Builders bemoan new rules

Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

Tuolumne County policymakers and community members say they want more time to update a policy meant to help developers navigate environmental regulations.

After a lengthy public hearing on Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors opted to hold off a decision on approving changes to the county's "Biological Resources Review Guide" intended to make the guide easier to use.

The board will revisit the guide - which details regulations related to protected plant and animal species and informs builders how they can navigate myriad local, state and federal guidelines - on Dec. 18. But board Chairman Dick Pland said Tuesday that even then, the supervisors will likely need more time to compile a final draft.

"We will not be doing any adopting (on the 18th)," said Pland, who will wrap up histerm on the board at that meeting along with Supervisor Liz Bass. They will be replaced by incoming supervisors Karl Rodefer and Sherri Brennan.

"Hopefully we can decide to give staff direction on what the next step will be on this issue," Pland said.

The decision came after hours of public comment during the meeting, with all speakers criticizing the plan on multiple fronts. Many from the building and business community - with multiple speakers from Blue Mountain Minerals - said it would increase restrictive regulations that would hurt the economy. Some called for an extended public review period before it is approved.

Others from conservation and environmental groups said the guide will be detrimental to the environment - loosening rules on land management, especially when dealing with oak tree woodlands

An update to the county's wildlife handbook, the 200-plus-page guide is meant to be a one-stop tutorial on dealing with protected species and their habitats, and what is required if some disturbances do take place. The guide is optional for any project, and developers can hire their own consultants to carry out a similar review.

A committee of supervisors and community members worked last year to update the guide to simplify it and remove unnecessary regulations to encourage development.

In recent weeks, county staff made some changes to the committee's final draft in response to comments from the California Department of Fish and Game. Mike Laird, a deputy director of the county Community Resources Agency, said buy-in from Fish and Game is important, as the agency oversees state environmental rules.

Laird said that if the state agency does not approve of the document, there is a higher likelihood that a developer would use the guide and be given conflicting requirements from Fish and Game.

"That doesn't help anybody," he said. "That doesn't streamline a thing."

Fish and Game's requests included adding more than 30 special and protected species that were not initially subject to the guide and broadening the definition of old growth blue oak trees, which require some protections.

Laird and CRA Director Bev Shane said they have attempted to work through some of the concerns with Fish and Game. Though they've had no luck so far, that could change in the coming weeks.

"We are still awaiting some additional feedback from the Department of Fish and Game," Shane said. "We hope it will be positive."

The Union Democrat
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