Union Democrat staff

"It's a sad day for the working men and women of Calaveras County, for the businesses and charities looking at our organization as a beacon of hope."

So said Mike Nemee after the Board of Supervisors turned down his proposal for a golf resort and luxury home development in the Burson area on a 3-2 vote.

With unemployment soaring and economic activity in the Mother Lode slowing to a crawl, a first-time observer might ask, what kind of heartless public servant would say no to such a "beacon of hope"?

After all, hadn't the Ridge at Trinitas project been endorsed by the county Chamber of Commerce, the Deputy Sheriffs' Association and even the Calaveras School District's superintendent? And weren't $18.1 million in annual revenue and several dozen "family wage" jobs promised?

Yes, but as many county residents know, Trinitas is hardly a one-dimensional project: The bottom line is that Mike and Michelle Nemee built their golf course, on 280-acres off Ospital Road, without benefit of county-required review and permits.

What in 2001 began as a family-and-friends-only course - which itself violated Williamson act ag preserve requirements in force at the time - over the next four years mushroomed into a full-blown commercial enterprise open to the public and even hosting tournaments. That transformation came despite neighbors' increasingly shrill protests.

In 2007, the Nemees filed applications not only to legalize what they had already done, but to add a clubhouse, spa, banquet hall, 30-room lodge and 13 luxury homes.

Thus were planted the seeds of a perfect political storm: Outraged neighbors determined to protect their rural environment, a developer willing to spend millions on a project still lacking the necessary permits, a downturning economy that upped pressure to approve any and all job-creating plans, and a changing cast of county building and planning officials - some of whom, the Nemees said, verbally assured them that the golf course was OK.

Next this stew was seasoned with endorsements: First, expected backing from the chamber and taxpayers association. Then, less explicable support from the Deputy Sheriffs' Association - which said Trinitas would bolster the county economy and provide officers job security in their pursuit of lawbreakers, but ironically ignored the fact the Nemees themselves had broken the county's land-use laws.

Then came Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Jim Frost, insisting his financially strapped campuses could use the tax revenue Trinitas would generate. If this drama taught any classroom-suitable lessons in what's right and what's wrong, Frost didn't mention them.

The stage was set: Hours of testimony, days of hearings and full measures of angst followed. The Planning Commission deadlocked and supervisors delivered a 3-2 denial. A Planning Department review of "options" will follow, as might a lawsuit by the Nemees.

Yes, it is shame that a potentially lucrative project like Trinitas was turned down during these trying economic times. While the developers job and revenue estimates may have been on the generous side, the proposed resort could have helped.

A receding economy, however, does not justify ignoring the rules. Shooting first and asking questions later may have worked in the old west, but it has no place in 21st century land use planning.

If anything, the Trinitas tale is cautionary. Any beacons it posted are not those of hope, but those of warning to future developers.