Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

The divisive proposed Sawmill Lake subdivision in Copperopolis split Calaveras County planning commissioners 3-2 Thursday in a vote to deny the 580-home project that would be built next to the Copperopolis Town Square.

The matter will still come before the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors at some point in the coming months for a final decision.

Project advocates argued its approval can send a message that the county is open to investors like its developer, Castle & Cooke, a massive landowner primarily within California and Hawaii, whose representatives said it has spent more than $100 million on projects like the Town Square and Saddle Creek.

"I believe Sawmill is the whipping post for our underlying shortcomings," said Copperopolis resident Kenneth Plant. "My plea here isto keepour opportunities alive."

Opponents - including the Sierra Club, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and the Calaveras Planning Coalition - backed a Planning Department staff report that cited concerns for rare plant and animal species impacted by such a development, uncertainty about the water supply and general inconsistency with the county's widely panned General Plan land-use document, which is overdue for an update county leaders now expect to complete at the end of 2013.

"The project has been downsized but the key problems are not resolved," said CSERC Executive Director John Buckley. "It is time to stop trying to force a square project into a round hole."

The Planning Commission previously granted a 90-day continuance of the hearing, agreeing to allow Castle & Cooke Calaveras Vice President Dave Haley and Calaveras County Planning Director Rebecca Willis to hash out a revised proposal that addresses planners' concerns.

Haley came back with a proposal involving 222, rather than 243, acres and a reduction from 800 homes but Willis said too many items - including securing the water supply, mitigating for the loss of as many as 8,000 oak trees and inadequate wildlife corridors - remained outstanding.

Castle & Cooke pushed the issue with a June letter threatening litigation if Sawmill Lake, which began with a 2006 application, did not get processed in a more timely manner. For this reason, Willis said she could not agree to Haley's request for another continuance after the project had subsequently been made a top priority.

"It's not fair to have (county resources and) time invested in this project and then to say 'Just kidding, put it back in the pile,'" Willis said.

Haley expressed frustration with the county's position and said the project had been designed with goals of local planning philosophy in mind.

Scattered developments and building on valuable farmland are viewed unfavorably, he said.

"We are attempting not to do that," he said. "We are building in an existing community center."

With denial of the project, even though it is "without prejudice," meaning it can come back in a revised form after the General Plan update is complete, costs of more than $9 million already invested in the project "will increase substantially," Haley said.

After hours of testimony, commissioners were brief in their remarks prior to the vote.

Commissioner Mike Miller, whose district includes Copperopolis, favored forwarding the project to the Board of Supervisors with no recommendation for or against it.

Commissioner Ted Allured expressed distaste for that suggestion and a motion by Miller died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Fawn McLaughlin gave the strongest criticism of the proposal.

"It's taking 150 acres out of natural resource (zoning) and into an urban use," McLaughlin said. "That's going from one of the lowest use levels to potentially one of the highest."

To do so should require the applicant "to show how it benefits the public welfare" in terms of providing jobs and other benefit to the community, she said.

McLaughlin joined commissioners Greg Gustafson and Michelle Plotnik in voting to deny the project while Miller and Allured voted against the motion to deny it.