Kathy Mayhew - Guest opinion
If you believe that breaking the law should be punished, not rewarded, then you'll agree that the Ridge at Trinitas golf resort needs to be denied approval.
If you think an illegal golf course shouldn't be pumping over 93 million gallons of groundwater a year while neighbors' wells develop serious problems, then you should be upset that Trinitas is doing just that.
Think our roads are bad now? If anyone can build whatever they want, wherever they want, traffic will become a nightmare.
It appears the developers of Trinitas golf course set out to avoid the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its required environmental impact report, by building their 18-hole private membership golf course without permits. They derived tax benefits while being under the Williamson Act, and according to the public record paid virtually nothing to the county in permit fees or fines since 2001.
If you've ever built a house, you had to have plans approved, get permits, have inspections and pay fees. The Trinitas developer avoided all that. How does the law apply to everyone but him?
The Board of Supervisors is supposed to give prior approvals to golf courses; but the developer thumbed his nose at them and denied them the chance to ever approve it. Who made him more powerful than the Board of Supervisors in Calaveras County?
The applicant was told by the planning department in a letter dated Aug. 9, 2001: "this property is currently zoned Agricultural Preserve (AP) and is under Williamson Act Contract...#55, with a notice of non-renewal filed ... in 1997... effective March 1, 2006. Until that date, the property must remain zoned AP... a golf course, whether for private or public use, is not allowed in the Agricultural Preserve Zone as either a permitted or a conditional use. The construction of a golf course on this property, even for your private use, violates both county code ... and the provisions of Agricultural Preserve Contract 55 ... any further golf course construction activity on the property could result in legal action by the County." (Letter from Dan Hendrycks, Planner II, to Michael and Michelle Nemee)
That sounds pretty clear to me: they couldn't legally build a golf course on the property without a zoning change, and that couldn't happen before 2006.
Yet by December 2005 when they submitted their Notice of Preparation according to the Trinitas Draft EIR, they had a functioning golf course. They got the county to declare it an "existing amenity," exempt from CEQA's required environmental review. This decision was based, in part, on the perceived inability to assess "after the fact" the environmental impacts of changing 95 acres of the project site's 280 acres into something no longer resembling the rolling oak grasslands and wetlands it was in 2001.
By 2006, the developer must have considered himself unstoppable. He had received Code Compliance Unit citations for 10 ordinance violations, including: converting part of a barn into an accessory dwelling without a permit (CCU ongoing chronology of file contacts 10-25-01 through 2-05-02), maintaining a public nuisance, grading without permits, failure to submit engineering, failure to install erosion control (Administrative Citation 03-29); "initiation of drilling without a permit; initiation of drilling on an unapproved site; destruction of a well without a permit; destruction of a well with unauthorized methods and materials, and failure to complete a proper surface seal." (August 5, 2004 Notice of Violation from the Environmental Health Department)
But the county failed to enforce its own ordinances. This has been explained at recent Board of Supervisors meetings by Community Development Director Stephanie Moreno as being consistent with historical policy. Specifically, when a developer has built without permits, but has later submitted an application to the county and is "following the process," they are given a great deal of time to correct their problems before the "heavy hand of code compliance" is brought into play.
Well, the Trinitas developer took that ball and ran with it. At the public scoping session in February 2006, neighbors made the county aware that project development continued.
On February 9, 2006, the developer was told again by the county that the golf course was not a permitted use, and that all construction on the golf course should cease. He was told that "use, expansion or alteration of the golf course or related facilities without a valid permit is a violation of ... county zoning code ... subject to enforcement action, including fines and other penalties ... avoid physical changes to the project environment during the application process. The ... baseline conditions used to determine environmental impacts is established when the Notice of Preparation (NOP) is issued ... December 29, 2005. If conditions change on-site following this action, it may be necessary to establish a new baseline, reissue the NOP, and reevaluate impact determinations." (Robert Sellman letter to Mr. Nemee)
Did that stop him? NO! He has continued his piecemeal development. In March 2007, he built an illegal encroachment from Ospital Road to the proposed lodge site. He has graded, widened roads, built a new wall, electronic gate and sign stanchion at the main entrance to the property, laid in new sod, and recently trenched and began laying infrastructure for the lodge site.
Neighbors have begged the county to intervene since 2001, but they have failed until now to stop the illegal construction. Since late July, neighbors have also noticed golfers playing on the course almost daily. This activity stopped (at least temporarily) right after the Oct. 9 Board of Supervisors meeting, when the developer was seriously put on notice.
At that meeting, Keep It Rural, Calaveras members testified against the hiring of consultant Quad Knopf to produce the Final Trinitas EIR, and presented graphic photographic evidence of the amount of piecemeal development that has occurred since 2002. Several supervisors reported receiving a flier announcing a November 9, 2007 Nike Golf Skins Game at Trinitas a commercial enterprise clearly in violation of the county's orders.
Supervisor Steve Wilensky told Trinitas lawyer Diane Kinderman that her client "could not continue to benefit from the process and make a mockery of it at the same time." Board Chair Bill Claudino asked: "What is it about the word ' STOP' that your client doesn't get?" Russ Thomas said the likelihood of his voting favorably on the project was inversely related to the developer's continuing to do business as usual. Stephanie Moreno announced that any more evidence of "golfing activity" will bring forth a recommendation of denial on the project from the planning department. Supervisor Tom Tryon went so far as to ask his colleagues to consider having staff prepare a "Notice of Termination."
Instead, the supervisors set a hearing date of Nov. 6 to debate the issue of setting the baseline of the revised EIR back to the property's pre-golf course condition. This should force a reconsideration of the "no project alternative" that in the original draft left an illegally-built golf course in place, whether or not the county approved the project.
As Keep It Rural's attorney Mark Connolly stated in his comments to the draft EIR: "in this case the "no project" alternative assumes that an illegal golf course on agriculturally zoned land will continue indefinitely. It cannot continue unless all county, state and federal agencies abandon their responsibilities to enforce the law, and private citizens
do not seek injunctive relief."
Contrary to popular opinion, the proposed zoning change from Agricultural to Recreation with Planned Development isn't just necessary to allow the golf course to legally open to public play. It is necessary to allow the golf course to continue to exist, rather than be abated as a public nuisance. Abated, as in: taken out, stop watering, return to its natural state.
Golf courses are not now, and have never been, a legal or permitted use on land zoned AP or A1. Trinitas is still officially zoned AP, as shown by the effort to change its zoning to A1 at the Oct. 4 planning commission meeting. Sooner or later, the laws he has broken are going to catch up with the applicant.
What is the moral of this story? We shall see.
In a just world, our supporters hope that when the dust blows over, it will be said that: The developer who didn't do the right thing or play by the rules not only didn't win the game, he was penalized for unsportsmanlike behavior.
The county did not reward law breaking, and therefore did not encourage developers to build first, and "ask permission" later.
The county took another look at some old policies concerning ordinance enforcement, and established new policies designed to prevent runaway development.
The General Plan revision process took into account the needs and desires of the residents of each community in Calaveras County, looked far enough into the future to anticipate quality of life issues, and planned for growth that compliments and enhances the rural qualities that draw both tourists and new residents.
That some big-picture infrastructure issues got a closer look like how groundwater is used and its future availability guaranteed, and some creative problem-solving took place about uses of surface water and how traffic is managed in the next decades.
That future projects throughout the county are zone-appropriate and consistent with General Plan goals.
Let's try to guide growth in directions that make sense, retaining as much as possible of the rural charm that has brought economic growth and viability to our county, instead of destroying the very qualities that make people love visiting and living here.
Let's keep it rural, Calaveras.
Kathy Mayhew of Wallace is a former teacher, nonprofit executive director and graphic designer. She and her husband, Lew, have been married for 35 years.