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

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