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Tears, Circles and Other Water Sources

Even though the March 18th discussion and action on the County’s policy for a water requirement for a single family dwelling building permit was timed for an 11:30 hearing, Mendocino County Board of Supervisors Chair Charles Peterson reset it for late in the afternoon. Actively circulating amongst staff, waiting for the morning hearing, was an ominous letter to the Board from the Coastal Commission’s District Director Steven Scholl, which informed the Board, “If the coastal development permit issuing authority (the County’s Planning and Building Director Ray Hall) does not require proof of water before issuing a coastal development permit for residential development on existing parcels, such a coastal development permit would not conform with the policies of the LCP (Local Coastal Plan).”

Translation: Director Hall is busted for violating the County’s Coastal Plan.

For 12 years Director Hall has been personally certifying that all residential coastal development permits have “adequate utilities and necessary facilities” (e.g., adequate water supply), when in fact there is no evidence that they do. The actual checking for adequate water has been under the purview of the County’s Division of Environmental Health (DEH), which has required nothing more than labeling an ostensible source of water on a project’s plot plan.

Director Hall, on hand for the Board in the morning, did not reappear before the Board for the afternoon hearing. Instead, he sent an underling, Planner Alan Fallari, to catch the flak following an opening round of flak catching by DEH Director John Rogers. But Hall managed to slip into the Board chambers during the public comment period and took a seat in the bleachers.

In an embarrassing display of incompetence, Rogers gave a fifth grader’s assessment of the issue and then proceeded to read a dozen old comment letters line by irrelevant line. Eyes rolled then glazed over. Scarce Board time was being conspicuously wasted.

Yours truly, officially representing the Mendocino Coastwatch Group and the Mendo/Lake Group of the Sierra Club, informed the Board that its existing “no proof of adequate water” policy violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the County’s General Plan, and its Coastal Plan, public trust doctrine, 1995 California legislation and recent case law. Ahem.

The Board’s Health and Welfare Committee — development-friendly Supervisors Michael Delbar and Patti Campbell — had considered several “proof of water” options (previously discussed in these pages), recommending the Board adopt not only the most environmentally damaging option, but the one that endangered the health and safety of all County residents, and what’s left of its timber, fishing and agriculture industries. I also pointed out to the Board that DEH had adopted policy without the Board’s knowledge or consent when it decided that trucked-in/stored water would be considered a “source” of water for building permit approval by DEH.

Throughout my presentation, Chair Peterson repeatedly interrupted, demanding a summary of our issues — “none of which,” I responded, “have been addressed by staff. The Board doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Would you rather discuss it now, or in court?” Peterson countered with a demand, “State your bottom line.” I concluded, “We want the Board to adopt a policy that rejects trucked-in water as a source, and adopts a water test which demonstrates an adequate on-site water supply (or a letter from a mutual/public water system guaranteeing connection) before any building permit can be approved.” I went on with, “In lieu of this, then we want a comprehensive Environmental Impact Report on existing policy and any other proposed policy changes.” (This is CEQA-speak for, “If you won’t completely inform yourselves about the issue, we’ll ask the court to order you to completely inform yourselves, before you make any decision, including sticking with existing policy.”)

Chair Peterson was furious with DEH for deciding that trucked-in water would be considered a “source of water” for DEH approval of a building permit. DEH’s self-proclaimed confusion about whether this policy could be used to circumvent other County land use regulations requiring proof of an adequate water supply and force the Board to grant a County regulations variance to avoid being sued. A Mr. Calone, from Stockton, explained to the Board that he had purchased a parcel in one of the Southcoast’s Whiskey Shoals subdivisions with the assurance of DEH that he could build and use trucked-in stored water. Now, he explained, “I’m being told I cannot build.” Supervisor Campbell attempted to expand this single variance to a vaguely described group of others, but the Board refused.

Supervisor Campbell asked me, “You mean what we’ve [the Health and Welfare Committee] recommended here is not limited [to a few parcels]?” I responded, “No, it’s not.” Supervisor Delbar literally threw up his hands and said, “I’ve got to hear from County Counsel on this.” Delbar and Campbell turned pale upon realizing they had been played for fools. Planning Director Hall, by not telling these new Supervisors about the extent of basic County land use details, played Campbell and Delbar like violins. He knew their Development First! ideology would thoroughly discourage any thoughtful environmental, health and safety considerations, and engaged them in concert with yet another one of his nefarious schemes. What he didn’t count on, however, was any public discord.

The rest of the Board also refused to play in tune with Hall. Supervisor John Pinches, seeing a grand opportunity to advance his Eel River County water system fantasy, spoke reverently of the need to protect “precious and sensitive coastal resources.” He also illustrated a County health problem by blaming the County’s “no proof of water for issuance of a building permit” for the head lice problem in Laytonville schools (?).

Supervisor Shoemaker, as a defense mechanism to staff’s self-serving spinning of information to the Board, has become a micro-management zealot. This time Shoemaker’s expression about lack of information micro-scrutiny is harmonious with the public’s request for an EIR.

By 6:30pm an exhausted Board voted 4-1 to grant Mr. Calone a variance; apparently thinking they were buying time by keeping County policy status quo by turning the whole mess over to County Counsel Peter Klein for an opinion. (Peterson stated he didn’t want to hear from his constituents about granting this variance, even though he supported it.) As a break was announced, with everyone in the room bouncing out of their chairs like over-compressed springs, I reminded Peterson that the 30-day court review CEQA clock was ticking, based on the Board’s upholding of its existing no proof of water policy. I asked Peterson if trucked-in water could still be considered a source. Peterson replied, “All you have to do now is draw a circle on a plot plan and write ‘source’.”

Director Hall was observed slumped down in his chair, with his glasses off, face in his hands in male weeping behavior. County Administrative Officer Mike Scannell ran down from the Board’s elevated stage and put his hands on Hall’s shoulders, exclaiming, “Ray, everything’s going to be all right. Ray! Ray? It’s going to be OK, Ray!” (One assumes some Cover Your Ass maneuvers are in the works.)

Who knows when the Board is going to consider this issue before the public again? Meanwhile, we are preparing to appeal Hall’s Coastal Development permit approvals one by one to the Coastal Commission.

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