Bill Center and Jim Moore became household names in El Dorado County politics during the decade straddling the millennium, shaping public opinion and policy with a growth-inhibiting ballot initiative, lawsuits both real and threatened, all executed with deft and sometimes ruthless political moxie.
Recently the former El Dorado County supervisor (Center) and a Democratic pollster (Moore) have resurfaced, coming out in opposition to the Marble Valley and Lime Rock projects in the western end of the county between El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park.
Their re-engagement followed a 2012 study by UC Davis scholars Craig Beebe and Stephen Wheeler that argued that exurban development in El Dorado County has “fragmented the county’s landscapes, with detrimental effects on ecosystems, community cohesion and aesthetic character.”
Beebe and Wheeler tell the story from a historical and socio-political perspective in “Gold County: the politics of landscape in exurban El Dorado County,” published in the Journal of Political Ecology. The study traces the politics of land-use from the “extraction activities,” mining, timber and agriculture that dominated the local economy from the gold rush through the pear psylla that decimated orchards in the 1960s. They also examine the present-day ex-urbanites, who extract the amenities of a rural lifestyle while earning a living elsewhere.
Long-standing ranch families struggling with low beef prices and dying orchards, many with children disinclined to the rigors of the ranch lifestyle, began reconsidering their commitment to the land in the 1960s. The work was hard, the water scarce and the profits lean. Many sold to developers or attempted to subdivide the land themselves.
The county population increased 49 percent between 1960 and 1970 and another 96 percent the following 10 years, according to Beebe and Wheeler.
They also found that county staff approved “600-700 parcel map subdivisions each year throughout the late 1970s, many with no restrictions whatsoever,” the result of a “pro-development, landowner rights-based Board of Supervisors.”
El Dorado Hills led the growth explosion in the 1990s. Tony Manour’s El Dorado Hills Specific Plan was approved in 1987, creating parcels for roughly 4,800 dwellings in what became Serrano, and laying the foundation for Town Center. The Northwest El Dorado Hills Specific Plan was approved the same year for 2,200 dwellings north of Green Valley Road. Another 7,000 dwellings in four more large El Dorado Hills specific plans were approved in the 1990s, prior to the 1996 General Plan.
The number of homes in El Dorado Hills doubled between 1999 and 2007 to 14,048 dwellings, according to the El Dorado Hills Fire District’s annual reports.
Rural areas also grew. Scenic micro-locales, often tucked off private roads, became scattered rural subdivisions, consisting of quality homes on big lots at prices well below the overheated coastal housing markets.
The county’s rural arteries suddenly had commute traffic.
El Dorado Irrigation District, flush with hookup fees, supplied piped water to many parcels; others are still on wells.
Almost all are on septic systems, and many maintain their own roadways. Fire suppression on the narrow, overgrown roads common to such areas remains a challenge, as is ambulance service for the aging population.
County residents of every ilk became increasingly concerned about congestion. Recent arrivals saw their idyllic exurban lifestyle threatened by the urban problems they fled, according to the UC Davis study.
The phenomenon continued until the housing bubble burst, but is now showing signs of recovery. Center and Moore have returned at a time when the rolling boil that got their Measure Y approved seems about to boil over.
The next chapter plays out in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers this Thursday, June 27, when opponents of the San Stino project will hear the fate of their request to be removed from the Shingle Springs Community Region. A related presentation from the Community Economic Development Advisory Committee is also on the agenda.
To business leaders, property rights advocates, developers, builders and pro-growth elected officials in the 1990a and early 2000s, Center and Moore were villains on the scale of Voldemort or Vader, using the dark art of political persuasion coupled with the force of referendum and litigation to force constraints on development at a time when development was becoming the county’s primary industry.
Others saw the pair as visionary protectors of the county’s natural resources and rural character, paladins of the populace who, like Skywalker and Potter, claimed victory over entrenched, outsized opponents.
Lacking lightsabers or potions, their weapons of choice were California’s far-reaching Environmental Quality Act and the state’s mighty initiative process, bolstered by campaign-strategist Moore’s ability to measure and influence public opinion.
Their ultimate weapon, litigation, was a poison pill that ultimately blocked a general plan, froze building permits for five years and forced no less an adversary than Mansour — who’d already sold one of his prize projects, later called Serrano, to Bill Parker — to sell his also-prize Valley View project to rival Angelo Tsakopoulos, who was willing to pay road fees Mansour could not.
Center and Moore were at the heart of a group that fought growth-friendly provisions in the county’s 1996 and 2004 General Plans, and opposed numerous specific projects they felt were not paying for their road impacts.
As core members of the Taxpayers for Quality Growth, they teamed up with the Sierra Club and an assortment of citizen coalitions and sued the county for failing to adequately analyze traffic impacts in the 1996 General Plan.
A Sacramento Superior Court agreed in 1999, rejecting the plan’s Environmental Impact Report and prohibiting any new projects until a new EIR and plan were complete.
The resulting building permit moratorium lasted five-years. Prior approvals were unaffected. Sales at Serrano and Promontory in El Dorado Hills soared.
Initiatives to constrain growth based on water availability, population and total freeway capacity all failed between 1996 and 1998, before Center and Moore discovered the Holy Grail of growth issues: gridlock.
Their coalition was an unusual mix of environmentalists and slow-growthers from around the region, long-time residents concerned with congestion and recently arrived ex-urbanites concerned that their rural paradise might become the urban sprawl they fled.
Measure Y, the landmark 1998 anti-gridlock initiative that forced developers to pay for their road impacts, passed with 61 percent of the vote.
The message was clear, they said. Voters wanted managed growth, open roads, quality neighborhoods and traffic relief, which became the title of the 2004 General Plan that included Measure Y’s provisions.
Following the passage of the 2004 General Plan (by a mere 51 percent) and work on the follow-on Oak Woodlands Ordinance and Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan, they largely dropped out of the public eye … until now.
Anti-growth attitudes nothing new
Raft resort owner Center blames El Dorado County’s exurban sprawl on 40 years on pro-growth supervisors and weak planning. He points to the 1996 General Plan as an example.
“Right in the preamble … it said that gridlock traffic was an acceptable tradeoff for economic growth,” he said, shaking his head.
The UC Davis study examines the factors in play, and found that shortly before the 1996 plan’s approval, more than 10,000 acres in rural areas were shifted from agriculture to residential designations with few public meetings and little fanfare.
Much of that land remains undeveloped, and is now constrained by subdivision rules that require expensive infrastructure: water, sewer and wide roads with multiple access points, all vastly stricter than when the property was designated residential, according to Principal Planner Shawna Purvines.
The 2004 El Dorado County General Plan was based on its predecessor, but included a more detailed environmental impact report and also integrated traffic control measures enacted as Measure Y in 1998.
Beebe and Wheeler condemned the 2004 plan for doing “little to develop any positive vision for future county growth,” and making more “low-density, high-impact, disbursed subdivisions” possible.
Center and Moore, who lives in Camino, agree, and contend that anti-growth sentiments are stronger than ever.
“Public opinion has hit critical mass,” said Moore, whose polling shows between two-thirds and three-quarters of people generally oppose growth in their community, but in El Dorado County the number is 85 to 90 percent.
Center added, “They didn’t like (big projects) when I was on the board, but today they hate them,” he said. “There’s a big disconnect between the people … in charge and the people who live here.”
Beebe and Wheeler found that recent arrivals often become the most fervent anti-growthers, “asserting their right to protect the landscape by whatever means they see fit, including litigation and angry outbursts in public meetings.”
The academics cite recent campaign slogans that seem to imply the rural lifestyle is something that belongs solely to the existing residents: “Keep us rural,” and “Preserve our rural heritage.” They trace this “defensive nativism” to “feelings of loss, threat and fear,” in ex-urbanites, fear of traffic, fear of growth and fear of other people. They repeatedly note the lack of racial diversity in the county.
The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors doesn’t have the luxury of just saying no like the public, according to former Supervisor Jack Sweeney, who termed out in 2012.
“The Board of Supervisors is charged by law in California with planning for growth of the community, and with administering to applications tendered by land owners,” he said. “You can’t deny them due process.”
“Good land use planning starts with knowing the facts, and that’s what the process provides,” he added.