Monday, December 15, 2008

A trip to suburbia

Yesterday Pete and I went to Roseville to meet a friend and help her daughter shop for drums in a busy retail center. It's good to drive to Roseville now and then. It helps me remember why I like real cities, small towns, and the country, but really dislike suburbs.

I'm sure the people who live in Roseville are perfectly nice. But the whole place is designed for cars. And cars there are -- lane after lane after lane of them.

Some of the roads are five or six lanes wide. If you happen to land in the wrong lane, God help you. You'd better know where you're going or hope you can find a way to turn around.

Forget walking. You'd never make it across all the lanes of traffic. And while there are bike lanes, I imagine that only the most intrepid cyclists dare to use them

It reminded me of a radio news story I heard recently about the Tyson's Corner area in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Tyson's Corner is a sprawling "edge city" anchored by big malls. In the NPR story, (listen to the audio version) the reporter and his host tried to go in a straight line from point A to point B, but couldn't do it without circuitous routing and much driving. The host called it "traffic engineer hell."

Urban planners are trying to remake Tyson's Corner as a more pedestrian-friendly area, with housing, light rail service, green buildings and a gridded street layout.

I wonder if they'll ever try that in Roseville?

Here in Amador County, transportation officials are warning that if local growth proceeds in the locations and at the volumes predicted, we're going to need big, wide suburban streets of our own to avoid gridlock.

It's hard to imagine that Amador County residents really want Martell and Jackson to look like Roseville and Tyson's Corner, but that's where we're headed -- unless we find a better way, and soon. Rejecting the current batch of proposed subdivisions, or shrinking them to something less destructive, would be the best place to start.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sacrificing rivers for growth

I've walked along the Mokelumne River's Electra Run many times. It's a beautiful spot year-round. It's also the part of the Mokelumne used most by local residents. They come there to fish, picnic, and pan for gold. They come to teach their kids about rivers.

They are people of all ages, from all walks of life. What they have in common is a love of nature, and especially of rivers.

It's no secret that I love rivers and advocate for the Mokelumne. And it's no secret that I support keeping the portions of the Mokelumne that are still a river flowing for future generations. Because of that, I support National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne. It's simply the only way to keep our river a river.

I've been distressed by some of the discussion in recent Amador County general plan hearings. There are people in our county who want to sacrifice our rivers on the altar of unlimited growth. They are willing to destroy the Electra run, and the other special river places in our county, to grow more subdivisions and fuel more gridlock. And they don't understand that conservation and efficiency is the cheapest source of additional water supply.

The general plan is about the future -- what we want our county to be. I, for one, want it to be a place where people can enjoy and learn about rivers just like they can today.

The general plan is far from done. But those of you who care about the Mokelumne need to speak up now.

There are two good ways to show your support for keeping the Mokelumne a river. One is to sign on to support National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Mokelumne.

The other is to let the Amador County Board of Supervisors know what you think. Call or write and tell them what the river means to you. If you use the river, tell them how. If you come here from somewhere else and spend money while you're here, let them know that as well.

To some folks and officials in Amador County, the river is simply an abstract source of water. To many of us, it is a powerful force of nature, a source of pleasure, challenge, inspiration or rejuvenation -- and it's up to us to keep it that way.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Planning is more than theory

We took a salmon-watching trip on the Yuba River yesterday. To get there, we drove north through Amador, El Dorado, Placer and Nevada counties before heading west to Parks Bar, where the salmon spawn. It's a long trip.

The route's full of lessons relevant to the update of our county general plan, the "constitution" for future growth and development.

Amador still has a good number of working ranches along the northbound route. There are some ranches in southern El Dorado, but fewer and fewer as you head north.

Instead, as you drive through our neighboring foothill counties, you see suburban ranchettes that have chopped up the wildlife habitat, subdivisions in forests just waiting to burn, and ugly commercial strip development that looks like Anywhere, USA (hmm ... sorta like Martell). Highway 49 even turns into a freeway outside Grass Valley.

It's a vision of what our future will be if we don't take another course today. And it's a great reminder that land use planning is not an empty theoretical exercise. Planning actually determines what happens on the landscape, shapes communities, and directly affects everyone who lives in or visits a place.

Good planning can help working ranches stay in business, minimize commercial sprawl, and protect wildlife habitat, rivers and streams. It can focus development in towns so we don't need to expand our roads to freeways that no one can afford. It can minimize loss of life and property to wildland fire (and associated costs). And if it's clear on what's allowed where, it's more likely to attract economic investment (investors like certainty).

How can we make sure good planning happens here? For one thing, we need to convince our county's elected and appointed officials that planning actually matters. It's not about reviewing each project application as it comes along and deferring the hard decisions until then -- it's really about creating a clear plan.

Right now, the supervisors and planning commissioners are focused on this question as they review each part of the plan: "Will this limit property rights?"

Property rights matter, but they shouldn't be the only consideration. The officials should also be asking, "Will this keep our county a beautiful, safe, sustainable, and healthy place to live, work, visit and retire?"

In recent general plan hearings, some of the folks on the dais have seemed willing to sacrifice our community character and natural environment on the altar of property rights, without considering where that may lead.

I've seen where it leads. I was there just yesterday. And I don't think it's where most Amador County residents want to go.

It's time to get involved, folks

The supervisors and planning commissioners need to hear from those of you whose primary interest is not developing or subdividing your property. You deserve an equal say in our county's future. Tell them what matters to you and why, and remind them that they represent you, too.

Give your supervisor a call at 223-6470 or get involved in the general plan update hearings. For more information and meeting dates, see Amador County's general plan update website and the Foothill Conservancy's Amador County general plan update page.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Environment vs economy: a false choice?

That's the title of a November 5 blog post in the Christian Science Monitor by Eoin O'Connor. In it, O'Connor documents how Americans support protecting the environment. The public understands that it's possible to do that and have a strong economy at the same time.

Here's a quote from the post:

"When asked directly, most Americans don’t say that the economy and the environment are inherently opposed. Here’s what a 2006 Los Angeles Times poll [PDF] of 1,478 adults found:

"The public is optimistic . . . that protecting the environment does not have to conflict with economic growth, long a contention of those who are looking to dismantle or weaken environmental protection laws. Almost three times as many said it does not have to conflict as said that it does (70% compared to 25%)."

O'Connor also says,
"As the conservative environmentalist John Bliese pointed out in 1999, US states with stricter environmental regulations outperform states with weaker regulations “on all the economic measures.” The same is true for countries – those with the most stringent environmental rules tend to show the best economic performance."
It's worth remembering.

Some of the local powers-that-be are trying to convince us that to have a sound local economy, we need to sacrifice our county's remaining rivers, oak woodlands, forests, scenic beauty, and ranches.

They are hoping that you don't care enough to make a fuss about it. I am hoping that you do.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The water shortage myth

Update: I just found another excellent, detailed article on California water and the current situation, by Don Bacher, editor of The Fish Sniffer. You can read it here.

Second update: I just received a comment about a film that addresses global water problems. Please note that this blog focuses on one small, rural county in California's Sierra Nevada. This post is not intended to address larger world water issues.


The rain is back. What a wonderful thing it is this time of year to hear the rain on the roof for hours and sleep in because it's too wet to head out to walk.

The rain led me to read an interesting item on California water today, and I wanted to share it with you.

In this article from Forbes magazine, economist David Zetland argues that charging the true price of water would cause people to use it much more efficiently, and reduce demand. It's a simple principle: People waste resources when they're cheap and conserve them if they cost more. Think about how people were changing their driving habits when the price of gas went earlier this year.

You may also have read the recent stories about how the California Department of Water Resources is predicting low water deliveries for next year. People who watch water on the conservation side of the world consider that a political ploy, intended to advocate for more dams and a peripheral canal around the Delta.

At the same time, some of the water purveyors are trying to convince us all that we're in the midst of a historic drought. But is it true?

Outdoor writer Tom Stienstra says no. See his brief article, "Drought, or water heist?"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A fall Sierra walk

After such a dry spring and warm summer, I didn't expect much in the way of fall color this year. But in the last week or so, the trees have started coming on.

Early rain and some cold nights have given the leaves a shove into autumn. The color is especially vivid in the colder drainages, the creek and river canyons.

Yesterday, I went hiking with a friend on the Caples Creek trail, which starts near the creek's confluence with the Silver Fork of the American River, off Silver Fork Road. The heart-shaped black cottonwood leaves were a shimmering deep gold. The aspens were at peak color: light, not leaf. The willows flashed against the dark granite and water along the stream.

The black oaks, which I expected to be really disappointing this year, were a rich golden yellow trending to red, cascading down the slopes. Rose leaves clung to creek-side dogwoods. The creek itself was flowing clear and slow, transporting packs of leaves downstream. It was a clear, bright-blue Sierra day.

The Caples Creek trail is also noteworthy because of its big, old Jeffrey pines, cedars and firs; the big granite shoulders that intrude from each side of the canyon; lovely meadows with native plants; and a basalt postpile on the canyon's north side.

The trail has wonderful flowers in the spring. We could see their remnants yesterday: fascinating seedpods on the lilies, scarlet berries on the false Solomon seal, gnarled, desiccated, maroon snow plant. (I am waiting for the day when someone writes the Field Guide to Dead Flowers of the Sierra Nevada, but doubt it's at the top of any naturalist's list.)

We didn't see anyone on the trail yesterday, a Wednesday, but there was plenty of evidence of hikers and trail bikes (motorcycles). The lower part of the trail is open to motorcycles, which are deepening the ruts, widening the trail, and adding to the dust this time of year.

But on this weekday, at least, the Caples Creek trail was a beautiful, quiet place to hike. We listened to the birds, chickarees, and creek. We examined the abundant pine and fir cones. And most of all, we breathed the clear, clean air and rejoiced in a lovely fall Sierra day.

Note: All photos are from the Caples Creek trail, shot in October 2007.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Everyone should count

I've lived in Amador County for 29 years, nearly all of my adult life. I have wonderful friends and colleagues here. Some are members of families who have lived here for generations. Many of them are not (in fact, I would guess that most people who live here are not from the old families).

My friends and colleagues take care of people when they're aging, sick and dying. They teach in our schools. They own businesses that employ local people and contribute to our economy. They create art and music that enriches our lives. They run local nonprofit groups. They spend money in local stores. They raise livestock and grow food. They design and build homes. They save lives and property by responding to fire and medical emergencies. They raise large sums of money to help local cancer patients. They bring in retirement dollars that support local businesses and jobs.

They contribute in more ways than I can begin to list here. They are an essential part of our community even if they do not own large amounts of land or adhere to conservative political principles.

Last week, the county board of supervisors and planning commission met to discuss the updating of the county general plan. That general plan will shape our county for decades. It will affect how each one of us lives, every day, by determining how, where, and how much development occurs in the county, as well as where development doesn't occur.

The general plan will influence everything that makes up our quality of life: small town identity, air quality, roads and traffic, wildlife, scenic vistas, schools, economic health, rivers and forests, agriculture, and more.

Many of the speakers at the three days of general plan meetings had a clear message for those of us who are not major landowners:
You do not count. What you think does not matter. You are not "representative" of the community. If you are a "liberal," or worse yet, went to UC Berkeley, you are especially suspect. Regardless of the contributions you make, only we -- the multi-generation landowners and the developers and pro-development interests who are using us to their own ends -- really matter.
This was not unexpected. It's the boiling up of a simmering community conflict that is seldom openly discussed. That conflict came to the fore during the District 5 supervisor race two years ago. Local rancher Brian Oneto ran as the archetypal representative of the old-family, landowner power base and those who agree with a "let us do what we want with our land regardless of what it does to you" philosophy. Mel Welsh, a registered nurse with an impressive record of community service, ran on her record and a comprehensive platform.

Oneto succeeded in portraying Welsh as a Nancy Pelosi-loving, "San Francisco liberal" whose goals was to take away landowner property rights. The message was clear and explicit: "She is not one of us." It worked and Oneto won.

Many of the folks involved in that campaign are now part of the current effort to derail two years of community work on the general plan update.

Events like last week's hearings make me worry about our county's future. If we cannot learn to appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of all of our county's residents, how in the world can we begin to deal with the challenges we face, especially in these increasingly difficult economic times? And what will we do as our communities become more ethnically and culturally diverse?

The way I see it, we can't afford to reject anyone or any idea. We need to embrace our neighbors, acknowledge their contributions, and use all of our collective knowledge and experience to build a stronger, resilient, more capable community. To do anything less is beyond foolish.

No one has all of the answers. But if we work together, we'll come a lot closer to success than we will ever get by discounting the ideas and contributions of people with whom we disagree.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Speaking up for civility

Dismayed by the name-calling that is starting over Gold Rush Ranch, I thought I ought to weigh in on the side of civility and respect. Below is the text of an item I sent the Amador Ledger-Dispatch, shown as published online.

Recent letters to the editor and op-ed columns are a good reminder of how passionately people feel about the Gold Rush Ranch Resort proposal. Some think the project is too big, too destructive and too costly for Sutter Creek. Others think that Gold Rush is the best solution for a range of challenges facing the town and its businesses. I have friends in both camps.

The disagreement is a reminder that good people can and do come to very different conclusions about important local issues. That's normal and healthy provided it leads to civil and respectful debate. But when the disagreement turns into personal attacks, it's not good for Sutter Creek or the larger community. We are too small to allow issues like this to divide us so dramatically.

Everyone involved in this discussion has legitimate concerns. The individuals, groups and public agencies concerned about Gold Rush are worried about public safety, fiscal accountability, habitat destruction, overcrowded schools, sprawl, jammed intersections, air quality and more. Gold Rush supporters are concerned about downtown business, local recreation and city wastewater facilities. All of these issues matter. And we all want Sutter Creek and Amador County to stay a wonderful place to live, do business, work and retire.

If we remember that we share common goals and treat each other with civility and respect, we can move through and beyond Gold Rush Ranch to build a stronger community, one more capable of constructively addressing challenges and solving problems. But if the conflict deteriorates into stone throwing and name calling, all of us will lose, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

Instead, we can try to understand each others' points of view, focus on the facts about the project as determined by independent analysts and follow a key principle of win-win negotiating: Be hard on the problem and soft on the people. We may never agree on Gold Rush. But we can disagree in a way that preserves the sense of community that is the ultimate expression of our local quality of life. In my opinion, that's the true path to a successful and prosperous future for Sutter Creek.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Economic woes, and budding success

I've been visiting family on the East Coast as the financial crisis unfolds. These are "interesting times" unlike anything my baby-boomer generation has ever seen. It's quite unsettling.

But having a little distance on Amador County is also a good reminder of this often-forgotten fact: Amador County's economy is tied to regional, state, national and global economies. We don't exist in an economic vacuum.

That's important to remember as people look to Gold Rush to "save" Sutter Creek and a new committee looks at revitalizing downtown Jackson. Things are tough all over, not only in our small towns.

I picked up some information in my home town that I plan to share with the Jackson committee. The downtown here, which was thriving when I was a child in the 1960s, started to die with the birth of malls in the 1970s. Efforts to make it more mall-like simply sped its demise.

Now, after years of decline, and subsequent years of effort to revitalize the historic business district, downtown is coming back to life. People are revamping the beautiful historic buildings. There are new small businesses, professional offices, a brewpub, ethnic restaurants, new housing, and night life for the first time in years. And the group heading the effort has just finished market studies intended to help determine which businesses are needed to make the downtown even more of a go-to (and live-in) destination for locals.

It didn't happen by accident, and it didn't happen without some missteps. But people have persevered, and it appears they're on the road to success. I don't see any reason we can't do the same in our small towns. But it may take a while, especially in these interesting times.

Monday, September 15, 2008

More on Gold Rush Ranch

On September 2, the Amador Ledger-Dispatch published an op-ed I wrote for the Foothill Conservancy regarding how Gold Rush Ranch has sold itself to the public.

You can also see a rebuttal letter from Ben Klotz on the Ledger's website. Among other things, Mr. Klotz takes issue with my using "Fourteen thousand cars" instead of "car trips" to describe the traffic Gold Rush Ranch will bring to the Sutter Hill-Martell-Sutter Creek area. He's right: Car trip is the correct term and I should have used it (mea culpa). But whether it's 14,000 cars driving once a day or 1,400 cars taking 10 trips a day, Gold Rush will still create traffic jams and gridlock.

Mr. Klotz and I do agree about this: People should focus on the facts when discussing Gold Rush Ranch.

For more facts about Gold Rush-related traffic, just take a look at the traffic section in the draft EIR and judge for yourself. You can see the vehicle trip per unit data on page 5-17 (remember -- there are nearly 1,350 homes) and read more about what that means to road capacity and traffic flow.

You can also read the Amador County Transportation Commission and CalTrans comments on the traffic analysis in the DEIR. Both agencies take issue with that analysis. At the same time, they point out that Gold Rush will cause significant traffic problems.

I respect the local residents who support Gold Rush Ranch. They're entitled to their opinions.

I just don't believe a suburban-style golf-course subdivision that will use huge amounts of water, export wastewater rather than being a disposal solution, jam roads and highways, crowd local schools, not build a single sports field for more than 450 resident kids, and destroy more than 13,000 trees -- including nearly 2,000 heritage oaks -- is worth it.

I'm not alone. The Sutter Creek Planning Commission hasn't voted on the EIR or the project, but its members seem quite concerned. Local residents are speaking up, too. If you'd like to join the growing number of Sutter Creek residents who oppose Gold Rush Ranch as currently proposed, call Preserve Historic Sutter Creek at 209-559-3685.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Taxpayer dollars down the drain?

As the Gold Rush project has evolved, several catch phrases have come to mind. “Lipstick on a pig” is one. “Pig in a poke” another. But lately, the most appropriate phrase seems to be “bait and switch.” Here’s why …

Back in 2001, Sutter Creek and the Amador Regional Sanitation Authority were planning for the day ARSA could no longer dispose of wastewater in Ione. The city and ARSA paid $750,000 for the right to spray 1,300 acre feet of wastewater a year on the Noble Ranch, a large parcel on the edge of town. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Noble Ranch is the site of the proposed Gold Rush Ranch subdivision. Here's how the Amador Ledger Dispatch described the deal, "In 2001, the city negotiated a public/private partnership to purchase the land, with developers of Gold Rush Golf Resort so that the city and ARSA kept disposal rights and rights to lines, reservoirs and easements on the property."

Ever since then, the public has been led to believe that Gold Rush's golf course and other irrigation needs would solve Sutter Creek's wastewater disposal problem. Just a few weeks ago, a Ledger reporter praised Gold Rush for this very reason.

Apparently the reporter hadn't read the draft EIR for Gold Rush, which was released not long ago. As it turns out, the development itself will keep the city from fully using its disposal easement on the Noble Ranch.

Here's what the pertinent section of the EIR says, "Increased treatment capacity at the WWTP, including that required to treat Project-generated wastewater, will also increase treated effluent disposal and storage requirements. The City retains a 1,300 afy treated effluent disposal spray easement on the 833-acre Noble Ranch portion of the Project site. The Project's use of recycled water from the WWTP will provide for utilization/disposal of approximately 347 afy of this amount (with the development of the golf course intended to facilitate the bulk of this disposal). The remaining 953 afy of the easement will not be available on the Project site as a result of development and other land uses that will be incompatible with use of the spray easement." (emphasis added)

What does it mean? The development of the Noble Ranch will keep ARSA and Gold Rush from using the full wastewater easement they paid for back in 2001.

Further, the development itself will eventually generate more wastewater than anyone plans to use on the site. If Gold Rush is built as proposed, the city will have to find another place for that excess wastewater--as well as all the wastewater from the rest of Sutter Creek! I doubt that’s what the city and ARSA had in mind back when they helped buy the property.

It makes me wonder how long the city has known. One clue should have come in 2006, when Gold Rush released a plan that didn’t acknowledge the wastewater easement. According to a Ledger Dispatch story, ARSA and Sutter Creek City Manager Rob Duke took exception at that time.

The Gold Rush draft EIR indicates that the city is aware of the problem now. It says, “The City’s primary objectives are to ensure that development within the City is in compliance with the City’s General Plan and the City’s implementing ordinances. The City’s objectives also include retaining the existing 1,300 AFY effluent disposal spray easement on the Noble Ranch or ensuring that any loss of the existing easement disposal capacity is replaced without financial impact to the City. Replacement of spray easement capacity may be achieved through a combination of acquisition of easements on alternative effluent disposal sites, additional effluent storage facilities and fees to provide funding for use by the City in securing replacement effluent disposal capacity.” (emphasis added)

Gold Rush is clearly not the solution for Sutter Creek’s future wastewater disposal. And the city knows it. You just have to wonder what else will come to light about the project in the coming weeks.

The public hearing for the EIR is on Monday, August 25.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Gold Rush Ranch - a matter of scale

The Gold Rush Ranch Resort project is being reviewed this summer by the Sutter Creek Planning Commission and City Council. The developers have sold this project to many local residents in their multi-year PR campaign.

Many Sutter Creek residents even think the project has been scaled back from what was proposed years ago. But that's simply not true. Consider that Gold Rush will
  • Have than 1,300 homes, most of which are arranged on the landscape in a typical, large-lot suburban design
  • More than double the city's current population in as few as 10 years, per the EIR
  • Remove more than 13,000 trees over 400 acres, mostly oaks, including nearly 50 percent of the heritage oaks on the site
  • Add more than 13,000 car trips a day to local roads, in an area with some of the worst congestion in the county
  • Mass-grade more than 500 acres
Meetings and public hearings on the project are being held this summer, nearly every week. After years of slowly moving this project along, the developers apparently want to push it through before the November election.

The sheer size of this project in relation to the existing town should give everyone pause.

See a meeting schedule and links to Gold Rush documents here.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Local currencies build local economies

To build a strong local economy, we need to support local small businesses and help them grow.

Using a local currency is a creative way to strengthen a community and help local businesses thrive in the face of competition from the Internet, big box stores, and chains. A local currency is like regular money, but can only be spent locally, and only with businesses that accept it -- which tend to be independent small businesses.

I first read about the use of local currency about 10 years ago, but had pretty much forgotten about the idea until a recent trip to Washington state.

At a coffee shop in Port Angeles, I noticed a sign advertising the town's "Downtown Dollars" program. The dollars can be spent like cash -- but only in the local businesses that accept them.

New England's Berkshire region has a similar local currency called BerkShares. People exchange U.S. dollars for BerkShares at participating banks. For every $90 in federal money, they get 100 BerkShares, which they can spend just like cash in any business that accepts them. That means consumers get a 10 percent discount -- $100 worth of goods or services for $90. Here's an illustration of how it works.

This isn't something new. According to the E.F. Schumacher Society, sponsor of the BerkShare program, "local currencies were widely used in the United States in the early 1900s."

There are many ways to help build a stronger local economy. This might be one of them.

More info

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Still no answer

I still don't have an answer to the chicken-and-egg question I posed last month -- whether Jim Conklin of the Amador County Business Council came to local business people to organize them or whether they sought him out. Jack Mitchell never replied to my queries.

I did learn a little more, though. Conklin's Amador group will have a 10-member board. He's asking groups to pay $2,500 for a seat on it. The council will also have 25 general members, who must pay $1,000 to participate. Direction is set by the board but must be ratified by a 2/3 vote of the 35 members. Conklin gets all the money.

So Conklin, who already heads at least three other groups of this type in other counties, will be paid $50,000 by local people -- money that could be going to the Amador Council of Tourism, the Amador Economic Development Corporation, or other organizations already working on building a stronger local economy. Nice gig.

What's he going to do for that money? I guess you have to join the group, or watch the news, to find out. Since he's already been to the planning commission and supervisors on matters related to the general plan update, perhaps we'll see him at the Gold Rush hearings this summer.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chicken and egg question

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the new Amador (or Amador County) Business Council, a group that seems to be newly active in the general plan update.

As I noted in that post, the group is led by a gentleman named Jim Conklin, who's from Stockton. Best I can figure, he goes around to different counties setting up these "business councils." Local business people evidently pay him to represent them in the public arena.

A quick online search shows that Conklin has headed groups like this in Santa Cruz, San Benito, San Joaquin and most recently, Calaveras. And now he's here, too.

I nearly crashed a meeting of the group earlier this month, but decided to go upcountry that afternoon instead. Better to enjoy the mountains and flowers than show up where you're not expected and probably not too welcome.

But I'm still curious. Did the folks involved in Amador contact Conklin and ask for help, or did he approach them? And if they're really concerned about the big picture for our county's future, why not form a group like Sacramento's diverse Valley Vision instead of another "business" organization?

Twice now, I've sent e-mails to Amador Ledger Dispatch Publisher Jack Mitchell asking the Conklin chicken-and-egg question and mentioning Valley Vision.

He hasn't responded.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dining out locally -- two recent experiences

I've eaten out twice in Amador County in the last two weeks. One evening was very disappointing. But last night I had a delicious supper, with good service at a decent price. You can't ask for much more than that.

That meal was at Oko Sushi, a locally owned sushi bar and Japanese restaurant in the Martell Sales Tax Sacrifice Zone. It's an attractive restaurant with a diverse menu and good food.

Everyone gets a steaming bowl of miso soup shortly after arrival. I ate most, but not all of a huge bowl of chicken and egg donburi (chicken, egg and green onion cooked and served on rice -- homey Japanese fare). It was as good as any I've ever had, and served quickly enough that I easily made my 7 pm meeting. The vibe of the restaurant is friendly and welcoming. I'll be going back soon.

Two weekends ago was a different story. It was our wedding anniversary, so we went to a pricey, fancier restaurant in Sutter Creek for supper. The food was mediocre and the service was terrible. We waited more than 10 minutes for water and a record-setting 25 minutes for bread. And we paid quite a bit for the privilege. It was the first time we'd been to this incarnation of the restaurant -- and it's likely the last. So much for building local clientele.

If only someone could recreate the food and ambience of the old Caffe Via D'Oro, especially in its earlier years. Jerry and Deborah -- we miss you!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Of hawks and priuses

I've been commuting to Sacramento at least a couple of days a week for 20 years, but will kick that bad habit soon. As my commuting days wind down, I've been thinking about the Amador-Sacramento drive.

I've recently noticed a decided increase in the number of Toyota Priuses (Prii?) on the road. There are many more in Amador than just a few months ago. Blue, dark red, white, gray, green, silver, black -- I think I've seen them all now. It's an interesting trend, considering that just a year ago they were still relatively rare.

I've also been thinking about the things I will miss about commuting. I will not miss much about driving to and from work in the dark.

But I will miss watching the spring bloom move from the valley to the foothills. I'll miss the wildlife, too -- not the crazy drivers who've run me off the road several times, but the herons, egrets and occasional belted kingfisher. And I'll miss the hawks that perch on Highway 16's power poles in the early morning hours.

Two weeks ago, I started intermittent commute counts of Priuses and hawks. On the first day, the Priuses scored 4, the hawks 6. Monday saw an 8-8 roundtrip tie, including Priuses spotted in a lunchtime outing in town.

Seeing eight Priuses in a single day is a sign of the times. Seeing eight hawks on any day is a gift.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

New "business council" forming

Word is there's a new organization forming in the county, the "Amador Business Council." There's not much publicly available on the group yet, but from what I've seen so far, the organizing personnel seem to have a great deal of overlap with the executive council of the Amador Citizens for Responsible Government, those fine folks who call smart growth advocates Fascists on their website and offended the General Plan Advisory Committee by using the term enviro-Nazi at the final GPAC meeting.

Maybe the businessmen associated with that group are trying to develop a more moderate, civil public face. After all, smart-growth people do spend money locally.

Rumor has it that the group is being "facilitated" by a consultant, Jim Conklin, who has done similar work in other counties. Here's what I found about him on the Internet:
I truly wonder whether we really need another "business" organization in this county. I do think we could use a comprehensive, broad-based group like Valley Vision. That group's board of directors represents a community cross-section with an in-depth understanding of what the Sacramento region needs to thrive in the future. It even includes (gasp) environmentalists.

One thing I find interesting about groups that purport to organize "leaders" in our community is how they tend to exclude people who don't agree with them because they don't consider those people to be leaders. We'll see if this group follows that pattern or can reach beyond it.

Here's the only thing about the group posted on the Internet so far, in Rosalee Pryor-Escamilla's response to the campaign questions posed by the Ledger Dispatch.

Stay tuned for more.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Oneto conflicted on both casinos

When Brian Oneto ran for District 5 supervisor two years ago, he promised to fight the two new casinos proposed for Amador County.
"As your Supervisor, I will continue to fight against new casinos in Amador County!"
That's a direct quote from Brian's campaign website.

Problem is -- Brian has conflicts of interest on both the Buena Vista and Plymouth casinos due to his and his family's ownership of adjoining properties. This issue was raised during the 2006 campaign, but as you can see on Brian's website, he pledged to fight the casinos -- and evidently, voters thought that's what he would do.

Amador Ledger-Dispatch
Publisher Jack Mitchell brushed off the conflict concern when he endorsed Oneto that year (he and I had a rather spirited e-mail exchange about the subject).

This last year, Oneto stepped down during the Buena Vista process after participating in a number of closed sessions. And now, the Fair Political Practices Commission has opined that he has a conflict on Plymouth as well.

Here's what the HomeTown Radio website had to say about it:

Supervisor Oneto will not participate in Plymouth Casino talks due to conflict of interest

Due to a conflict of interest as determined by the Fair Political Practices Commission, FPPC, District 5 Supervisor Brian Oneto will not participate in the governmental decisions facing the Amador County Board of Supervisors related to the efforts of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians to take land into trust for the construction of a proposed casino. According to the Supervisors Office, Oneto has not and will not participate in closed session decisions and open session discussions. Oneto has been stepping out of meetings on this issue from the start.

And now the residents of District 5 find themselves without representation on this important issue. Oneto can't even be in the supervisors' chamber when the matter is discussed.

I can't help but wonder what Butch Cranford is thinking today. Cranford, an ardent casino opponent and another District 5 supervisor candidate, endorsed Oneto after the June primary. I wonder if he's rethinking that decision now.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Where's AWA's water conservation message?

Update, June 10: I received a note from Amador Water Agency General Manager Jim Abercrombie today about -- as he put it -- my "complaining about him behind his back" for using this blog to suggest that the agency put water conservation information on its home page.

Apparently someone read this entry and mentioned it to Jim (maybe it's the AWA mystery daily visitor?) . So the agency has now added a Water Conservation link, buried in the small links on the left side of the home page. It's about time. One of the links on the conservation page was on the Foothill Conservancy home page for six months.

+ + + + +

Thanks to our unusually dry spring, it's a relatively dry year in the Mokelumne River watershed, from which the Amador Water Agency gets its water.

East Bay MUD, which supplies water to the East Bay, gets its water from the Mokelumne, too. That agency started a mandatory water rationing program this spring. According to its website,
"The District is seeking a 15 percent reduction in water use overall. Single-family residential customers are being asked to cut back 19 percent."
EBMUD's website also includes a link to water-saving tips on its home page.

So you'd think the Amador Water Agency would be urging its customers to conserve water -- especially since conservation and efficiency are now part of the agency's strategic plan.

Maybe the Water Agency is doing something along those lines, but you'd never know from looking at its website. There's not one new word about water conservation or efficiency on the AWA home page, and certainly nothing indicating that we might be in a drier-than-normal year.

The home page does include a link to information about AWA's demonstration water-saving garden, but that's been on the site for years. There's also some minimal information about water conservation in the site's FAQs, but it's truly that -- minimal.

Putting water conservation information on an Internet home page -- or a link to that information -- is really cheap. Excellent information is readily available (see the California Urban Water Conservation Council's H20 House site). Nearly everyone has Internet access these days. So why doesn't the Water Agency use its website to promote conservation and efficiency?

Surely an agency that is planning a $44 million dam project (raising Lower Bear Reservoir) can spend a few hundred bucks on a web link in a dry year.

Maybe the AWA employee who reads this blog nearly every day can comment and let me know what the agency is doing to encourage its customers to conserve this year.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

How do newspapers endorse candidates?

I'm confused. I've read Amador Ledger-Dispatch Publisher Jack Mitchell's explanation of his support and future newspaper endorsement of David Pincus. I've also read Raheem Hosseini's column saying that Jack's endorsement isn't an endorsement from the paper.

Jack says that Ledger parent corporation Main Street Media isn't involved in the endorsement other than giving him authority to make it. But Raheem says the paper is subsidizing Pincus's ads. Confusing.

No one would dispute Jack's right to support the candidate of his choice. But how the paper endorses is a legitimate subject for public discussion.

So I thought it was worth looking into how most newspapers make political endorsements. As I thought, it appears that most newspaper political endorsements aren't made by the publisher acting alone. The endorsement processes vary, but what they have in common is the involvement of an editorial board. And they often include interviews with the candidates. That's clearly not the case with our local paper. At least not this spring.

Here's what a few newspapers and others have to say about political endorsements ...

Times Union (Albany, NY) editor's blog excerpt

So how do we make endorsements? The editorial board has seven members — the publisher, editor, opinion pages editor, editorial page editor, chief editorial writer, editor-at-large and editorial cartoonist — whose views may vary widely. Endorsements (and other editorials) are the result of discussion and debate among us.

Connecticut Post editor's statement (excerpt)

The editorial page essentially represents the institutional voice of a newspaper. It's a voice that speaks to the communities which we serve and tries, through our opinions on a wide variety of issues, to better those communities and their civic life.

There are six members of the Post's editorial board and each member has an equal vote in deciding issues, although the newspaper's publisher, as it is with nearly all newspapers in the U.S., can have more than a one vote if he so desires.

Board members don't sit in ivory towers and pontificate and pronounce. We are all active in the news product and in our own communities and we are interactive with our readers.

When we gather weekly to discuss issues, there can be swift unanimity on the editorial positions we take or there can be lengthy and passionate split votes and disagreements. That holds for political endorsements as well.

Our endorsements are not made with political bias, but with what the board members perceive would be best for our communities and state. We talk to the candidates, we research their records and we examine their leadership abilities

Here are reasons why we endorse:

  • to fulfill our obligation and responsibility as a constitutionally-protected media enterprise to not only be a part of our communities but to also help improve those communities.
  • to offer information and perspective that voters can use in evaluating candidates.
  • to create dialogue with our readers.

Our endorsements are not made:

  • to tell readers who they should vote for.
  • to make a compact with any candidate.
  • to figure out who's most likely to win a contest.
Houston Chronicle blog

Be that as it may, the Editorial Board (KE note: the board in this case includes all of the editorial staff plus the publisher) looks at the endorsement process as a public service to our readers. The process works like this: Several weeks before each Election Day (Nov. 8 in this case), we invite candidates vying for the various elected offices to meet with us. The purpose being to ask them questions about where they stand on issues germane to the office they're seeking. Doing so, provides us with insight regarding which candidate best will represent the interests of their constituents.

We don't endorse on a whim. Screening candidates and vetting propositions and constitutional amendments is an arduous, time-consuming and democratic process. We debate candidates and issues vigorously. Votes to endorse any particular candidate or proposition are seldom unanimous. Oftentimes, they are decided by a slim margin.

Ultimately, Publisher Jack Sweeney and Editor Jeff Cohen, have the final say. Fortunately, they rarely exert their power and usually accept the sentiment of the board and Editorial Page Editor James Howard Gibbons.

Concord Monitor (N.H) editor's column excerpt

The editorial board consists of Publisher Geordie Wilson, Executive Editor Felice Belman, Managing Editor Ari Richter, Editorial Page Editor Ralph Jimenez and me.

After every editorial board interview, some or all of us gathered to trade impressions.

Individually or in groups, we all attended some campaign events. I was probably the most active in this regard and used some of what I saw as the basis for columns in the paper. But time spent on the campaign trail helped all of us gain a sense of who the candidates were and how they were connecting with voters and honing their messages.

... Still, we don't sign our editorials because they represent the opinion of the Monitor as an institution, not the view of the writer or any particular editorial board member.

Excerpt from item by Richard Mial, opinion page editor of the La Crosse Tribune (Wisconsin)

That's where the structure of the process becomes important. Endorsement interviews are always done before as many members of our editorial board as can make it. Our board includes the opinion page editor, publisher, editor, city editor, news editor, and a community member who serves a three-month term. Interviews are taped, so that board members who could not attend can listen.

The board has some shared values, and these values influence the decision-making process. It's important to be clear about what those values are. We have what we call an agenda for the community, which is more like a mission statement that runs daily on the Opinion pages. The five items on the agenda: Encourage regional cooperation; spotlight the region as a diverse economic hub; hold public officials accountable; celebrate the arts and heritage of the region; and promote positive achievements and the value of diversity.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Is going to UC Berkeley anti-Amador?

The Amador Citizens for Responsible Government aren't too happy with Ledger-Dispatch Editor Raheem Hosseini. Raheem took the group to task for the questions they put to the county supervisor candidates in a forum last week (see my previous post).

The group's website contains the text of an op-ed scheduled for publication in the Ledger on Friday. Among other things, it says this:

So why was Mr. Hosseini so upset?

Is it because the issues shed light on the anti-property rights agenda of certain groups in Amador County who he tends to support?

Or could it be because we underlined the concerns of the silent majority of Amador’s citizens with whom Mr. Hosseini appears to be out of touch?

He’s a 2003 graduate of UC Berkeley. Maybe that explains his

I just had to laugh when I read that last statement. Perhaps the "citizens" don't know how many local folks are graduates of UC Berkeley, or how many Amador kids head there each year -- or at least try to. After all, it is considered one of the finest universities in the nation, if not the world.

My guess is that some of the group's own members -- and even some of their primary backers --- graduated from UC Berkeley.

But maybe the group has a point. Perhaps a quality college education helped Raheem become the sharp, analytical, articulate young man he is today.

Raheem challenges us to make our county a better place. That's something we ought to value, not attack.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Ledger endorses, or does it?

Update, May 25: Maybe it wasn't fair of me to imply that Jack Mitchell and the Ledger were being less than up-front about backing supervisor candidate David Pincus. That seems to have been a matter of timing.

However, it still troubles me that the paper is subsidizing Pincus's campaign with advertising space, according to Editor Raheem Hosseini. I don't think that's the normal practice for newspapers at all.

Update, May 20: Ledger Publisher Jack Mitchell has sent a clarifying e-mail to Amador Community News regarding the political support described in my post below. See what you think: Jack's note on Amador Community News website.

At most newspapers, an editorial board -- not the publisher alone -- determines the endorsements. That was the practice at the Ledger back when McClatchy owned the paper in the early 1990s. I know that in 1992, the editor, publisher and senior reporters voted on endorsements. Each had an equal voice.

Editorial board review helps ensure that a newspaper's endorsement is not simply the opinion of one individual who may put the profitability of the business above all other considerations. Can't say that's what Jack is doing here, but since his job is to keep the paper profitable, that's surely a risk.

My original post ...

In his excellent column in today's Amador Ledger Dispatch, Editor Raheem Hosseini revealed that the corporate owner of the paper, the Main Street Media Group, is "underwriting [David] Pincus' campaign and has helped pay for ads."

It was a shocking revelation -- or should have been.

Pincus, in case you don't know, is challenging incumbent Louis Boitano for the District 4 supervisor seat. Pincus is running for supervisor without a platform, without publicized positions on issues, and without revealing his campaign committee or supporters or contributors -- all the while beating up on Boitano. Retired District 3 Supervisor Richard Vinson, who served on the board with Boitano for years, recently wrote a letter to the Ledger decrying the negative campaign tactics employed in another letter by Pincus's campaign manager, Robert Mees.

You may recall that Ledger publisher Jack Mitchell briefly declared for the seat, then withdrew. Pincus then threw his hat into the ring. According to Hosseini, Mitchell will be writing an endorsement of Pincus soon.

Two years ago, when Mary Ellen "Mel" Welsh ran for county supervisor, Mitchell called the Foothill Conservancy "sneaky and shady" for doing something the group didn't actually do. Mitchell left the libelous editorial on the Ledger's website even after the Conservancy demonstrated that Mitchell's assertion was baseless. He never apologized to the group, its members, or its leaders -- including me -- and he never issued a correction (he did run the Conservancy response).

So I can't help but ask, "Just who's 'sneaky and shady,' Jack? People rely on your newspaper to be somewhat objective, and now we find out that the paper's Gilroy-based owners are actually funding a candidate for county supervisor?"

Hosseini was right when he called this "a breach of the public trust." It's appalling.

If you'd like to express your own opinion about this outside interference in our local politics, be sure to contact:

Jack Mitchell, Publisher, Amador Ledger Dispatch

or Jack's boss
Anthony A. Allegretti, President & CEO
Main St. Media Group

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scenery, clean water and wildlife habitat are valuable crops

The rancher in the story below says, ""The most important crop on my land is scenery." If scenic beauty is an important "crop" locally -- and I believe it is -- those of us who enjoy that crop need to find better ways to pay for it.

Buying conservation easements is one solution, but I'd like to see us have a community conversation around ways we could compensate landowners (or create markets that would pay local landowners) for providing scenery, wildlife habitat, clean water and other valuable "crops" for which they receive no compensation today. That would help farmers, ranchers and timberland owners by creating a monetary value for crops they can't really "sell" and benefit the rest of us, too.


The article below is about a 17,000 acre ranch in San Luis Obispo County. After attending an estate planning workshop, the rancher decided to put a conservation easement on the ranch. The easement is held by the California Rangeland Trust.

On the Farm: Rancher Plants for the Future
By Steven Knudsen
San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau
Forward from California Oak Foundation

Just off the paved road outside Parkfield lives a man who is planning and planting for the future.

One tree at a time and one season after another, Jack Varian has developed a passion for sustainability. If all goes as planned, his actions today will grow for the next 400 years.

Varian is planting valley oak trees, native to the Parkfield region, and has collected a team of specialists and volunteers to assist him in his pursuit of transforming his rural landscape on the more than 16,500 acres of the V6 Ranch into what he calls "a more environmentally friendly approach" to ranching.

On a clear day in February, about 60 volunteers from the San Luis Obispo Native Tree Committee, Cal Poly and local 4 H Clubs plus agricultural and community groups joined Varian, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources specialist Bill Tietje and UC Cooperative Extension oak regeneration expert Doug McCreary to plant 1,000 oak trees.

Acorns for the saplings were collected from a small grove of valley oak trees that grows behind Parkfield Elementary School. The students there, who attend kindergarten through grade six in one of the last one room schoolhouses in the state, collected about 3,500 acorns for Varian.

In October 2006, Varian took the acorns to Growing Grounds Farm in San Luis Obispo for sprouting. Growing Grounds, a nonprofit wholesale nursery operated by Transitions Mental Health Association, employs adults with mental illness at a living wage to grow and care for the plants.

Last October, one year later, Varian was shocked to discover the magnitude of growth, with nearly 2,500 valley oak trees sprouted and grown. "We selected 1,000 of the oak trees and donated the remainder back to the nursery," he said.

Back on the V6 Ranch, the volunteers formed into groups of three to plant the native saplings. First educated by Varian on 11 tips for growing oak trees and then instructed on the best way to plant them by McCreary, the groups spread out over a predetermined four mile stretch of property running back toward Parkfield.

"The volunteers did a lion's share of the work, planting nearly 850 trees in a single day," Varian said.

Each of the year old seedlings, planted in groups of three in a triangle shape into the soft soil, were encased in wire baskets to protect them from gophers.

Soil was prepared with a shovel and covered with weed cloth to prevent grasses that would choke out the small seedlings. The cluster planting then was surrounded by three recycled iron fence posts, collected by Varian, and encircled with hog wire to keep pests and critters away.

All told, more than 330 planting sites were completed, all in a line with 60 feet separating each planting. Trees now run along the road and the foothills of the valley.

"The trees should grow about three feet per year, under perfect conditions," Varian said. "We are going to do everything we can to ensure that these trees get what they need to prosper."

Funding for "1,000 Oaks Day" came, in part, from a grant by the Wildlife Conservation Board's Oak Woodland Conservation Act of 2001 and from the Natural Resource Conservation Service cost share Quality Incentives Program.

Next in the strategic plan is irrigation. Each tree will receive water from a PVC irrigation line installed at the end of winter. Varian has allocated two wells in which he will use solar power to pump water into micro sprinklers that can sustain the small trees through the hot summer months.

Long term plan

The project has been a long time coming. In 1990, Varian realized that he was not satisfied with the way the ranch was being run and took over management of the cattle and husbandry of the land.

During the past 18 years, he has focused heavily on transitioning the land back to its natural state by encouraging the growth of native grasses, willow and oak trees and by evaluating and reevaluating the impact his herd has on the land.

Paramount to Varian's long term goal of preserving the land for future generations was entering into a conservation easement with the Trust for Public Lands.

In April 2001, Varian sold his development rights to the trust, now held by the California Rangeland Trust. That contract consolidated the number of legal parcels on the land to one, thus preserving the agriculture land in perpetuity. By entering into the contract, Varian is able to focus on his long term goals to improve quality of the rangeland and enhance biodiversity on the ranch.

In 2000, Varian was the first to receive the Native Tree Committee of San Luis Obispo County Stewardship Award. The committee works to promote voluntary planting and conservation of native trees through education, propagation and stewardship.

"The most important crop on my land is scenery," Varian said. "As development pressures force more agriculture land to disappear, we have chosen to preserve the beauty so that others may enjoy it in the future; as our lands' beauty survives, so do we."

Varian credits his success in range management to an education in "holistic management practices" that includes intensive rotational grazing, improved water management, proper fencing and a passion for the environment.

"We believe that the whole world should be thinking seriously about greater sustainability," he said. "Our agriculture businesses and livelihoods depend on it."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Developer protests

Since I've lived in Amador County for 29 years, I know quite a few local people. Some of them are realtors. Two of those folks sent me the e-mail below, which was sent out to every realtor in Amador County. I thought I ought to share it with you.

But first, a little context ... Amador County is updating its general plan, which the courts have called the "Constitution" of a county. General plan updates take time. Three to five years is the norm, and they can take longer.

Amador County is in no way dragging its feet on the plan update. In fact, as a survivor of last year's "General Plan Death March," during which the General Plan Advisory Committee was meeting twice a month, I can attest to the fact that much of the work was being pushed too fast without adequate discussion. The county planning staff made clear that things were being rushed because of pressure from developers. Apparently they were unhappy with the county having placed a moratorium on general plan and zoning changes while the plan update is underway.

That general plan and zoning change moratorium applies only if a landowner wants to change the current designated use of a piece of property -- for example, to change land zoned for agriculture into a subdivision. The county put the moratorium in place so that it could establish a stable environmental baseline for the general plan update. It was not an unreasonable thing to do -- and it was initiated by the county, not by any "special interests."

The e-mail reminds me that local people often forget that Amador County is not isolated from the rest of the state, the country, and the world. In case they haven't noticed, housing is in a huge slump in much of California, including our region.

The economy is a mess. People are being thrown out of their homes at an alarming rate, in part because of unscrupulous lending practice like "NINA loans" -- mortgages written for people with no income and no assets. (I just heard on the radio that California has 9 out of 10 of the highest areas of foreclosure in the state.)

How could anyone think our local economy would not be affected by these larger forces?

As you read the message below, keep in mind that the author is a developer who is planning a project just outside Pine Grove.

Here's the e-mail ...

Amador Realtors:

Re: ECONOMIC STIMULUS concept #2 (General Plan Moritorium)

Just to expand on the subject of "Economic Stimulus", we currently have a moratorium affecting our economy here in our own County. It was intended to provide processing time for the revision and change of the General Plan. The moratorium effectively halts all development and construction on parcels that are not currently zoned in a manner that is compatible to a given desired and needed land use.

The moratorium results in significant negative economic consequences, irrespective of a given communitys need for a good project to come to fruition. If a parcel of land was not previously zoned in a manner that makes sense to current day needs, a great project will consequently be stuck in a rut while the property owner can only wait for the General Plan update process to grind its way through to the end. While it is a certain fact that our General Plan needed to be updated, it surely shouldnt take 3.5 years or more to complete the process. The moratorium wast passed and adopted on November 8, 2005 and was not supposed to last more than three years. Supervisor Richard Forster and Planning Director Susan Grijalva recently stated on TSPN on separate segments something to the effect that the moratorium will continue to the middle of next year. While Ms. Grijalva on the Lets Talk segment, said it could take as much as five years. There is currently nothing in place that puts any form of time limitation on the process.

I realize there are many people working diligently to complete the process. However, I believe there are some people with their own agenda to drag it out down a long agues path.

At last Tuesdays Board of Supervisors meeting we saw contractor and long term resident of Pine Grove Leroy Carlin show his abomination and outrage for the moratorium and how it has affected him and others. I find myself in this same situation with investors who are willing to invest in my own property along with the purchase of my listings, but only if and when the moratorium is over.

It is my belief that the moratorium in Amador County is causing a profound effect on our economy, even more so than the cost of permits and impact fees for the building of a home. I question why such a lengthy amount of time is being taken to update our General Plan? The process just should not take more than a couple of years especially given the current economic status. I remember that nearly three years ago, Supervisor Rich Escamilla voted against having the moratorium and he wanted to just review each project application on its own merits, while the General Plan was being revised in parallel.

Something needs to be done to streamline the remainder of the General Plan update process. I believe we need to call for a speedy end to the moratorium and get the Countys General Plan revised and in place. We need to go back to evaluating each proposed project application on it own merits. A timely end to the moratorium does not take any funds away from the County what-so-ever. In fact, it has already cost the County at least $750,000. Now, is a really bad time to have a moratorium and a timely end to it will promote economic stimulus while also saving the County money.

Sure would like to see standing room only again this Tuesday morn at about 9:20 AM at the Board of Supervisors Chambers, 810 Court Street, Jackson. We need to make our presence known and show our desire for prompt economic stimulus. Please show your support for the cause and bring yourself and a friend.

Below is a TSPN Press Release that shows that our brother and sister Realtors in Calaveras County are fed up with their sluggish economy caused in part by moratoriums and what is said to be an "unrelenting assault on property rights and personal freedoms".

Thats my two cents. Thanks for reading.

Marc Bowman

TSPN Press Release

Controversy In Calaveras Supervisor Race

The constant battle between Hillary and Barack is not the only heated competition for election. Questions have been raised over the intentions of certain groups involved in the
Calaveras County's District 2 Supervisors race. Incumbent Supervisor Steve Wilensky believes the Calaveras County Association of Realtors political action committee is trying to buy his district 2 seat after the committee donated $7,000 to opponent John Morse

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Wildlife seen, heard, and heard about

Last week I saw a bobcat crossing Charleston-Volcano Road. It was the first one I'd seen in nearly two years, and only the fourth one I've seen in nearly 29 years of living in Amador County.

Our saw-whet owl is back. And this morning, the dawn chorus of birds was nearly overwhelming. Spring is certainly here now, in spite of that strong freeze we had last weekend.

This evening, I heard from a neighbor that we have a mountain lion visiting the neighborhood. He heard it near his barn. Another neighbor saw and heard it, too.

We'll watch and listen for it now.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Tell the County What You Think

Update, April 27: The results of the survey discussed below are now online.

Thursday night will mark the last meeting of the Amador County General Plan Advisory Committee. I serve on that committee as Foothill Conservancy's alternate member. For 18 months, we've been discussing numerous issues that are critical to the future of our county.

Before we had a break this winter, I characterized the process as the "General Plan Death March." With some exceptions, it has seemed that keeping to the schedule and moving things along was more important to the county than coming up with a quality plan.

I've also been very frustrated by the lack of effort to secure meaningful public participation in the general plan update. Most recently, the county put out a survey on the draft land use elements of the general plan and posted it on the county website. It was anything but user friendly.

There's an alternative survey out now -- the Citizens' Survey on Amador County Growth and Development . It was posted online today. The survey is cosponsored by individuals, Valleyoaks Vineyards, West Point Publishing, Amador Community News, and Foothill Conservancy.

The survey will be available online for a limited amount of time. If you want to weigh in and you haven't been able to attend those Thursday night GPAC meetings, now's your chance.

The general plan will move to the planning commission and supervisors next.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Some Thoughts on Green

I attended the Green California Summit last week. It focused primarily on green building, but also on the business and economic opportunities that come with a move to sustainability. Here are a few thoughts based on something I sent off to Carol Harper at the Amador Community Network last week. More to follow soon ...

Business is going "green" -- not because business people are soft-headed do-gooders, but because it makes dollars and sense. Companies that have sustainability strategies are becoming more profitable than those that don't. They are wasting less, spending less on energy and becoming more much efficient. Large insurance companies and the finance industry are starting to be a big force in the push for sustainable business because those businesses have less associated risk.

"Green building" is here to stay. Again, it makes economic sense. It also creates better living and working spaces for people. Commercial real estate people are seeing real demand from tenants for green commercial space. People want greener homes. Kids do better in green schools. Some of the large California commercial builders are starting to do everything to green standards, including the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.

"Green tech" may make our U.S. economy competitive again. We have the best innovators here, the best minds -- and they are creating new products, new ways of doing business, and "green-collar" jobs. Smart communities are focusing on green tech as part of their economic development strategies and making sure they have education and training available for the new generation of green-collar workers. A community college here -- long a dream of many locals -- could serve that function for us.

Planning has a big role to play in creating a sustainable future. It is not sustainable to have to drive a car for miles to do every last thing -- go to school, go to a job, go shopping, etc. Walkable communities like those we love in our small historic towns are our future. They are more environmentally sustainable than sprawl and healthier places to live, too. Advocates of smart growth have been saying this for some time. Now, the respected U.S Green Building Council is working on LEED standards for neighborhood design.

Even if we can afford gasoline, once supplies of oil start running out (which they may be already), we are going to have to wean ourselves off it, and fast. Fortunately, there is huge progress being made on alternative fuels, but not all alternatives are sustainable -- for example, cutting down the Amazon rain forest to grow corn for ethanol or destroying SE Asian rain forests to create palm oil plantations.

Saving energy community-wide can free up a lot of money in the local economy. If people are paying less to PG&E every month, they have more to spend in local businesses. See this tool, created several years ago.

People need to learn from nature. Nature buys local. Nature recycles its own waste. Nature often makes products very efficiently. Nature uses advanced technology. Defective products are, in the words of Green Summit keynote speaker Hunter Lovins, '"recalled by the manufacturer."

Green is mainstream. And as a couple of speakers said, "There is green in green." Those who think otherwise are likely to be left behind as companies and communities focus on finding new ways to do business, live, create jobs, and build wealth.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Elections around the corner

The Amador County supervisor races are just starting to heat up. It'll be an interesting year, with four candidates running for the seat being vacated by Rich Escamilla and one challenger taking on Louis Boitano.

I saw a candidate on TSPN's website the other day. He seemed nice enough, but didn't even begin to discuss where he stands on the important issues facing our county today. I hope that's not a trend.

The public is not well-served when candidates speak only in vague generalities and refuse to tell us what they think about critical issues. It's not that I expect them to have fully formed positions on everything -- and one can only hope they'll remain open-minded enough to listen to their constituents. But I do think they ought to tell us what they plan to do, and how.

Of course, then the voters can hold them accountable later -- and it means they have to stand for something, too. But isn't that what elections are all about?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

As April begins

As April begins, there is good news. The flowers are starting to bloom on Electra Road. The poppies are lovely now, and the bush lupine should be fabulous in a week or two. A few phacelia are joining in, and the alders are leafing out in the green that simply shouts "Spring." It is a lovely place to drive, walk, or sit and watch the Mokelumne flow by. And the black phoebes that live at Electra year 'round will keep you company.

Then there is bad news. SPI is trying to abandon the local rail line -- the former home of the Amador Central Railroad. Once abandoned, rail lines do not come back -- ever. It would be a true tragedy for our community to lose that possible rail link to points west.

To make things worse, Amador County Transportation Commission staff say that part of the rail line should be abandoned to make way for a road through Martell! A road. Incredible. They say that if the Wicklow Way and Gold Rush projects are developed, building a new road through Martell on the rail line would save millions and help with local traffic. That might be true for a while -- but only until the next big project comes along and further clogs our roads.

Lousy subdivisions are one thing, but giving up a rail line for the traffic they will bring is the height of folly.

We need to join with the Amador Historical Society on this one and keep that rail line intact. Bad enough that SPI is clearcutting our forests. Now they want to strip us of our history, too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Don't miss Tim Palmer in Jackson Thurs pm

Nationally acclaimed author and photographer Tim Palmer will be giving his amazing Rivers of America presentation in Jackson this Thursday, March 27. You can see Tim's incredible slides and hear his tales of our nation's rivers at the Senior Center at 7 p.m.

Tim's photographs are beyond beautiful -- they are transporting. There's nothing like seeing these images in light. Ink on paper truly doesn't do them justice.

You can see some of Tim's photos and read more about Tim and his more than 19 books on his website.

This is Tim's first presentation in our county. Please come, make him welcome, enjoy the show, and buy a book, which he will be happy to autograph for you.

For more on the event and a sneak preview -- a shot of the North Fork Mokelumne -- see the Foothill Conservancy website.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Back soon...

I've taken a bit of a break from bloggery of late, but will be back soon ... meanwhile, to see some wonderful river photos and read about special rivers, see Josh McCoy's 270rivers blog.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rural sprawl's fire cost

Last Sunday's Sacramento Bee featured a guest editorial from the retired forest supervisor of the San Bernardino National Forest, entitled "Fire Risk Needs To Be Factored Into Zoning."

It's important reading for anyone who cares about planning in Amador County or anywhere else in rural California. Fire is a fact of life in our state. It's part of the ecology. As long as counties continue to allow sprawl in high fire-risk areas, we will continue to incur huge costs in wildland firefighting -- and lives and property will continue to be lost.

Zimmerman estimates the cost of California wildland fire suppression to be about $1 billion a year. As he points out, most of that cost is borne by state and federal taxpayers, not local residents or county governments. It's a subsidy, pure and simple.

Zimmerman's op-ed follows on last year's Sierra Nevada Alliance report on growth in high fire-risk areas of the Sierra, Dangerous Development: Wildfire and Rural Sprawl in the Sierra Nevada. If you haven't read that yet, be sure to take a look.

I wrote a letter to the Bee regarding Zimmerman's op-ed, which they published today. You can read it here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

So Jack Mitchell's going to run after all...not

Update February 22, 2008: In today's paper, Jack Mitchell declared that he's not going to run for supervisor. Apparently, he's had a change of heart.


A while back, Amador Ledger Dispatch publisher Jack Mitchell moved to Sutter Creek from the Pine Grove area. Word was he was planning to run for county supervisor against incumbent Louis Boitano. An article in yesterday's paper shows that rumor to be well founded.

In the story, Mitchell said, "If there's a viable second candidate, I will back out." Sure he will. I think he's been running for at least the last two years. If you don't believe me, re-read his editorials on the Ledger website with that in mind.

Tuesday's article on the various supervisor candidates may foreshadow things to come. Mitchell got nearly twice as much copy in the story as Boitano.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Missed opportunities

I was sitting in the parking lot at the Amador Ridge center in Martell the other day, keeping the dog company while Pete picked up some groceries. It's a busy, growing place, Amador Ridge. It's also totally designed for commerce and cars.

There are sidewalks in front of the shops. But if you want to walk out to your car, or from shops out to the main drag that leads to Highway 49, you have to walk in the traffic, in the gutter or on the grass. It's anything but pedestrian friendly -- which is a real shame because things are located so close to one another that it should be easy to walk. A few sidewalks could have made a real difference.

Sitting in the truck, I was saddened by the missed opportunities there in Martell. The county could have insisted on mixed-use development at the former mill site, including housing above the shops. Imagine -- people could have walked to work!

There could have been a park in the SW corner of the property. Sidewalks. Walking and bike trails throughout the property and connecting to Jackson and Sutter Creek.

But we don't have any of that.

Why wasn't it done? Hard to say. Some of us tried. Representatives of Foothill Conservancy and the Amador Economic Development Corporation met and discussed the potential for a real, planned development on the former mill site. It was a most positive meeting -- lots of good ideas, and so much potential. But the county, and the developers, mainly wanted retail at Martell, with some other "light commercial." It was all about money, especially sales tax.

So look at what we do have -- retail that should be in our cities, now in the county. Increased traffic on Highway 49. Major county offices that were in Jackson, now moved to Martell (guess where those folks will shop now?). Meanwhile, our towns are struggling to survive, falling prey to subdivision developers that dangle the promise of taxes and other shiny bling while hoping to blind the city fathers and mothers to the resulting traffic gridlock and other impacts on local quality of life.

Planning matters. Not planning well has consequences. You only have to look at Martell to see why.

Surely we can do better than this.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Loving the land

A friend and I were talking today about people who value land for more than its development potential.

It made me go back to the Saving the Sierra website to read again about Attilio Genasci. Attilio was a rancher in the Sierra Valley who led a movement to protect large areas of the Sierra Valley through the use of conservation easements. I learned last week that he had passed away at age 98. He lived his entire life on his land.

You can hear Attilio in his own words on the Saving the Sierra site. Here are some of them:

"The land does not belong to me. The land belongs to future generations, and the land also belongs to the general public. ... It’s one of the natural wonders. It’s there for humanity. And we dare not destroy it anymore than we’d cap the geysers in Yellowstone or put the Bridal Veil Falls of Yosemite in a pipe. I think we have a natural wonder here that I’ll do my best to preserve."

There's also a story about Attilio on the Stories from the Heart of the Land website. It'll be aired on National Public Radio's Weekend America show next Saturday, February 9.

Reading about Attilio, I am reminded of Stanley Cuneo, who was the first rancher in this area to put his land in conservation easements. He co-founded the local land trust and was a longtime Foothill Conservancy member and supporter.

Whenever I hear that only urban enviros want to preserve rural lands, I think of men like these, who clearly had a deep and abiding love for the land they called home.