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Board considers ‘course corrections’ to county General Plan

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From page A1 | April 10, 2011 |

The USS El Dorado County General Plan is cruising in the right direction, but like any battleship, leaves a lot of turbulent water in its wake, and can’t spin on a dime. A skeleton crew in the Planning Services Department suggests staggering proposed course corrections, while other members of the fleet, desperate for smoother sailing, want the Board of Supervisors to plot a new course sooner rather than later.

The board dedicated Monday, April 4, to the county’s progress on implementing the 2004 General Plan, and how best to make those “course corrections” to cut through bureaucratic red tape that now hinders economic development in the county.

The fact-filled daylong workshop is part of a regular five-year review process that this year included an extended presentation from the board’s Economic Development Advisory Committee, whose members have spent two years identifying and rectifying institutionalized barriers to economic development in the county.

The workshop ended with the board instructing Planning Services Director Roger Trout to compile a list of potential features for a comprehensive, five-year targeted General Plan update package.

The board will decide whether to proceed with a separate environmental impact report for a long awaited zoning ordinance update during its April 12 meeting, a move that EDAC’s regulatory reformers worry will bury their concerns.

The day began with a General Plan progress report from the Planning Services Department.

Senior Planner Shawna Purvines confirmed the plan’s 1999 prediction that the county’s population, currently standing at roughly 150,000, would grow to 200,000 residents by 2025. A growth spurt in the early 2000s offset the current housing slowdown, which yielded a mere 83 total building permits in 2010.

“Growth is projected to pick back up,” said Trout. “If it takes longer we may be pushing out the horizon a few years, but for now we’re on track.”

The plan also predicts that 20,500 new “dwelling units” of one sort or another will be required to house those new residents.

State and regional housing programs, newly empowered by state greenhouse gas reduction initiatives, address what those dwellings are, who they serve and where they go. The county is required to submit a housing element every five years — the next one’s due in 2013 — that includes an inventory of vacant parcels zoned with high enough density to demonstrate a good-faith effort to “accommodate” (not necessarily build) dense, affordable housing along existing transportation corridors.

“We know they’re coming (the new residents); the only question is where to put them and what those rooftops will look like,” said local attorney Jim Brunello, the leader of EDAC’s Regulatory Reform Subcommittee.

The subcommittee consists of approximately 40 volunteer engineers, architects, builders, Realtors, traffic analysts and others with time on their hands during the current recession.

They’ve spent the last two years working closely with representatives of the building, agriculture and timber industries, environmentalists, no- and slow-growthers, and several county departments, most notably Planning Services, identifying and rectifying institutionalized barriers to economic development in the county. They’re ready to see their efforts come to fruition.

Charts in Trout’s five-year General Plan Review demonstrate that while total housing is on track to meet the overall population projection, very little of what’s been built thus far qualifies as affordable housing.

His report also confirms that commercial and industrial growth has lagged behind General Plan goals, and that the county has not created the jobs needed to keep its new residents from long commutes to the Sacramento and Placer County job centers.

Trout suggested, and the board agreed, that the General Plan battleship is headed in the right direction, but that some “course corrections,” by way of a “targeted General Plan update,” are needed.

Most of the daylong workshop was dedicated to the navigational details of those course corrections, many of which will require an environmental impact report.

Trout included a $250,000 estimate for the EIR in an accompanying 12-month Action Plan submitted to the board, but warned that the actual cost will depend on how much of the course needs correcting.

He also estimated $385,000 in additional staffing and $220,000 for a stand-alone zoning ordinance EIR, numbers that concern District 3 Supervisor Jack Sweeney.

EDAC members suggested that planning grants are available, but Puvines warned the board, “The grants are for the visionary stuff that complies with state housing mandates and greenhouse gas initiatives. No one’s going to fund us to fix our problems.”

One of the most irksome land use problems since the General Plan was adopted is the inconsistency between the outdated county zoning ordinance, which defines allowed uses for each parcel, and the land uses specified in the General Plan.

The Planning Department has addressed the problem with a nearly complete two-year overhaul of the zoning ordinance that brings it largely into line with the General Plan (with a few controversial sections put off for now). It will require a formal environmental review.

A secondary frustration has been the county’s outdated Land Development Manual, a how-to guide to county subdivision regulations.

Under EDAC leadership, disagreements between fire and road agencies have been ironed out, and an updated version of the manual now awaits a lesser environmental review (mitigated negative declaration), according to Trout.

Trout recommended limiting the first EIR to just the zoning ordinance, and tackling the targeted General Plan update as a separate process.

EDAC members argued that the General Plan revisions will outdate many portions of the new zoning ordinance, and lobbied the board to have Planning Services prepare a formal California Environmental Quality Act project description that addresses their concerns in addition to the zoning ordinance and the LDM.

Thus ag-supporter and current EDAC President Maryann Argyres, as unlikely candidate for a sports metaphor as has ever addressed the board, led off the EDAC presentation by asking the board not to “punt on first down.”

She called the five-year General Plan update cycle a “rare opportunity,” and warned, “Crossing off objectives just to be crossing them off can be short-sighted.”

She turned the podium over to Jim Brunello, who said that EDAC’s proposed course corrections are relatively minor adjustments that most of the crew won’t even notice.

A lot with a little

“One percent of the land in the county, the non-rural lands with water and sewer service, must meet demand for jobs, retail, services, industrial, public facilities, medical, moderate housing and below moderate housing,” he said. “We have to do a lot with a little, and we have to make it look good.”

Brunello explained how “the best engineers in the county” examined vacant parcels countywide to validate that there’s a place to put the General Plan’s anticipated 20,000 new homes, 15,000 in the more urban “community regions” with water and sewer, and 5,000 in the rural areas.

The problem, said Brunello, was finding adequate vacant land with multifamily zoning to satisfy the state.

The good news, he said, is they found enough vacant land — just barely — to satisfy the state “below moderate” affordability category. “But the “moderate” category, homes affordable for families making roughly $80,000 per year, have no place to go, said Brunello.

Cameron Park

Cameron Park architect Eric Driever said his community already provides plenty of moderate housing, and could do more, especially with mixed use.

He reported that the Cameron Park Vision Committee narrowly lost a $100,000 grant for a master plan for a mixed use, walkable downtown along Coach Lane, in part because of the county’s weak mixed use zoning ordinance.

Mixed use

From its inception, the current EDAC group has supported mixed use development, aka “MUD,” a mix of commercial and smaller residential housing on commercially zoned lands, as the solution for the state’s moderate-priced housing mandate.

The board approved limited, “discretionary” mixed use, dubbed “MUD 1” in December 2009, with the caveat that each project be individually approved by the board as a “planned development,” with 30 percent open space and a maximum of 16 units per acre.

The state requires mixed use to be allowed “by right,” at 20 units per acre, for the land to count toward the moderate housing requirement. EDAC has branded mixed use by right at 20 units per acre “MUD 2,” and has made it a core element in the targeted General Plan update.

Even with MUD 2, said Brunello, there are only 600 vacant commercial acres to meet moderate housing and much-needed commercial projects. He encouraged the board to consider increasing the county’s commercial lands.

Mixed use also solves more practical problems for county residents, he added. “In this county, 75 percent of the families can’t afford the least expensive house that can currently be built profitably.”

The County Business Alliance recently funded a study that demonstrates how county fees and regulations have driven up single-family home costs to the point that building anything less than a $425,000 home is no longer profitable.

EDAC would like to see several other barriers to economic development addressed in the targeted General Plan update:

Retail sales leakage

To reduce the estimated $800,000 that El Dorado County residents spend outside the county annually — a phenomenon called “retail sales leakage” — EDAC proposed a new “freeway commercial” zoning designation that meets the unique needs of roadside businesses.

The average size of vacant commercial parcels is shrinking because small projects are easier to get approved and funded than large ones. Only 15 percent of vacant commercial land is larger than 3 acres, said Brunello. To keep shoppers inside the county boundaries, he recommends identifying target areas for large retail — the dreaded “big boxes” that El Dorado County residents historically oppose but nonetheless drive great distances to shop.

Greenhouse gas

The state now requires greenhouse gas impacts to be considered for any significant development project. EDAC encouraged the board to include a Greenhouse Gas Action plan in the General Plan update so that individual projects can defer to it rather than paying experts to create their own analysis for every project.

Natural resources

Cedric Twight, representing Sierra Pacific Industries, asked that more uses be allowed on timber production lands, including wind and hydro-electrical projects, health and wellness centers or recreation facilities such as campgrounds or equestrian centers.

Agriculture

Farm Bureau Director Valerie Zentner suggested that land rolling out of the tax sheltered Williamson Act, which remains strictly agricultural today, should be allowed more flexible uses.

Zentner called for a new look at compatible commercial and even industrial zoning in rural regions. She said she supports opening rural centers to compatible mixed use projects, and said the form-based codes would allow rural communities to define themselves.

Rural residents need basic services “so they’re not driving 20 miles to a grocery store,” she said.

The county’s agritourism-based economy encourages people to buy things, “but we don’t have the infrastructure to support it.”

Restrictions on bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, housing for agriculture and recreation workers, limited grocery and retail,” should all be reviewed, she said. “We can’t do it without the right zoning.”

Zentner cited 25 wineries in the South County with only 22 beds. “We can’t become a destination if we can’t provide the lodging and restaurants,” she said.

Bill Center

At the end of the day, former county supervisor Bill Center, a high-profile opponent of unrestrained growth in the county, approached the podium.

“I absolutely applaud the effort here,” said Center, calling EDAC’s land inventory “a thorough analysis of the territory, something we haven’t had before.”

Center said he supports EDAC’s push to accommodate more moderate priced housing, and traced the county’s housing problem to the 1970s, when developers started building houses that required salaries greater than what was available in the county.

He said traffic fees should reward developments that reduce traffic, and called for housing projects that “match up with jobs.”

The growth-leery Center cautiously agreed with Zentner that land uses should provide more opportunities for small business in rural regions. “I just want to make sure we acknowledge the economic engine that our rural regions have become.”

One big EIR?

County Principal Planner Peter Maurer said he supports all the EDAC proposals, but worries that the complexity of an EIR that combines too much “may sink the whole thing.”

Later in the week Maurer added that many of EDAC’s concerns, especially Zentner’s, are included in the current draft zoning ordinance that, once in place, will make the balance of the EDAC’s concerns much easier to implement.

During the workshop, Trout was adamant that rolling everything into one large project wouldn’t make the targeted General Plan update any “easier, faster or cheaper.”

He told the board that the targeted General Plan update belongs on a “third track,” so that they don’t delay implementing the zoning ordinance and the land development manual, which are ready for environmental review.

District 5 Supervisor Norma Santiago disagreed. “One of the most frustrating things about serving the public and developing policy is having to go back and repeat a process over, especially when an opportunity exists to deal with it head-on,” she said.

“I don’t want my legacy to be that I kicked the can down the road … while counties all around us are moving forward. We are at a tipping point in this county. Let’s move forward.”

Sweeney pushed back, citing unfunded consultant costs in Trout’s workplan: “This county can no longer afford to just do things.”

District 1 Supervisor John Knight reminded the board that the day’s action was simply to approve the creation of a wish list, not to approve the work. “Let’s take a look at what’s on the list in late July, then we prioritize,” he said. “By then we’ll have some preliminary budget numbers and know what we’re facing.”

EDAC project manager Kathye Russell, a vital behind-the-scenes contributor, reminded the board that it has unprecedented expertise working for free. “We can cut into the costs needed to get this done.”

Brunello added, “We’ve already done a lot of it and we can do a lot more.”

Center encouraged the board to expand the scope of the EIR. “A comprehensive zoning ordinance moves us forward,” he said. “I don’t want to be held back by scars from the past.”

He offered his hope that the process would garner “the same kind of public involvement that’s happened in EDAC out in our rural areas, so that we can decide what we want to be.”

Realtor Kim Beale had more pedestrian items for the targeted update, starting with increased residential densities for single-family homes. “Under this General Plan, we’ve built exactly two moderately priced homes in seven years,” she said. “Our median incomes are among the top in the state, yet we can’t build a home that most of the people who live here can afford.”

She also pointed out that current zoning is fraught with outdated thinking, citing the fact that despite unprecedented work-at-home opportunities in a Web-connected workforce, home-based businesses are still severely restricted.

Maurer later countered that both of Beale’s concerns are addressed in the draft zoning ordinance.

Attorney Brunello delivered his closing arguments to the supervisors. “You have identified a lot of zoning issues over the last five years,” he said. “But there hasn’t been the opportunity to address them. This is the five-year update. Now is that time. Closing zoning now is a ‘no’ vote to the issues we’ve been working on.

“We’ve demonstrated that we can sit down, talk to people and do this quickly,” he continued. “We’ll task ourselves to work with staff and get this done.”

The board voted 4-1, with Sweeney opposing, to have Planning Services create a comprehensive list for a targeted General Plan amendment.

Meanwhile the board must decide if undertaking a larger EIR that addesses EDAC’s work would risk running the ship aground. They meet again on April 12 to consider Trout’s recommended separate EIR for the draft zoning ordinance rewrite.

mroberts@mtdemocrat.net

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