts to combat global warming, which it calls a "scientifically-discredited theory." They recently convinced the Amador County Board of Supervisors not to sign on to a national "Cool County" resolution pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Apparently, these "responsible" guys (19 of their 20 "Executive Council" members are guys) think they know more about climate science than the the Nobel Peace Prize committee and major world scientific institutions.

They've shown up at recent meetings of the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee to oppose consideration of global warming in the update of the county general plan -- even after the county's consultant described how the state is suing counties that fail to take global warming into account.

Is that responsible? I don't think so. Failing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions could result in serious consequences for this and future generations. That doesn't sound responsible to me. It sounds selfish and short-sighted, especially when common sense solutions exist.

If our county disregards global warming-related state law, it leaves itself open to lawsuits. Is that responsible? Last time I checked, our county didn't have money to waste on lawsuits that can easily be avoided. I know I don't want my tax dollars spent that way.

This group also opposes smart growth planning principles, which center around building denser, walkable communities where services and infrastructure are available -- much like the small towns we love in our county now.

Providing government services and infrastructure to compact development is much cheaper than serving homes spread all over the rural countryside. It is easier to protect homes from wildland fire. It costs less to maintain roads.

Compact development reduces the need for new school construction, school buses, new roads, new sewer facilities, water lines, fire stations, and more. It ensures that natural areas will continue to provide "ecological services" such as clean water and clean air. It supports our tourism economy by keeping the county beautiful and rural. It keeps our working landscapes contributing to the local culture and economy.

Smart growth can be cheaper for builders, too, because they don't need to provide the infrastructure to sprawling homes.

So it's hard to see how opposing smart growth constitutes "responsible government."

The group is also opposed to the new Amador Regional Planning Committee -- a group formed to help ensure better coordination of land use planning among our five cities and the county. The committee has no regulatory authority. Absolutely none.

But this new group somehow sees it as a threat, and therefore supports continuing our current system, where coordination of planning efforts is spotty, at best -- with the obvious consequences we're seeing in our county today.

Responsible? I think not.

So what is this group for? They say they're for "limited government." But best I can tell, they're really for unfettered growth of the type that threatens our natural environment and quality of life -- the kind of growth we've seen turn much of rural California into sprawling, undifferentiated suburbs. They want that sort of growth here, too, regardless of the cost.

And if you ask me, that is anything but responsible.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Jackson does need help, but not Jackson Hills

It looks like Jackson's City Council will complete the approval of the Jackson Hills project on Monday night, September 10. Some locals think the city council members have been "bought off" by the developers.

I don't. I think it's more likely that the council members feel like they have to do something to address the challenges facing Jackson today: a distressed downtown, the loss of sales tax-generating businesses to the county, and the need to develop wastewater disposal alternatives.

The council is approving Jackson Hills because it's been sold to them as the solution to these problems. And they've bought the package, despite the many questions that surround it.

It's an easy fix, right? Approve one subdivision and all of Jackson's problems will go away. Problem is, closer scrutiny shows that Jackson Hills is not the solution, and before long, the city will have the same problems it had before, compounded by the problems that come with Jackson Hills, including gridlock in the south part of town.

There are other options.

Let's take downtown first. Years ago, when the county government was based in Jackson, county workers went downtown to shop at lunch and after work (I worked briefly in the courthouse, so saw and did this myself). When the government center moved out to Argonaut Heights, the downtown merchants lost that business. Now that the county workers are back on Court Street, has anyone tried to lure them back downtown?

Let's see -- why would county workers -- or Sutter Amador Hospital employees -- shop in Jackson? Maybe if there were free shuttles at lunch time. Maybe if it were easy to grab a loaner bike at the workplace and pedal into town for a sandwich without risking your life in the process. Maybe if there were actually something to buy. Remember, Jackson used to have many businesses that catered primarily to local residents and people working nearby.

Perhaps local business owners need to look at the local market again. The city could help by funding some market research and making it available for free to local businesses, working with the two big employers in town, and going back to some of the good plans developed for downtown in the past that are now gathering dust on someone's shelf. A little economic gardening could go a long way.

Also, I've always thought that any big shopping center with a shady parking lot could do a lot more business in summer than those with acres upon acres of unshaded asphalt. Given the choice of shopping at a store with cool parking or one without, I know which one I'd pick on a hot summer day. Urban forest grants could green up Jackson's shopping center lots for those who aren't going to go downtown and make them more competitive with the businesses in Mart-hell.

The sales tax loss is a hard problem to solve. Jackson always had unusually high sales tax revenue, thanks to its car dealerships. One could see how big a problem that loss was going to be years ago when the county decided to create the Mario Biagi Sales Tax Sacrifice Zone in Martell.

Home Depot is trying to sell itself as the solution to this problem, while proposing to build in the historic viewshed below the Kennedy Mine. Surely there are other ways to help Jackson renew its business base.

Wastewater disposal is the third big challenge. Spraying treated wastewater on local ranch lands is one good solution. And unlike a golf course, irrigated cattle pastures don't come with 580 houses and nearly 6,000 car trips a day.

As Jackson works on long-term wastewater solutions, the city could immediately reduce its wastewater volume by conducting water audits for every household to identify water-wasting practices. It could also subsidize the purchase of low-flush toilets and modern, water-saving clothes washers.

A new washing machine of the right type uses only 35%-50% as much water as older models -- that's water going into the wastewater system today. Everyone wins -- the homeowner spends less on water and power and the city has less wastewater to treat. The city would save money, too. Muncipal wastewater treatment requires a great deal of electricity.

Just as there is no free lunch, there is no simple solution for Jackson's problems. But there are alternatives to a big, environmentally destructive, dumb-growth subdivision that threatens the operation of local ranches. I've name just a few here. I'm sure others could be developed with some concerted effort and creativity.

Real leadership for Jackson means moving ahead with that effort. And it means standing up and taking on these challenges with a view to long-term consequences, not opting for the easy short-term fix -- especially one as suspect as Jackson Hills.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Property rights are not a blank check

Our community is full of independent people who want control over their lives and their land. That's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned.

But then there are those who raise the issue of "property rights" every time a land use policy comes along that they don't like -- or when the question of community rights is raised to challenge a subdivision or big-box store or other project that doesn't fit the community, causes gridlock, creates air pollution, destroys habitat, or otherwise creates problems for other people.

There are many misconceptions about property rights. But the truth is, local governments -- that is, our duly elected representatives -- have broad powers to determine what is best for the community and through that process, to control local land use. Those powers include telling people how they can develop and use their property.

Although individuals may have their own definitions of property rights, the courts have in fact defined property rights and "takings" for us. For a good explanation of how it all works, see this handbook from LandWatch Monterey County.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lodi paper features the Mokelumne

The Mokelumne River runs from high in Alpine County to the San Francisco Bay Delta. Along the way, it provides water and power for millions of people; a home for a rich variety of wildlife; recreational experiences for the adrenaline junkie and the beach hound; and sustenance, inspiration and recharge for those of us who rely on the wonders of nature and the magic of changing light on flowing water.

The Lodi News-Sentinel just completed an exceptional three-part series on the Mokelumne. Two young journalists --reporter Matt Brown and photographer Brian Feulner -- kayaked the slower, flat valley/Delta portions of the river. They kayaked and hiked its lower foothill reaches. And finally, they undertook a true wilderness journey, backpacking from the Mokelumne's headwaters near Highland Lake through the Mokelumne Wilderness to Salt Springs Dam.

It was an exceptional adventure. The resulting stories, photos and videos are on the paper's website. Do take time to read and view them all.

Then if you support protecting the Mokelumne Electra Run--which the not-so-stuck-in-Lodi guys visited--and the incredible segments above it that they did not (Editor Rich Hanner's a good guy, but hey, you can only have your reporter and photographer gone for so long), sign on to support National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne.

It takes no time at all to do your part to preserve our river for future generations to explore and enjoy.

It's our river to enjoy and ours to save.

"If not us, not them. If not now, then when? If not here, nor there. If not this world, then where?"__John Gorka song lyric: "If Not Now"

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Let the People Plan

Last weekend I attended the Sierra Nevada Alliance conference in Kings Beach. A couple of the sessions addressed an exciting trend -- community-based planning.

Instead of waiting to react to what a developer brings them, some towns are looking at land planned for annexation or redevelopment and coming up with a master plan for that land themselves. The processes are often hands-on, with lots of citizen involvement.

People decide what kind of development will take place, where, and how fast. They plan the parks and schools and fire stations. They plan the housing. They plan the business locations. They make sure that what they value most is protected -- special views, natural and historic features, and so forth. Most of all, they make sure the plan is consistent with their vision for their town.

And when the plan is done, the message to developers is clear: "This is what we need in our town. This is what we want. Join with us to make it happen."

The good news is that developers seem happy to bring in projects that fit the plans. That's probably because a community-developed plan gives the developer and landowner more certainty. It can also spare them all of the time and money they normally spend trying to market a project.

Amador County's small towns could take this approach to planning. Just think about how different the results might be from what developers are bringing us now.

Look at Martell. Some of us pushed for just such an approach to Martell redevelopment years ago, but the developers weren't interested. If local residents had developed a plan for Martell, it could have included a passive park in the woodland at the lower end, walking and bike trails to connect to the towns, mixed-use development with workforce housing, and more. But instead, we got a same-old, same-old sales-tax sacrifice zone that pulls revenue from our towns and gives us traffic jams in exchange.

It doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to wait for developers to "save" us with their ideas of what our towns should be.

We should define our future, ourselves.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Beware the Big Lie

In the 20th Century, propagandists perfected the practice of the "Big Lie" -- saying something outrageous and repeating it over and over again until people came to believe it.

21st Century Amador County developers have embraced this propaganda technique to push their projects on us.

"Our project is good for YourTown."

"Our project is the solution to YourProblems."

"Our project is smart growth."

The current noteworthy example is Jackson Hills. I've never seen a project get this far along with so many harmful environmental impacts and so many questions remaining about its details. And a couple of smart growth-resembling details do not a smart-growth project make.

But the developers and their minions are simply repeating their big lie mantras: "Jackson needs Jackson Hills. Jackson Hills will solve Jackson's wastewater problems. Jackson Hills is smart growth."

Because Jackson does have some real problems, mostly caused by poor development decisions made in the past and difficult infrastructure challenges, these messages are appealing.

But as I've said before, Jackson Hills is a bad project in the wrong place at the wrong time. The golf course can't dispose of wastewater in winter. There's no place for regular working Jacksonians to live. It would create gridlock in South Jackson. It would obliterate oak woodland and threaten the operation of local ranches. And there are just too many unanswered questions.

Jackson's Planning Commission saw through the Big Lie and recommended rejection of the project. So did the Amador County Transportation Commission.

They relied on fact, not faith, in making their decisions. Faith is a good thing, but putting faith in developers is a very risky business.

Let's hope the city mothers and fathers are also smart enough to see through the manipulation, look hard at the facts (and the missing facts), and do the right thing for their town and our county.

Be sure to attend the public hearing on Monday evening, August 13 if you'd like to weigh in.

Monday, August 6, 2007

ACTC gets it at last

We all know there is a connection between growth and traffic, at least in a county like this where everyone must drive for nearly everything.

Years ago, that connection seemed to be lost on the Amador County Transportation Commission. But now ACTC is emerging as a strong force for better planning in the county.

On Wednesday, the ACTC board voted to recommend to the Jackson City Council that it deny the Jackson Hills golf course subdivision project because of traffic concerns.

The next night, ACTC planner Sean Rabe gave a presentation to the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee on traffic and land use.

"Traffic is a symptom," Rabe said. "Land use is the cause."

No joke. If we continue to develop in ways that require people to use their cars to get everywhere -- and everyone else to use their cars to get to them -- we will have gridlock at most major county intersections. There is simply not enough money and not enough buildable terrain to build our way out of this with bigger roads or new routes.

It's way past time to manage traffic on the demand side of the equation by paying more attention to where, how, when, and how fast we grow. ACTC deserves our thanks for stepping up on this critical local issue.

For more, read Editor Raheem Hosseini's editorial on the ACTC decision.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Gridlock doesn't care about class

There's an advertisement lurking as an op-ed in Friday's Amador Ledger Dispatch. A local person employed by New Faze Development to promote its environmentally destructive Jackson Hills subdivision argues for the project because it's "classy."

And she says that if Jackson Hills isn't built, some other development -- something far worse, in her opinion -- could be built on the site.

That's interesting logic: If the city doesn't approve this bad project, a worse one might come along? Wow.

Of course, the land could also stay a cattle pasture. Maybe even an irrigated one.

One of the biggest problems with Jackson Hills is that it will create gridlock in south Jackson (the word traffic doesn't appear in the "advertorial"). I don't know about you, but the last time I was stuck in traffic, it really made no difference to me whether the cars were shiny, late-model Beemers or beat-up older cars and trucks. And if ambulances can't get through a traffic jam on their way to the Sutter Amador ER, is that OK provided the cars in the way are nice and expensive?

Gridlock is an equal-opportunity impact that pays no attention to so-called class.

Who says traffic will be a problem? None other than Charles Field, Executive Director of the Amador County Transportation Commission, the county's resident traffic experts. As reported earlier this week in the Ledger article about Monday's council meeting, "Field repeated concerns that if Jackson Hills is built as planned, serious traffic congestion may aggravate already overburdened streets and roads."

The New Faze author also argues that Jackson Hills will "pay millions in developer fees that will benefit Jackson, Amador County, the school district and the Amador Water Agency."

What she fails to note is that under state law, developer fees can only cover the cost of a development's impacts on local government. They don't "benefit" government or taxpayers, they just cover the cost of providing capital improvements to the project. And often they don't even do that. Impact fees definitely don't cover school construction costs.

In closing, the author calls Jackson Hills "innovative." If Jackson Hills is innovative, I'm a right-wing Republican. Jackson Hills is a formulaic, suburban golf-course subdivision designed to attract affluent people in a certain demographic who are fleeing urban areas with equity from their homes for the comfort of gates and golf.

The odds of it becoming the social, economic and fiscal salvation of Jackson are slim to none.

Shame on the Ledger for allowing a developer to run an ad like this for free.

Friday, July 13, 2007

McCutcheon tix available in advance

While tickets for the McCutcheon concert/Wilensky fundraiser were originally announced as being available only at the door, you can buy them in advance online or at

Aeolian Harp, Angels Camp
Jackson Family Sports, Jackson
Sam Snead Real Estate, West Point

Don't miss the show!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Don't miss John McCutcheon in Mokelumne Hill

Storytelling musician-activist John McCutcheon will perform in the wonderful little town of Mokelumne Hill on Saturday, July 21.

The show, a benefit for Citizens for (Steve) Wilensky, will be at the Mokelumne Hill Community Hall at 7:30. Tickets are $25 at the door.

John's an amazing musician, and Steve -- the Calaveras County District 2 Supervisor -- is a remarkable politician. They're two of the finest people I know: smart, caring, compassionate, talented, and hard-working.

This promises to be an incredibly special evening. Be there!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sitting at home is not a good option

For years, some of us tried to explain what is patently obvious in Amador County now: left to its own devices, growth can destroy the things we love most about this special place.

Without good planning, we said, our home county could turn into all of those places we point to for their terrible traffic, bad air quality, ugly strip development, and land-consuming rural sprawl -- places where scenic vistas, working ranches, farms, and historic sites are written about in past tense.

We were often written off as alarmist socialist tree-huggers.

But with the "anywhere USA," traffic-jamming, suck-the sales-tax-from-the-cities commercial development of Martell and same-old, same-old sprawling, water-wasting golf course subdivisions proposed around our historic towns, most people "get it" now. As a result, more people than ever are getting involved in local planning issues and promoting smart growth.

At the same time, a certain amount of fatalism remains. Some believe that nothing can be done. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you think nothing can be done and don't act, guess what? The powers of growth and development will prevail, just as they have in all of those other places where money talks and people are "too busy" to get involved.

But if we join together and claim this county as our own -- not the province of developers -- we can shape its future. Right now, residents of Jackson who want to avoid sprawl and would like to see ranching continue around the town would do well to contact their city council members about the Jackson Hills golf course subdivision and show up when the council discusses the proposal on Monday, July 9.

Jackson Hills is the wrong project, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The EIR details more significant environmental impacts than any project I've ever seen proposed in Amador.

Jackson Hills will threaten the operation of the Plasse and Busi ranches, destroy oak woodlands, waste an incredible amount of water, and create gridlock in south Jackson. It will provide homes for affluent equity-amenity refugees, not people who live and work in Jackson.

The Jackson Planning Commission did the right thing when it voted against Jackson Hills.

Those who will profit from this development -- realtors, business owners, golfers, builders -- have joined together to support it. They are letting Jackson officials know what they think.

Those of us who will suffer, not profit from the project need to do the same. If you care about Jackson, traffic, ranching, oaks, smart use of water, and housing working people can afford, be sure to let Jackson officials know.

It's your town and your county. So take it back -- before we lose it for good.

Monday, May 28, 2007

River people

Last weekend I went to the National River Rally east of Portland in the Columbia River Gorge. It was an incredible place and an amazing event.

Hundreds of river people were gathered in one place. Others might use the label "river people" disparagingly, but those of us attending wore it with pride.

There were scientists. Watershed coordinators. Academics. Bureaucrats. Activists. Tribal representatives. Fish people. Pollution fighters. Bug lovers. Kayakers. Anglers. Water recyclers. Water planners. Business owners. Nonprofit managers. Young. Old. Boomers. Millenials. People from Alaska. People from the North, East, Midwest, West, South and Southwest . . . All joined by a love of rivers and the water that flows through them to shape our land.

When you talk to people from the inner city -- places like the Bronx and Baltimore -- who are trying to bring back the life in their polluted urban rivers, you cannot help but be newly reminded what a gift we have in our Mokelumne and Cosumnes rivers.

As one American Indian speaker pointed out, the rivers came first. Before the people, before the towns, before "civilization."

We forget that too often. Our land was shaped by the native people who lived here for thousands of years before us, and it has been further shaped by those who arrived during the Gold Rush and everyone who came after.

But before people began to "manage" this land, the rivers and creeks carved our deep canyons, shaped our hills, nourished our fish and wildlife, and set the stage for us. Just like our historical sites -- the mines, the towns, the rock walls -- our rivers are our heritage. They are part of who we are.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bloomin' crazy

Our home wildflowers are amazing now after a slow start. Yesterday and today, I saw all of the flowers listed below as well as some I haven't yet identified. Most are in our meadow or on its fringes:
  • Four kinds of monkeyflowers: yellow, yellow/white, pink tubular, pink/purple/yellow

  • Larkspur
  • Meadowfoam
  • Yellow broadeia (a tritelia)
  • A blue broadeia
  • Woodland star
  • Wilding pinks (see April flower post)
  • Milkweed
  • Mallow

  • Vetch
  • Wild onions
  • Yellow violets
  • Madia, a yellow composite dominating the meadow

Friday, May 11, 2007

Night owl

One of the things I appreciate most about living here in Amador County is the night.

Our skies are relatively dark, so we can still see myriad stars, blazing comets, metors of all varieties -- flashy ones, slow faders with long tails, loopy ones -- and the great wash of the Milky Way. We can smell the scent of the bay laurel and the mock orange. And we can hear the sound of owls at night.

One owl we hear each spring is the saw-whet owl. Even though we've lived in this place for 27 years, we first noticed this particular owl's call a few years ago. It sounded almost electronic -- a regular, repeating woop-woop-woop-woop-woop that sounds over and over from somewhere deep in the woods.

We really weren't sure what it was. Pete, being the careful sound-guy listener, finally decided he could hear the creator of the sound stop every now and then to catch a breath. So we decided it must be a bird rather than an insect. But we still weren't exactly sure. And even if it was a bird, we weren't sure what kind.

Our neighbor Ron called Pete one night to ask him to "stop making that annoying electronic sound." He meant the mystery bird call. (It does go on.)

Pete suggested to Ron that he step out onto his deck and listen for the brief interval when the bird catches its breath. Ron didn't believe him -- but did check it out -- and was satisfied that Pete wasn't the source of the elusive sound. But we still didn't know what it was.

So Pete got out some sound gear. He stuck a microphone out on the deck in the darkness, and sure enough, after a while, the bird began to call from the woods beyond the house. So we had the sound on tape, and we could listen to it, but we were stuck. We still didn't know what it was.

Not long after, our friend Jim, an amazing birder who knows bird songs like no one I've ever known, came to visit. He put a name to our mystery caller: the northern saw-whet owl. Using a bit of imagination, you can see how its repetitive call could conjure up the sound of a file sharpening a saw.

Now we hear the saw-whet owl every spring, even though we have yet to see him. It's one of the signs that spring has really arrived. He's back now, adding his call to that of the screech owl we're hearing these days. And before long, the great horned owls will be in the neighborhood for the summer.

I heard E.O. Wilson on NPR today, saying that while scientists have identified 1.8 million species of living things, that may be as few as 10 percent of all life on earth. In discussing the importance of learning about the creatures that share our planet with us, Wilson quoted a Chinese proverb that says, "The beginning of wisdom is getting things by their right names."

I'm not sure how wise we are yet, but we do know this one owl's name. And maybe one day, we'll see him, too.

See and hear the owls yourself

Encyclopedia of Life -- a new project . . .

Monday, April 30, 2007

In bloom - update

Part of what I love about wildflowers is their unpredictability. Just when you think you know what should be in bloom where and when, the temperature or rainfall or combination of the two intervenes. Flowers bloom early, flowers bloom late, flowers barely show, blooms overlap. A rare plant will bloom on a road cut bank and you'll not see it again for ten years.

UC Digital Library photos and information on flowers and more

Monday, April 30

I drove down Highway 88 from Pine Grove to Jackson today and returned home up Shake Ridge Ridge. Have to say this is an excellent year for lupine, in spite of (because of?) the dry winter. The patches of common lupine -- I don't know the species -- are abundant and expansive. The yerba santa is blooming early on the S-curves outside Sutter Creek.

At home today . . .

  • Four kinds of monkeyflowers
  • Wilding pinks (petrorhagia dubia)
  • Douglas meadowfoam
  • Some clover, a few lupine, wildland stars
  • Purple milkweed
  • Lots of vetch

The Indian soap plant should bloom before long.

Monday, April 23, Shake Ridge Road east of Oneto Road and west of New Chicago - Quartz Mountain Road:

Indian pinks (silene) -- red ones, pink ones -- on the banks on the south side of the road. Pink flowers are pinks... red flowers are pinks ... I even saw a white pink the other day. Go figure. . .

April 21, on our property near Daffodil Hill

  • A few lingering shooting stars
  • Purple milkweed in bud
  • Douglas meadowfoam in bud
  • Yellow monkeyflowers
  • Gold fields are fading
  • Native clover
  • Yellow violets
  • Wild ginger (shown at right)
  • White California lilac/deer brush (ceanothus)
  • Woodland stars

April 20, "old" Hwy 49 btwn Amador City and Sutter Creek

  • Chinese houses (shown at right)
  • Fiddleneck

April 15, PG&E Road below Tiger Creek Afterbay

  • Globe lilies (shown at right)
  • Various lupines

What's the right time for a project?

This is a follow-up to my "good design, right place, right time" post. (Which leads me to wonder...maybe the Tim Duane "design, location, timing" triad should be adopted as the triple bottom line of development criteria, just as "people, planet, and profit" has become the triple bottom line for many businesses.)

So when is the time "right" for a new development project?

To make that determination requires considering these questions:

  • Is the land designated for development in the local general plan?
  • Does the community need the project?
  • Does the community welcome the project?
  • Is there infrastructure capacity available to adequately serve the project -- roads, schools, water, wastewater, libraries, landfill, parks, trails, hospitals, and other facilities?
  • Are adequate services available -- emergency services, child care, medical services?
  • Will the project make life better for people who already live here or at least not make it worse?
I'd say if the answer to any one of these questions is "no," then the time is not right for the project. Think about it: why should a project go forward if schools are overcrowded, wastewater capacity is nearly gone, traffic is backing up on local roads, emergency responders are overstressed, the project doesn't provide housing or facilities locals need, the community really doesn't want it, or it makes life worse for those of us who live here already?

So who decides when the time is right? Some would say developers, who do market research, buy ranch land cheap so they can maximize profits, and propose projects based on their research and profit needs.

But the decision really rests with a community -- us -- and the elected officials who represent us. Just because a developer wants to build doesn't mean the time is right. It might be -- but then again, it may make more sense to raise cows, not people, on that inexpensive ranch land for at least a little while longer.

More development principles

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Una grande sierra nevada

Yesterday afternoon, following the weekend's storm, the Valley air was scrubbed clean of dust, dirt, smog and smoke. The Sierra stood in the distance, at the same time close, and huge -- looming like the Himalaya above the green valley and foothills.

The Range of Light was indeed light -- bright, white, gleaming light, thanks to the weekend snowfall -- with purple-blue where forests cover mountain slopes. And one could see deep into the east, far to the north and south: Mokelumne Peak, Pyramid Peak, Blue Mountain, and much, much more.

It was a scene unreal in its beauty.

On days like that, I can begin to imagine what people felt when they first viewed "una grande sierra nevada" -- a great snowy mountain range. We're blessed to have those days, and these mountains.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Nature's sanctuary

Some people find spiritual sustenance in church. Others, like me, find it in nature. There truly are places that make your heart rejoice -- where your cares fall away and you revel in the beauty and wonder of the world.

The North Fork Mokelumne River canyon is one of those places for me. I love it all, from the tiniest mushroom to the huge, granite Calaveras Dome near Salt Springs. I love it in every season. I love it in every color. I love it at every time of day. It is a place that makes me feel whole, connected to human and geologic time.

That river canyon is millions of years old, but human history there is relatively short -- maybe the last 2,500 to 3,000 years. Over time, the water carved its way through rock. The great forests grew up. The wildlife moved in. And native people found a way to make a living as well as a trade route to their counterparts in the Eastern Sierra.

So for more than 17 years, I have tried to protect just 17 miles of the North Fork Mokelumne River. -- to make sure people can hike down into that steep canyon in the future and feel what it's like to be totally surrounded by forest, to see flowing water shaping ancient rock.

When the Power Fire hit the canyon back in 2004, a year in which I'd already lost my father-in-law, I felt like someone else I knew had died. I knew intellectually that fire is part of nature in the Sierra. I know that fires can be rejuvenating -- and much of the Power Fire was good for the forest. But my heart was sick.

And now, Sierra Pacific Industries, California's largest private landowner, which has been destroying more and more of our Sierra forests with clearcuts, wants to clearcut the upper, north-facing slopes of the Devil's Nose -- the part of the mountain most visible from Amador County and scenic Highway 88. They want to log along the creeks that lead to the river and in the deep river canyon near the North Fork itself. And once again, I am feeling sad and sick.

This time, though, there's no intellectual balancing to help me cope. Logging can be done sustainably, but clearcutting is not a force of nature. It is not good for Sierra forests. It destroys habitat, kills off wildlife that are forced to move into already occupied habitat elsewhere. And it adds to future fire risk by creating acres of highly flammable young trees that are all needles -- the part of trees that really carry fire. It is the conversion of diverse natural forest to farm-like plantation.

And logging along tributary streams and the river is not a good thing, especially right here, right now. We know that rare foothill yellow-legged frogs in the canyon are dropping in number. We know the watershed was hammered by SPI's post-Power Fire logging (when I first saw that in person, I couldn't sleep for two days). And now, SPI wants to log out the remaining large trees -- the ones most useful for wildlife, the ones that may have been there for maybe hundreds of years, near the river.

And so my heart is sick again, and my head is hurting, too.

For more on current efforts to stop SPI's unsustainable logging, see the websites of Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch and Forest Ethics

What makes a good project?

Back in 1993, UC Berkeley planning professor Dr. Tim Duane spoke at a Foothill Conservancy meeting in Jackson. Since Duane grew up in Nevada County, he had personal as well as professional experience with foothill growth.

Duane talked about growth coming to the foothills in the form of "equity-amenity refugees" -- people with large amounts of equity from the sale of their urban homes looking for an amenity-filled lifestyle. Sound familiar?

He warned about problems other areas had with wastewater disposal when they grew beyond their infrastructure capacity. He talked about clustering development to protect wildlife habitat and open space. And he raised a number of other points for the audience to consider.

At the end of the presentation, Pat Crosby, now a city councilman in Sutter Creek, asked Duane, "What makes a good project?" I'll never forget Duane's answer, because it was so simple.

He said, "A good project is well designed, built in the right place, at the right time." That pretty much says it all. Good design alone is not enough. Location alone is not enough. Timing alone is not enough. A good project must contain all of these elements, together.

More on this another day. . . but see more development principles

Friday, April 13, 2007

What are "deciders" for?

After a long hard work week, the last thing I expected to be doing Friday night was writing a blogpost. But after reading the latest articles in the Amador Ledger Dispatch about wastewater and traffic, I just couldn't help myself. So I started this one.

Right now, the available excess wastewater treatment and disposal capacity in our county is quickly disappearing. Solving that problem will take millions of dollars, and it won't happen overnight.

Our roads are becoming increasingly jammed and there is no solution in sight -- especially considering local voters' distaste for taxes and the constraints imposed by our topography.

Meanwhile, the cities of Jackson and Sutter Creek, and the county itself are considering major development projects: Wicklow Way, Gold Rush, and Jackson Hills. And with the sale of the Howard Ranch to developers, Ione may see a major project in its future before too long. These subdivisions proposals are often written and talked about as if they're a done deal. But are they?

Subdivisions must be approved by a city council or board of supervisors, or in some cases, a planning commission. Developers do not have a right to convert a cattle pasture into houses just because they spend a lot of money on plans and studies. They must gain the approval of the local government first.

The local government must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to disclose the environmental impacts of the project. The project must be consistent with the local general plan and zoning code -- including the sections that address roads and other infrastructure. Ultimately, local officials must approve or reject the project in a discretionary vote.

And you know what? They can say no. They truly can. If they couldn't, the matter would never come to them for a decision, would it? Developers would just walk up to the permit counter, pay their fees, and start up the bulldozers.

In some cases, including situations where a project is inconsistent with a general plan, state law even requires the local council or supervisors to say no.

Here's what a League of California Cities publication on California's land use planning framework has to say about subdivision review, "After a public hearing, the local agency may approve, conditionally approve, or deny the map after making specific findings."

Of course, all of this is subject to myriad statutes and case law. But sometimes I wonder if our local media, local planners, and even our elected "deciders" understand that decisionmakers have any discretion at all. A plan is not a project. A proposal is not a subdivision. And when a community has limited wastewater and road capacity, it may not be prudent to approve large projects that would use up all that capacity, and more.

Communities, like families, ultimately have to live within their means -- whether those means are water, wastewater, schools, fire protection, roads, or child care facilities. If they don't, the consequences can be pretty dire.

Our deciders need to make decisions that are in the public interest. It's not an easy job. They are put under tremendous pressure by all of the competing interests in the community and California's post-Prop 13 funding realities. And they have to sort out myths from the facts: what is a "property right"? What does the law really require?

Still, the decisions are theirs to make. And that's what we elect them to do.

Articles on Amador wastewater and traffic.

California land use basics

California Goverment Code on subdivision approval

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A world without hawks

Late this afternoon, I drove home in the unsettled weather typical of a foothill spring. The storm that blew through today was breaking up. It was raining, then sunny, then misting, then gray again. Heavy hailstorms often intervene on days like this, but today saw a gentler storm-end.

The grass, shrubs, and trees were every possible shade of green. The vernal pools were ringed in yellow -- some playing host to ducks fattening up on fairy shrimp. The swales were washed in color. Blue dicks bloomed at the lower elevations, orange bush monkeyflowers joining in as I headed east. Calves' faces were the bright white that marks them as newly born.

All along the way, at the even intervals their territorial imperative requires, red-wing blackbirds clung to reeds, sat on fence wires, perched on fence posts, trilled their spring song and flashed their bright epaulets.

The late afternoon light was enveloping, warm, shifting, breaking through clouds, creating faint wide rainbow-ends in the distance. They faded in and out as the storm moved on and I drove toward home.

As I headed up out of Amador City, I saw the groups of Chinese houses that grow back in the east-facing shade along the now-old highway, and I asked myself -- how long do you have to live here to know where the Chinese houses bloom each year? or where to find the globe lilies? or when the blue penstemon blooms? or that the leopard lilies are nearly the last flower to show? and how many people go through life here without knowing any of these things, or even caring to know?

The sun was out again as I descended into Sutter Creek. The hills were glowing and the air had that washed-clean, post-storm clarity. The rainbow east of town was getting brighter and coming into focus. And I saw a large hawk, probably a red tail, floating over town.

I couldn't help but wonder how long the hawks will soar over Sutter Creek. Buteo hawks like red tails depend on prey that live in fields -- rodents, snakes, and such. The hawks' prey is not welcome on manicured golf courses or carefully tended landscapes, and the hawks likely cannot hunt in the dense chaparral that may serve as the leftover "open space" of development projects like Gold Rush.

The hawks have been here longer than any local residents, even native people. But through bad planning choices, we may yet drive them away.

I did not grow up in a place where hawks were abundant. Even after 28 years of country life, I find joy in every one I see. And I would hate to know the day when, driving down into Sutter Creek, one could not even hope to see a soaring hawk.

Photos of flowers, hawks, and such

Sunday, April 1, 2007

A walk on Electra Road

Pete and I went for a nice walk today on Electra Road, along the Mokelumne River. We were out there last weekend, too. Aside from having to keep an eye out for traffic on the narrow road, it's a wonderful place to take a spring foothill river walk.

Electra's always beautiful, but in spring it's especially so. The leafing-out alder and willow stand in bright contrast to the deep blue-green river, and the flowers are fabulous.

Many more flowers were in bloom this week than last. We saw countless California poppies, three kinds of purple lupine, the first Chinese globe lilies, abundant scorpion flowers (phacelia), fringe pod, dudleya, Chinese houses (collinsia), fiddlenecks, popcorn flowers, a couple kinds of brodiaea, some yellow monkeyflowers, and the promise of more to come in the next few weeks.

In addition to the flowers, we watched a pair of common mergansers, a number of black phoebes, and numerous butterflies. Some we knew -- mourning cloaks, swallowtails -- some we didn't, but looked up later.

The mergansers, called "river chickens" by rafting guides, are interesting because the males and females look so different you could easily mistake them for different species.

The Electra run of the Mokelumne really is a "people's river," used by local residents as well as river lovers of all kinds. Today we saw groups having barbecues on the beach, folks watching the river flow by or soaking up the sun, walkers like us with dogs, families with kids, gold panners, teenagers, three cars full of people from Texas, three generations of guys fishing together, and a couple of whitewater kayakers.

Last week we met an entire family of South Asian-American children from Stockton, six in all, ranging in age from about eight to 21. It was their last day of spring break, and the eldest brother had taken everyone for a final day outside. As we left, they were standing side-by-side on the beach throwing rocks across the river -- girls in bright salwar kameez, boys in jeans and t-shirts, everyone barefoot, everyone happy.

The Electra run is also one of the premier kayak training runs in central California. Across the country, cities are building kayak parks to attract tourists and provide recreation for residents, but we have the real thing just south of Jackson.

The Bureau of Land Management may soon recommend the Electra run for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Protecting this section of river for future generations means that on beautiful spring days like today, families, kids, anglers, couples, tourists, wildflower watchers, birders, and paddlers can continue to appreciate the magic our local river has to offer.

I cannot imagine life here without it.

You can look up the flowers listed here -- and many more -- at the UC Digital Library.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lipstick on a pig

Some of the quaint sayings I remember from growing up in North Carolina are coming back to me lately. Here's one that seems to apply with increasing frequency: "It's like putting lipstick on a pig."

What that means, of course, is that however one might gussy up a pig, underneath the layers of makeup, fancy clothing, and jewelry, it's still a pig.

So how does this apply to things local? Well, think about the new sign proposed for Sutter Hill(see March 19 post and Sutter Creek planning documents). It's a crass, urban LCD advertising sign with Gold Rush features stuck on to make it "fit" and some revenue bones thrown to the Knight Foundry to make it harder to reject.

Or take the various big subdivisions proposed in the last couple of years. They're large lot, dumb-growth suburban projects that take out huge numbers of oak trees, chop up the landscape, and because everyone who will live in them must drive to do anything, will cause near-gridlock conditions on local roads. They're not designed to meet local housing needs or address state growth issues, but to attract affluent people who already have perfectly nice homes somewhere else.

But the developers are busy applying lipstick to these projects, hoping no one will notice what's underneath. They seem to believe that "amenities" like hiking trails, token parks, some money for schools, unbuildable land for "open space," and maybe a few low-wage jobs will be enough to help locals grow blind to the projects' shortcomings.

I think we still see better than that. At least I hope we do.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A bit about property rights

The question of property rights comes up at nearly every meeting of the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee. As you might imagine, the discussion is highly subjective.

Because of that, I recently suggested that the county counsel come speak to the committee and the public about what property rights are and aren't, and what can legally be done through the general plan and zoning. Maybe we'll see that happen before too long.

Meanwhile, I remembered having read a really good paper on the issue. Donald Rypkema, who calls himself a "crass, unrepentant, real estate capitalist Republican type," spoke on the matter a few years back at the National Building Museum. Rypkema's lecture, "Property Rights and Public Values," gives some historical context, addresses the "takings" issue, and discusses many of the misconceptions people have about property rights.

It's well worth a read.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A plan does not a project make

The state's recent rejection of San Joaquin County's water rights application for the Mokelumne River is a good reminder of this simple fact: until it’s approved and built, a plan for a water project is only that — a plan.

This is especially important to remember as we plan for our county's future. The recently developed regional Integrated Water Management Plan includes a long list of water and wastewater projects, some of which are highly speculative.

Some of the projects in the IRWMP are as likely to fail as succeed. They may be too expensive. They may damage the environment too much. There may not be enough water in the rivers for them or enough land suitable for wastewater disposal. Or people may just find them unacceptable.

On Thursday night, Jim Abercrombie, general manager of the Amador Water Agency, told the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee that water "will not be a limiting factor in the life" of the new general plan.

Now Jim may have meant: we have plenty of water to supply growth for the next 20 years -- which is true. We can add at least 30,000 to 40,000 people to our county's population based on current water supplies, even without water conservation, efficiency, or reuse programs.

However, what Jim said may have been interpreted as meaning that we can have unlimited growth, which is obviously not the case.

It all depends on whether we plan based on existing water sources or count on speculative projects that may never be built. Considering San Joaquin County's recent experience, as well as Amador County's failed Devil's Nose Project of the 1990s, we'd do well to focus on what is real today.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Of signs and such

Some folks are finding it hard to locate Sutter Creek since the construction of the Highway 49 bypass. Until good signs are in place, it's fairly easy to zip right by. This is of obvious concern to the merchants who rely on tourist traffic for a living.

The city's planning to put up some entry signs, but another idea has surfaced lately: a big, three-sided sign, complete with an ad-bearing video screen on each side, to be located at Sutter Hill. It's got a few Gold Country features -- large timbers, some rock, a Knight wheel -- but from the first time I saw the renderings the other night, I just knew it was all wrong for Sutter Creek.

I don't know about you, but something tells me that tourists don't come here for video ads, even when those ads are shown on a pseudo-Gold Country base and interspersed with pictures of downtown. If I were headed to a historic town for a visit, I'd certainly think twice if its gateway featured video ads for the local car dealer and casino. Let's hope the city and business owners find a more suitable way to direct tourist traffic to town.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Planning for youth

In his recent editorial, Amador Ledger Dispatch Editor Raheem Hosseini pointed out that Amador County communities have largely done a poor job of engaging youth and providing things for them to do.

Maybe that’s due in part to our county’s agricultural roots. On farms and ranches, kids don’t need youth or recreation centers, sports fields, or other urban-suburban amenities to keep them occupied. They have chores to do, greater responsibilities to assume as they mature,
4-H and Future Farmers of America to teach them social and leadership skills, and plenty of places to get outside and have fun. Who needs a skateboard when you can indulge a need for speed on horseback?

Leaders who grew up in a rural, agricultural setting may have difficulty understanding why some people think Amador County needs
more facilities and opportunities for youth. It’s not that they’ve been sticking their heads in the sand, but rather that the concept is simply outside their experience.

But the fact is, most local kids don’t live on farms and ranches anymore, and paying more attention to their needs is long overdue.

I’ve always been amazed that there are youth centers in Calaveras County’s small communities, including West Point and Mountain Ranch. If they can do it, certainly we can, too. And we should.

What’s happening with that empty Safeway building in Jackson, anyway? Seems ideal: a big building, right in town, with a large parking lot for a skate park. All it needs is a champion and some visionary leadership.

If we can have a Senior Foundation, why not a Youth Foundation?

Maybe Raheem could serve on the board.