Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

A controversial 580-home housing development adjacent to Copperopolis Town Square must go back to the drawing board after a 5-0 vote Tuesday to deny the project "without prejudice."

Developer Castle & Cooke put forth an application for the project, initially seeking approval for 800 homes, more than six years ago. Processing that application has been complicated by county staff turnover.

Calaveras County Supervisor Debbie Ponte, seated in January as the new representative for Copperopolis, lamented the effect the county's dysfunction has had on the proposal.

"This project is certainly not perfect and certainly has its flaws," Ponte said. "I'm sorry it has taken this long … thank you (to Castle & Cooke) for putting up with us for all these years. It leaves me embarrassed that we are here today with this kind of project but we don't have our act together here at the county level."

Nevertheless, Ponte made the motion for the denial, saying the flaws are simply too many at this time.

The denial "without prejudice" is "like a no-fault divorce," said Supervisor Darren Spellman. "We agree to disagree … it would allow the developer to come back at any point (with a revised project)."

Spellman shared Ponte's assessment about the developer being given a rough road to navigate by the county's failings.

"If I were to listen to my heart, I'd give (Castle & Cooke Calaveras Vice President Dave) Haley a hug. I think Castle & Cooke is a good developer … I don't think that what is before us today would pass muster," he said, praising the Town Square. "I hope there will be more development by Castle & Cooke to that standard in Calaveras County."

Haley had asked the board to continue its consideration of the project until 120 days after the county completes its General Plan land-use-guide update.

"By not considering people's needs along with the natural environment, population growth spreads into the rural environment," Haley said. "This project meets planning requirements for approval for rural county town centers."

Rancho Calaveras resident and Calaveras County Taxpayers Association member David Tunno said during the public hearing that Sawmill Lake would already have been approved if not for an inability to secure a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At that time, the housing development was separated from the Town Square to allow it to move forward, he said.

"The Town Center project itself makes no sense without the Sawmill Lake project," Tunno said.

The separation left the Town Square with a sewer pipe sized for service to the Sawmill Lake project, once planned for 800 homes, he said.

"It's like you invite someone out for dinner, they pay for the appetizer … and then you jerk the chair from underneath them," Tunno added.

The project simply had too many shortcomings to overcome as proposed, said Calaveras County Planning Director Rebecca Willis.

It does not adequately mitigate for loss of 8,000 oak trees, urbanizes a wildlife corridor, leaves county taxpayers holding the bag for various environmental mitigation measures and leaves open questions about water and sewer infrastructure to serve the new homes, Willis said.

"This is a problem … when you don't know where the water lines are going, where the wastewater lines are going, that's kind of a big void when you're trying to analyze the environmental impacts," she said. "The Board of Supervisors has approved more subdivisions in Copper than (Calaveras County Water District) has water. In order to be able to approve more subdivisions in Copper, we need to be able to prove that there's adequate water."

Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center representative Julia Stephens said the idea that Sawmill Lake will be an economic boon to the county is a misguided one.

"The county would be thriving if the creation of vacant lots produced jobs and taxes," Stephens said, "Creating more vacant residential lots does not help the economy."

Colleen Platt, of smart-growth advocate group, said she has seen estimates ranging from 5,000 to 8,000 existing approved lots in Copperopolis that aren't exactly selling like hot cakes.

Supervisor Merita Callaway added that the county has already spent more than $100,000 to process the project and has little to show for it but an inadequate development agreement and environmental impact findings that are already becoming stale.

"For me, there's enough concerns with the project and with what's been for us that I cannot support granting a continuance," Callaway said. "I don't think it's in the best interest of the project."

"I cannot support continuing either, based on what I've read and what I've seen," added Supervisor Cliff Edson. "I do want this project to happen … but in a way that's good for the community."