Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

An 800-home development adjacent to Copperopolis Town Square tied up in environmental and legal questions will come to the Calaveras County Planning Commission on Thursday.

County planners have recommended the panel deny "without prejudice" an application dating back to 2006 from Los Angeles-based mega-developer Castle and Cooke.

A 16-page recommendation from the county Planning Department Aug. 24 cites the proposed development's inconsistency with the 1996 general plan land use document that the county is in the late stages of a several-years-long process of updating.

The report finds that development of 150 acres classified as natural resource/agricultural preserve lands would have significant impacts on neighboring Sawmill Creek.

Habitats for threatened animal and plant species such as Western pond turtles, Tuolumne button celery and Chinese Camp brodiaea is also likely to be impacted, the recommendation notes, and as many as 8,000 oak trees removed.

The county seeks to establish a state-approved woodlands mitigation plan that would allow an equal number of oaks to be preserved in perpetuity elsewhere in the county before the project could move forward.

However, representatives of the developer, one of the nation's largest land owners which recently sold the Hawaiian island of Lanai for more than $500 million, have written the county to say its staff has already dragged their feet long enough.

"While unfortunate, the inability of the county to access state mitigation funds is not a proper or legal reason to deny the proposed Sawmill Lake project," said Sloughhouse-based Environmental Planning Partners President Robert Klousner Jr., writing Sept. 4 on behalf of client Castle and Cooke.

Klousner added that the developer can adequately mitigate the oak losses elsewhere and remain in compliance with state law.

Bakersfield attorney Mark Jones wrote June 25 that Castle and Cooke "will be left with no alternative but to pursue its available judicial remedies" if Sawmill Lake and other residential developments it has applied for are not processed and approved within a year.

In a subsequent July 23 letter, Jones stated that Castle and Cooke has spent about $30 million on land acquisition and processing costs to date.

Jones and Castle and Cooke Calaveras Vice President Dave Haley each contend that the county's concerns have already been addressed in a draft environmental impact report.

"It has been over a year since the administrative final EIR was submitted to county staff," Haley said. "(The document) adequately addressed all comments received on the Sawmill Lake project, and none of those comments would warrant recirculation, or further delay, of the project."

PUBLIC MEETING: Calaveras County Planning Commission, 9 a.m. Thursday, Calaveras County Government Center, 891 Mountain Ranch Road, San Andreas.