Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Years-old discontent about a policy long chided as Calaveras' "40 acres and a mule" and planning for the Valley Springs area were voiced at a public hearing Tuesday on the latest draft land use map in the ongoing update of the county's General Plan land use guide document.

In 2007, the county Board of Supervisors voted to enact a policy strongly disfavoring subdivisions leaving parcels of less than 40 acres without public water and sewer connections.

Supervisor Darren Spellman suggested in Tuesday's joint session of the board and appointed Planning Commission that the board ought to review that direction and grant "more flexibility," particularly to aide the land-rich but cash-poor who want to leave a better inheritance to their descendants.

Supervisors Cliff Edson and Debbie Ponte also voiced willingness to review the policy, but Supervisor Merita Callaway held firm.

Callaway said the existing policy does have some wiggle room and added that she favors an increase in that minimum parcel size from 40 acres, citing a 100-acre minimum in Napa County as an example.

"It does a disservice to our constituents to micro-manage their futures," Spellman countered.

Brenda Gillarde, General Plan coordinator for the Calaveras County Planning Department, said the maps, updated from a version unveiled in February 2012, give a nod to smaller "ranchette" lots already in place.

"The areas that have already divided into 5-, 10- and 20-acre parcels, we recognize those … (and) acknowledge what is on the ground," Gillarde said.

The new map pencils out to a "carrying capacity" of as many as 80,000 additional county residents by 2035, which is a drastic reduction from the current General Plan.

"We feel like the proposed General Plan has a reasonable carrying capacity without going into a (population) number like 300,000," Gillarde said.

Supervisors and commissioners generally agreed growth ought to be focused around existing "community centers," towns with their own community plans within the General Plan.

The Valley Springs Community Plan dates to 1974, and conflicting efforts in the last five years to update it wrought division within that community.

Those tensions bubbled back to the surface on Tuesday.

Valley Springs rancher Ron Randall said the maps varied too greatly from what he called a "preferred plan" with elements of an "alternative plan."

Gillarde said the maps attempted to reflect a compromise of sorts, retaining the 1974 boundary for the planning area and "using the same kind of algorithm" applied countywide to determine land use.

Jeff Davidson, a Valley Springs business owner who represents the area on the Calaveras County Water District board, said the recent planning efforts were "controversial but well-vetted" in each case.

"I feel that much of that has been disregarded," Davidson said when looking at the new maps.

He pointed to lands marked for low-impact use as "resource production" where he knows "millions of dollars" in sewer credits have been purchased.

General consensus was that the map is an improvement from last year's version but has a way to go.

Planning Commissioner Michelle Plotnik called it "more realistic" than the prior draft.

Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center Executive Director John Buckley said talk of growing in the community centers is nice, but a projection of almost half occurring outside those boundaries falls well short of the stated goal.

"That's not really where you're wanting it to go," Buckley said. "It doesn't make the best use of infrastructure."

He added an estimated 25,000 more residents combined for Copperopolis and Arnold will harm the towns' rural character.

Tom Infusino, of the smart-growth advocate Calaveras Planning Coalition, cautioned "those (population) numbers are only available with major improvements in infrastructure" like roads and water delivery.

Supervisors and commissioners gave direction to staff to commence a 30-day formal public comment period on the map. Gillarde said a further scoping session also will be scheduled shortly.