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?"