Democratic-Chronicles: Protection of the General Plan

By From page A4 | January 22, 2014

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part column by contributor Gene Altshuler. Part one, “Whack-A-Mole,” ran on Jan. 15.

The General Plan was intended to protect us from over development. However, this plan was so contentious that it had to be adopted by court order.

The very first paragraph of our General Plan states that it “provides for growth in an environmentally balanced manner, maintains the rural character and quality of the living environment, providing adequate infrastructure while conserving agricultural lands, forest and woodlands and other natural resources.”

But this is a general statement without specifics and different people and groups have interpreted it in line with their own agenda.

There was an included section of the plan that provided a series of growth options, but did not specify a level. Well in 2005 the county proposed the very highest growth level from among the options. This proposal was soundly defeated in a ballot initiative. So the developers regrouped, raised a huge war chest (outspending the smart growth contingent by 9-to-1) brought up the measure up again, and this time it squeaked through.

There is a well-founded perception that the General Plan, which is supposed to protect our quality of life, is being nibbled away at piece by piece. Death by a thousand cuts the Chinese say. Look at almost any past BOS meeting agenda and invariably you will find an item calling for a variance to a land designation, from low-density residential or agricultural to high-density residential or commercial.

How do these things sneak by? First, not many people pay attention to the BOS goings-on until it is too late. The BOS has resisted every request to hold even one meeting a month in the evening. Holding its meetings only during the day effectively disenfranchises residents who have to work for a living. Who do you see at BOS meetings, retired people and lobbyists?

Further, the General Plan only requires adjacent homeowners to be notified of new construction if they reside within fifty feet of the boundary. This is the rule whether the construction is a new deck, a room addition, or hundreds of new homes.

The long con
Confidence men have a term for a scam that takes time to set-up — the long con.

The first rule developers learn in developers school is to let the initial indignation over a proposed project die down before responding. They have learned that invariably those who are upset are not in it for the long run. That they do not have the will or resources to establish sustained opposition. Given a bit of time people will again be consumed with the stresses of their daily lives, helping their kids with their homework and vegging out in front of the television after a tough day, and resign themselves to the “inevitable.”

Developers, on the other hand, hold these projects as the core of their business. They work on a many-years, long time frame from land acquisition to breaking ground. And land development and the resulting profit is where their allegiance lies, not in the communities’ quality of life as, invariability, they do not live here.

It is rare to have a CEO or corporate entity display a conscience or do virtually anything that would dilute their profit. And it is naive to think that virtually any business entity would place good citizenship and preservation of quality of life over profit and exploitation.

Another tactic in the developers’ bag is the bait-and-switch game. This is where the initial proposal will call for a huge number of homes to be built. Then after community groups spring up in outrage and neighborhoods rouse themselves to collect signatures, put up signs, print T-shirts and make themselves heard at BOS meetings, they say “OK we heard you — maybe 1,000 homes is too much for this community; we will reduce our proposal to 650.” When, if they had to follow the in-place zoning as specified by the General Plan, their build-out would only be around 100 homes. Think this is just a hypothetical — check in with the Shingle Springs Alliance regarding the San Stino battle.

What can we do about this?
The answer is two-fold for there is a short and a long-term solution.

The short-term approach is to organize and fight using Measure Y to completely stop new construction until the level of service on Highway 50 is lowered. The developers know this will not happen in their lifetimes, so they are fighting it tooth and nail.

However, this is far from a perfect solution. Egged on by the developers, the county Planning Commission is challenging the models used to arrive at the LOS conclusion. I have even heard one county supervisor say, “But that [LOS F] is only during certain hours of the day and not all the time.” He is correct; the traffic jams are only during the primary commute hours and not at 3 a.m.

Also you should note that Measure Y is not forever. It expires in 2018. What then folks?

From the longer-term perspective we will be whacking moles until, and unless, the county is weaned from the teat of a seductive source of revenue — resident building permits. This road is easy and costs the county virtually nothing. But this is not a practical solution unless alternative revenue streams are developed.

The way out is to attract companies with permanent, high-paying jobs. Not only does this bring payroll revenue that gets spent locally, it brings tax and other revenue streams. We have been talking about how to do this for many moons (there is actually a 2004 Economic Development element to the General Plan). In the words of one of the counties’ senior administrators, our past attempts have been piecemeal and reactive.

At the same time we have to strategically ramp up our existing revenue streams such as tourism and agriculture. We are developing a renown wine appellation and our scenic wonders are a major tourist draw. We have made stabs at this for the past decade without much real success because the elements were not integrated and coordinated properly. You cannot just print a brochure and be done with it.

It is about time that we stopped these disparate efforts and developed a comprehensive, strategic Economic Development Plan. This will not be easy, or even without some cost, but it can and must be done or we will be playing Whack-A-Mole forever.

Gene Altshuler is a resident of Cameron Park and a community activist interested in economic development and local government.

Gene Altshuler

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