Sunday, November 20, 2011

A few words about local forests

I haven't been writing much here lately. Too much else to do. But I did write a recent blog about the local SPI clearcutting that turned into an op-ed published in the Bee on Sunday, November 20. To read more about the clearcutting, see Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch's website.

As SPI massacres local forests, other people are working together to find ways to make the forests more resilient, reduce fire danger and create local value-added products and jobs. To read about that, see the blog of the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group.

Dr. Malcolm North's presentation there last week was especially informative.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Amador supervisors' funding for economic development

In case you missed the news, the Amador Business Council has approached the Amador County Board of Supervisors about contributing funds to a new economic development corporation. Never mind there's already an EDC in the county. The supervisors have asked the groups to try to resolve their differences and come back to discuss the funding request.

Meanwhile, I decided to weigh in on the subject with the supervisors, for what little my opinion is worth. We'll see how many of them respond to me or even acknowledge receiving my note. Want to make bets?

Here's what I e-mailed them yesterday:
Dear Chairman Plasse and Members of the Board:

I am writing as a private citizen and a county taxpayer, not as a representative of any group.

I strongly support community and government investment in local economic development. However, I do not support the County of Amador simply giving money to groups that come and ask for it without an objective, criteria-based look at their accomplishments and qualifications. The process should be open to any organization or economic development firm that is interested and able to provide the needed service so that the public is assured its money will be well spent.

Consequently, I would suggest that rather than give money to the Amador Business Council for a new economic development corporation, the county should take the more usual, professional governmental approach: Issue a Request for Proposals or Request for Qualifications and see who applies. The ABC, if interested, can then compete with others who may be as well or better qualified to spend taxpayer dollars in a productive, accountable way.

Before you issue the RFP or RFQ, CAO Chuck Iley, who I gather has extensive experience in contracting, could then work with the appropriate committee and then the full board to develop a set of criteria that would be used to review the submittals and choose the most qualified applicant with the best proposal. I would suggest that those criteria include a demonstrated record of success in economic development, as measured by jobs created, taxable sales increased, increased value of commodities produced, increased value of nonresidential construction, decreased unemployment, wages increased, percentage of new businesses surviving more than two years, poverty levels declining, percentage of employees in family wage jobs increasing, and other objective measures. The proposal should clearly lay out the expected results from the funding, using similar benchmarks so that you can hold the recipient accountable for the funds invested.

If you use an RFP rather than an RFQ, one of the scoring criteria should be the demonstrated success of the applicant.

Using a process of this type, you can select the most qualified applicant and best proposal, and the public can be better assured of getting results for our tax dollars. If the recipient doesn't perform, you can choose not to fund them in the future.

You might also consider setting up an economic development ad hoc committee that includes members of the public to assist with this process. If you do, I recommend that you include people from the full range of local economic sectors to ensure a balanced view. The committee could also benefit from the perspective of agencies like A-TCAA and Job Connection.

If local business owners want to contribute money toward economic development, they would still be free to pledge their funds as they have done with the ABC proposal.

Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

Best regards,
Katherine K. Evatt

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Protecting water and property rights

The Amador County Board of Supervisors routinely takes positions to protect the county's water rights and individual property rights, including landowners' right to use water from streams running through or along their property ("riparian rights"). The supervisors generally oppose anything they believe could adversely affect water or property rights, even if that belief is misguided (as in their position on the proposed National Wild and Scenic designation for the Mokelumne River).

So I am wondering whether they will take a position on HR 1837. That pending federal legislation will subvert California's water rights system and allow junior water rights holders (Westlands Water District and Kern County interests) to jump the line for water ahead of senior water rights holders, including farmers and ranchers with riparian rights to the Sacramento River and Delta. The bill is the worst kind of federal intrusion into state affairs, the kind our supervisors generally decry with great vehemence -- at least when they deal with it in theory. (Note to the board: This time it's for real.)

The bill will also effectively eliminate the county of origin priorities that are a critical part of California's water system. That county of origin doctrine is intended to ensure that no one can take north state water from the places it originates (the Siskyous, Sierra and Sierra foothills) to the detriment of those areas.

So will the supervisors stand up for county of origin water rights and private property? I hope so, but that remains to be seen. You see, HR 1837 is sponsored by a Central Valley Republican, Devin Nunes. Nunes has picked up the highly effective but grossly inaccurate publicity from Westlands Water District that blamed environmentalists and the Endangered Species Act for high levels of unemployment and poverty in the Valley that are actually a long-standing problem made much worse by the Great Recession building bust. Westland farmers actually did fine last year. (The economic truths are detailed in a recently released study.) But Nunes's "save agriculture from the enviros and the ESA" trope fits very nicely with some of our supervisors' political ideology and personal beliefs.

So who's fighting to protect the counties of origin and property rights against this water grab? Democratic Congressmen John Garamendi and George Miller and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have expressed strong concerns about HR 1837. They've recently been joined by conservative Northern California Republican Rep. Wally Herger.

Here's a quote from our senators' joint letter on HR 1837:

Another troubling aspect of this bill is its attack on states’ rights and state control of its water resources. The bill’s explicit preemption of California law runs contrary to the long established tradition of Congressional and court deference to states on water resource decisions. Consequently, this bill sets a very dangerous precedent of Congressional intervention into state water rights, which could have far reaching consequences not only for California, but for other states as well.

This is a bill our county should strongly oppose, in no uncertain terms. It will destroy county of origin rights for foothill counties. It will violate private property rights and take riparian water rights away from their rightful owners. And it is a terrible federal intrusion into states' rights.

What will the supervisors do? Stand with Nunes, or join the bipartisan defenders of the state's water system and mountain county water rights?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Will the general plan focus on our common ground?

The Amador County supervisors and planning commissioners are going to discuss the latest draft of the county general plan this week. The courts have called the state-required general plan the "constitution" of a county, so it's an important document.

The plan shapes how and where the county will grow over the next 20 years. It also defines which resources will be protected and lays out programs to implement land development and resource protection.

Back when the county started on this plan update in 2005, the county board of supervisors talked about developing a "consensus" plan that most people in the county could live with. The idea was to avoid the kind of conflict that often leads to costly and time-consuming litigation, which El Dorado County faced when it last updated its plan.

The supervisors established a General Plan Advisory Committee made up of diverse interests to help develop the plan. The GPAC met 27 times in public meetings, from July 2006 to April 2008. Then the supervisors and planning commissioners took a scalpel, or maybe a hatchet, to what they had done (depending on your point of view). Over the last year or so, county staff and hired consultant EDAW have been revising the plan so that it is consistent with the county officials' direction.

So now, we find ourselves with yet another draft to review, and an apparent move by Motherlode Tea Party members and friends to rewrite the plan entirely. With that background and this latest twist, I thought it might be instructive to look back to the supervisors' original intention and ask, "What would a consensus plan look like?"

So this morning I took a look at two different surveys I have handy, a telephone survey done by a professional polling company for the Amador Association of Realtors in June 2010 and an online survey conducted by the Foothill Conservancy and some co-sponsors in April 2008. Considering that the "Great Recession" intervened during the gap between the two surveys, any consistency in the results is probably pretty telling. I also tried to find the results of a electronic-voting workshop conducted by the county in September 2008, but didn't find its new location until after I had started this post.

The two surveys reviewed had some similar questions and also some different areas of focus. For purposes of this exercise, I had to focus on the similarities. With that in mind, what do the results show about Amador County residents' common ground regarding growth and development? They show that local residents want to:
  • Focus new development in already developed areas rather than promote sprawl
  • Protect working landscapes (forests, ranches and farms)
  • Protect the natural environment
  • Protect cultural and historical resources
  • Promote economic development that will create more jobs
  • Make parks and recreation sites part of the county mix
Both surveys also show that local residents think the county has been growing at about the right rate in recent years (that is, rather slowly). And locals value good planning as well as personal property rights.

So what should that mean for the general plan? If the county wants to develop a plan most people can support, it needs to address all of these things. There should be reasonable assurances that the areas of community common ground will be promoted and protected by good planning rather than left to luck or the vagaries of the real estate market and twists and turns of the economy. There should be assurance that the county will be taking positive steps to promote real local economic development. And of course, the plan should protect private property rights, but the fact is, the county can't approve a plan that violates anyone's property rights and expect it to hold up to legal challenge.

Will the plan embody and protect our community common ground? Or will the supervisors cave to those who want the plan to be as weak as possible?

It's too soon to say, but if you want to help shape the plan, you can attend the meeting on May 25 and later, comment in the related EIR and plan review process.

It's your county, after all, and unless you speak up, you may not like what happens to it over the next 20 years.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A new look at county government

Former county employee Art McClellan has a new blog, Amador County Government Issues. Art's taking on some of the interesting goings-on in county government, asking hard questions, and shining light on actions that might otherwise go unnoticed.

His recent posts include one on the public health doctor controversy and another on the county's hiring of a new community development director. Earlier posts address micromanagement by the board of supervisors and public employee unions.

As a former county insider, Art understands the arcana of county budgeting, fund transfers, and all the myriad ways our county spends taxpayer money on what the public needs, and maybe what they don't. And since he's a former independent businessman, Art has a valuable outsider perspective, too.

Take a look at Art's blog. In taking time to write it, he's performing a valuable public service.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Want a little tea with your conspiracy?

I recently learned that I am part of a vast, left-wing conspiracy. That came as surprise to me. But it appears that smart growth and sustainable development are the new face of socialism in America.

According to Tea Party groups across the country, land use planning and zoning -- and especially smart growth -- are part of a huge conspiracy to rob people of their property rights, driven by something called UN Agenda 21. Last November, Mother Jones magazine published an excellent article about this aspect of the Tea Party movement.

Our own local Tea Party focused on Agenda 21 at its last meeting and now has a related action group. That group's next meeting will tell people what to expect at the April 4 meeting on the Amador County General Plan general plan update. People who attended last week's board of supervisors meeting got a little preview of that, as Tea Partiers pointed to "trick" words to watch out for in the general plan language.

Considering that our general plan update isn't yet very smart or sustainable, I'm not sure what these folks have to worry about. After all, their very own supervisor, Brian Oneto, had the words "sustainable" and "sustain" removed from nearly all of the plan's draft policies a good while back. (Speaking of Oneto and the UN, I can't recall whether it was Brian or one of his brothers who brought up the UN in the 1990s during a Jackson presentation on the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project report.)

What the Tea Party folks have in mind nationally, it appears, is the destruction of modern zoning and land use planning as we know it. They might take a look at Oregon to see just how well that works.

Back in 2004, Oregon voters rebelled against the state's land use laws and passed Measure 37, which was sold as a way to restore Oregonians' lost property rights. Things went so wrong, however, that a mere three years later voters approved another initiative that stopped the wholesale development of farming, forest and groundwater-limited lands that loomed following Measure 37's passage.

Apparently, zoning and planning start to look pretty good when your ranch is threatened by a big subdivision down the road or your next-door neighbor plans to open a gravel mine.

Tea Partiers who care about land use planning would do well to read Republican real estate and economic development consultant Donovan Rypkema's excellent 2008 speech, "Property Rights and Public Values." Here's one of its concluding quotes (emphasis added):
"Land use controls are, in fact, a capitalist plot to optimize the property values of the majority of owners, not some communist conspiracy to deprive individuals of some imaginary 'property rights.'”
Maybe I'm part of a conspiracy after all. A capitalist one. I think I can live with that.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Looking back and looking forward

I recently read an opinion piece on the Amador Community News website that yearned for the good old days when our local economy was based on mining, timber, and dam building. While a sentimental look back at what used to be doesn’t really hurt, trying to build our future local economy to simply mimic the past may not be the best idea. Maybe it’s time to look forward, instead. After all, a few things have changed in the last 60 years.

And if we’re going to look as the past, we ought to do it with a critical eye. The author of the ACN piece glossed over some important details in his vision of a thriving future based on the resource extraction industries of the past. For example, he brought up the Devil’s Nose Dam project, which he supported back in the early 1990s and I fought to stop. That dam was never built, largely because it didn’t pencil out. But even if it had been financially feasible, there were plenty of other problems with the proposal.

For one, it would have relied on the county securing new water rights from the state. Because of the water deal our county board of supervisors cut with East Bay MUD in 1958, any new water rights on the Mokelumne are “junior” to EBMUD’s Pardee and Camanche rights. That means in a dry year, EBMUD would get water first. It’s not an especially good idea to base future water supply on junior water rights. That’s one reason that the Amador Water Agency never had any role in the Devil’s Nose proposal (it was a county project, on which the county blew millions with nothing to show for it in the end).

In addition, the Devil’s Nose Dam would have flooded 9.5 miles of wild North Fork Mokelumne River canyon above Tiger Creek Powerhouse, including valuable archaeological sites and critical wildlife habitat. Doing that sort of thing in this day and age is incredibly difficult. This is not the 1920s, when dam-builders could stick a dam wherever they could get the water rights without regard to the collateral damage (they also took the best dam sites). We have new laws to protect the environment and cultural resources, reflecting changes in society and values since the dam-building heyday of the early 20th century.

There were other reasons the Devil’s Nose Project wasn’t built, but like anything someone thinks is a good idea, it lives on in the fantasy world of “what if we had just done this” where some folks like to dwell.

As far as a return to the days of big timber goes, you only have to know that our local timber industry closely followed housing starts to see how unsustainable that can be. Instead of returning to the days of yore, forward-thinking folks are working to build a new, more-sustainable forest economy based on reducing fire danger in our communities and forests, thinning overgrown plantations, restoring streams and meadows, and repairing poorly built and maintained forest roads that threaten water quality.

I just helped a team of people write a sizeable funding request to get some of this off the ground. It’s investment in our natural, social and economic infrastructure.

Even if the forest project isn’t funded this year, it’s a good start on what needs to “come next” to provide decent paying forest-based jobs, build new forest-based businesses, and create products local people need and use. It also takes into account the reality of natural resources: you have to use them at a sustainable rate or you will, in fact, use them up.

That brings to mind another problem with traditional resource extraction: It relies almost entirely on external markets. Housing starts drop, sawmills close. Price of gold drops, mines close. That makes a traditional extraction economy incredibly vulnerable to forces way beyond local control. Can you say “boom and bust?”

As we move toward a more-sustainable local economy, we would do well to develop our own internal, local markets as much as possible. We do need to sell products outside the county, too, but if we hitch our horse to one, big externally driven market again – whether in housing, minerals or whatever – we’ll be in for more wild rides. Building a strong, diversified local economy is better for all of us in the long run.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Recovering optimism

Beginning in the mid-1990s, I volunteered to write a monthly "Community Viewpoint" column for the Amador Ledger Dispatch. I tried to write columns that were interesting, well-reasoned and thought-provoking, even as they expressed a clear point of view.

Since my photo was published with the columns, people would sometimes come up to me in the grocery store and say things like, "I don't always agree with you, but your column made me think." That was pretty satisfying. It kept me writing.

About a month ago, someone actually recognized me in a restaurant based on his memory of those old columns. That pleased me for a couple of reasons. It meant that something I had done was memorable, at least to someone. And maybe it also meant that all these years later, I don't look that much older (highly doubtful).

Of course, there were people who hated what I wrote, too. I often thought it was more about what they thought I represented or who they thought I was than the actual column content. Sometimes that was borne out in their comments, and I'd wonder "Did you actually read the words?"

After more than five years, I stopped writing the columns. I was super busy. And I was so upset by local politics that every time I sat down to write, I found myself producing columns that were more along the lines of angry diatribe than thought-provoking pieces that included at least some solutions and options. I was finding it difficult to say anything positive or hopeful. So I stopped.

That's where I've been lately, too. I have been so disheartened by the actions of some local politicians, the newspaper, certain "journalists," and some people in the community that I've found it really hard to write much that wasn't just an angry or cynical rant. When there's so much hate and vitriol floating around, it's hard not to be poisoned by it. At times, I've even found myself wondering, "Is it worth living in a community where people don't want to work together, where elected officials seem to be motivated by hate and anger, not a positive vision?" So that's one reason I haven't been posting very much in this space.

But lately, I have started to regain a little of my hope. I represent the Foothill Conservancy in a collaboration called the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group. It includes federal, state and local agencies; nonprofit conservation and community groups; folks from the MiWuk community; forest-based business owners; and interested individuals. They're dedicated to reducing fire risk in the area while restoring landscapes, putting people to work, creating new jobs and businesses, and creating sustainable economic activity.

The group received an award from the US Forest Service Regional Forester late last year. Recently, it has been working to secure more funding that could lay the groundwork for self-sustaining private efforts later. When crunch time comes, the people in this group really work hard to get things done.

The other day, I watched an online video of a remarkable woman, Marjora Carter. In it, she talks of locally based, grassroots economic development as providing "hometown security." She said, "We are the key to our own recovery," in describing the many efforts underway to build small, sustainable local businesses in cities and rural areas alike. It's a perfect fit with the ACCG's work.

And last night, I was over in West Point, where the amazing Blue Mountain Coalition for Youth and Families has created a vibrant, active going youth center in a very economically depressed place. I can't wait to see their new literary journal.

It's easy to get buried in the things that are wrong in Amador County. But in 2011, I'm going to do my best to spend more time focusing on positive efforts like those of the ACCG and others who are truly working to do good things for people, the community, and the environment. Today, at least, I'm feeling a little more optimistic.