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A Hole In California

I used to think there wasn’t much a hole in the ground could do. The hole could get bigger, or it could get smaller. And that’s about it. But I’ve recently learned that a hole in the ground can not only suck an enormous amount of money, time and energy from a fellow, it can drive him to the edge of madness as well.

I run a small campground on a river in northern California, and one winter day a big old fir tree blew over into the water. It’s fairly common for trees to fall here on the heavily wooded, storm-battered Mendocino Coast. But this particular tree was a bit different than most. For it fell under the benevolent gaze of the California Coastal Commission.

The Coastal Commission came into being in the 1970’s as part of the Coastal Act, a law enacted primarily to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay. In retrospect, stopping this project was probably a good thing. For they have since discovered that building a nuke plant on Bodega Head may have been unwise, what with the San Andreas fault running directly beneath it and all.

But like all commissions, boards, bureaus and departments in California, the Coastal Commission soon grew like some weird bureaucratic bacteria culture into something far beyond their original charter. So instead of only reviewing construction projects west of Highway1, they now rule vast stretches of the state reaching miles inland. They are forever overruling the plans of counties and cities, and they have become a real thorn in the side of homeowners throughout the state. And right at the bull’s-eye of their target group are commercial property owners.

As part of my job I try to stay abreast of the continuous changes in the countless pages of codes and regulations that affect our business. So I knew that on this river, once a tree hits the water it is considered a salmon habitat. And if you want to remove it, it must be extensively permitted first. Permitted California-style.

If I just left the tree where it lay, it would have eventually torn out of the bank and floated downstream, where it would have hung up and kept the boats from getting in and out. I would have to buck it up and get it out of there before things got worse. So I armed myself with a permit application from the California Coastal Commission, and marched blindly and boldly into the arena.

I have filed many, many permits over the years, so I have it down to an art. All the various federal, state and county agencies laying claim to the river were advised of the project and their approval requested. Two or three dozen adjacent landowners were notified and their input encouraged. Photos of the project site were compiled, maps and diagrams put together and detailed description of the work involved and materials used were written. Then multiple copies of this stuff was assembled and shipped off to Eureka. After a few follow-up e-mails and phone calls, I was given a date for a pre-approval inspection. The whole process went rather smoothly, and I congratulated myself on having my act together.

When the Commission people showed up they immediately determined that there was in fact a tree lying in the river. Then they surprised me by saying that I didn’t need a permit to remove it. Apparently there was a clause in the law that stated the tree didn’t actually become a salmon habitat for 60 days. So I could do what I wanted with it.

I did not know of this clause. Nor, I suspect, did the salmon. But it was good news to me. I would have the thing gone in a day. The tree was not a problem after all. But the hole in the ground the tree had left behind was a different matter entirely.

Because of its proximity to the river, I was told I would definitely have to get approval from the Commission to fill the hole. I did not really think much about the hole in my planning, mostly because it wouldn’t be a hole anymore once I put dirt back into it. But I was in luck. For a rare alignment of the bureaucratic planets was coming up soon. And my application could hit the regional pre-approval board before skipping over to Sacramento in time for the pre-meeting meeting of the secondary board, who would then submit it to The Commission itself. At that time, the members of The Commission might deign to allow it to be so. I seem to remember another step or two in there somewhere, but after an hour or so of this I was thinking about what to have for dinner.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. I had filed an emergency permit application, thinking this would be the way to get things rolling the quickest. But I was told that The Commission would only approve an emergency permit if there were an immediate threat of loss of life. So I would have to submit a standard application. And if I didn’t submit it in time I would have to wait for the next cycle. I thought for a moment of the poor slob who might actually have to submit to the California Coastal Commission an application for a permit to prevent an immediate loss of life. Then I went back to work.

All the various federal, state and county agencies laying claim to the river were advised of the project and their approval requested. Two or three dozen adjacent landowners were notified and their input encouraged. Photos of the project site were compiled, maps and diagrams put together and detailed description of the work involved and materials used were written. Then multiple copies of this stuff was assembled and shipped off to Eureka. I had been down this road before.

Winter turned to spring, and then to summer. We were asked to pay the permit fee up front, so I sent them a check for $2500. I received several e-mails requesting more information, but aside from that, nothing. I still had a hole in one of our campsites, and the campground was getting full. So I dumped enough dirt in the hole to cover up the exposed utility lines, put a safety fence around it and started renting the site out again. It was not an especially popular spot, but I just used it for short periods of time since I expected to jump back in there and finish it any day. But this was not to be.

Summer turned to fall. I had been notified that we needed another study or two for this project, but by now it made my brain hurt to even think about that hole. After months of neglect the hole was trying to fill itself by collapsing it’s banks, so the campsite was completely unusable. And I had basically given up on getting the permit before the next rains hit.

Then one winter day, more than a year after I had filed the application, I received a certified letter from the Coastal Commission. They had been surreptitiously monitoring the work we had done, or not done, at the site. And we were looking at a fine of $30,000 and up to $15,000 per day for doing the work. Or not doing the work. The letter was a bit vague on that part. But one thing was clear. Whatever it was we had or hadn’t done was wrong and thoroughly illegal. And we were to be punished severely for it.

I considered the implications of this letter. The California Coastal Commission is a large, state-wide agency that was probably at that moment dealing with a thousand permit applications and projects, not to mention hundreds of law suits from property owners. Yet they had put forth the time and effort to send their personnel on a clandestine intelligence-gathering mission to our business after we had gone home for the night. To look at that hole. And they had done so several times. Things were getting mighty strange.

I will pause here for a moment to remind the reader that I am talking about a hole in the ground. It was 10 feet across and 6 feet deep. There was not a Giza Plateau level of engineering skill required here. You dump some dirt and rock into the hole. Then you grade and compact it. Then you go eat lunch.

I decided to read the Coastal Act and all the additions and amendments to it again. I was sure that somewhere in that lengthy document was a way to get this permit pushed through. And I found that the regulation on this type of work was surprisingly clear. It didn’t need a permit at all. We were merely repairing damage, not expanding the park. I remember bringing up this very argument when I met with the Commission people over a year ago. And they basically laughed it off.

Because it really didn’t matter what the Coastal Act said. In California, codes and regulations are generally considered as minimum requirements by whatever agency is looking at them. So the rules can be modified and reinterpreted at their whim. I have lost track of the unrequired work we have been required to do.

Their main concern was that some of the fill would find it’s way to the river. So they were most unhappy that I had put some rock into the hole before they said I could, even though it was the same rock that had come out of it. And if this was their worry, making me leave the hole open through two rainy seasons did not seem like a good way to deal with it anyways. But apparently this was the issue that was holding things up, so I would give them erosion control on an epic scale.

I wrote up an Erosion Control Master Plan, which involved multiple layers of compacted state-approved road base in the hole itself, topped with organic topsoil. Then, the entire bank from the hole to the high water line would be covered in a specially made natural-fiber erosion blanket for 30 feet along the river. Over this would go several long organic fabric tubes run parallel to the river to redirect any raindrops that may be so bold as to land on the cloth. This would all be painted over with a blend of grass and wildflower seeds and organic nutrients. I had to special order most of this stuff and have it shipped, so it cost about $1500. I sent this plan off to the Coastal Commission. And then I waited.

Winter turned to spring. Then I got another letter from the Coastal Commission. It seemed that they could not give us a permit for this job, since the work did not require a permit. So they gave us a waiver instead. We still had to pay the permit fee, and comply with my Erosion Control Master Plan. But they would drop the fines. And they would waive the requirement to get a permit for the job, which wasn’t required to begin with.

Permit, waiver, whatever. I finally got to fill that damn hole, and I did so immediately.

It took a couple hours to do the work. It took 16 months, $4,000 and countless office hours to get a permit we didn’t need and never received.

The campsite seems a bit unnatural now, with all that weird looking stuff there. So no one wants to rent it. But I like to imagine that hundreds of years from now archeologists might discover this perfectly preserved little section of riverbank, standing tall and proud amidst the rubble. And they might ponder its significance.

So if you are trying to run a business in some other state and you often feel overburdened with unnecessary regulations, just remember this. It could be a lot worse. You could be trying to put some dirt in a hole in California.

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