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.