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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sierra County Rezones Timberland Owned by Sierra Pacific Industries for Probable Development North of Lake Tahoe

Plaintiffs Say Change Violates CEQA because the rezone changes allowed use of lands from logging to logging AND development, yet the environmental impacts were not revealed or considered.

August 22, 2008

Why is the challenge to Sierra Pacific Industries Rezone important?

Some have questioned the timing of the High Sierra Rural Alliance’s challenge of Sierra Pacific Industries rezone of over 7000 acres of land zoned Timber Production to General Forest. Since SPI has not stated its specific intentions for the parcels, the logic goes HSRA’s challenge is based on the speculation that development will occur. SPI has stated the rezoned parcels will continue to be managed for timber production. But, the reality of that statement is just as speculative. Once the requirement that the land be managed for timber, which is a requirement of the Timber Production Zone but not the General Forest Zone, is removed how the land will be used is unknown. The fact that SPI will lose generous tax benefits by rezoning, but does not plan on changing the use makes us wonder. The County’s Board of Supervisors is not obligated to grant the rezone, especially because there does not seem to be any compelling reason for it, or benefit to the County. The rezone and the policy of rezoning without analysis weaken the goals and policies of the County’s General Plan.

That the lawsuit is an economic burden on Sierra County has also been used to criticize the HSRA’s action. However, the County requires all applicants for land use entitlements indemnify the County against any litigation the County’s approval of the project might cause. All costs to the County of the suit will be paid by SPI. It is worth noting that the converse is not true. If the Board denies approval of a project and the applicant sues, the County would have to pay for its own litigation costs.

The fundamental question for the Board in a case where a party is requesting a rezone without committing to a specific project is whether or not the County wants to change its original objective for the area in question. By exempting rezones of TPZ to GF from environmental analysis, the Board is adopting a policy which threatens the fundamental goals of the Sierra County General Plan. All TPZ parcels are not created equal. Some are close to established communities possibly making a rezone consistent with the General Plan. Some are remote, making a rezone inconsistent with the General Plan. The attached map shows the location of TPZ parcels in the County (shaded) and the rezoned SPI parcels in red.

The lands SPI has rezoned from TPZ to GF are located on Henness Pass Road between Perazzo Meadows and Jackson Meadows Reservoir, a remote area within the Tahoe National Forest checkerboard. HSRA believes entertaining possible development plans in this area is contrary to the fundamental goals of the General Plan and threatens to undermine the rural landscape the Plan embraces, as well as, impact three watersheds, fragment sensitive habitat and increase fire danger.

Through an intensive public process, Sierra County residents crafted a comprehensive General Plan to guide the County’s growth and land use pattern from 1996 to 2012. In the General Plan the community specifically identified policies and implementation measures which would assure the accomplishment of that fundamental goal. In order to protect its forests a Forest designation was created. The goals of the Forest designation are to ensure the continued availability of private timberlands; ensure the continued viability of timber production; allow for the managed production of forest lands; retain the open space and scenic values these lands provide; and prevent conversion to residential uses and other incompatible uses. The Timber Production Zone is a special zone within the Forest designation which was created by the State of California through the Timber Production Act of 1982. The program confers tax benefits to property owners who own Class A timberlands. When the Act became law Counties which chose to take part in the program compiled lists of eligible properties and put Class A lands in TPZ. A process followed allowing property owners to contest or accept the classification. Parcels zoned TPZ are limited in use to timber management and compatible uses and are taxed at a substantially reduced rate from similar Forest designated parcels which are zoned General Forest. Among the uses potentially allowed on lands zoned General Forest include forest estates, country clubs, golf courses, guest ranches, riding stables, mines, quarries, gravel pits, sawmills, summer home tracts, mobile home parks, travel trailer parks, recreational trailer parks, airports and heliports.

The lands SPI has rezoned from TPZ to GF are located on Henness Pass Road between Perazzo Meadows and Jackson Meadows Reservoir, a remote area within the Tahoe National Forest checkerboard. HSRA believes the rezone is contrary to the fundamental goals of the General Plan and threatens the pattern of rural clustered development the Plan embraces. The rezone is a policy level decision that would allow some form of development to occur in an area where virtually no development was possible. HSRA believes now is the time for the Board to analyze whether or not the County wants development to be able to occur in this area. To wait until a specific plan is proposed removes an important level of discretion. Once the property is zoned GF, the question will be what kind of development will be allowed. The opportunity to decide whether or not the land should be developed at all will be lost. HSRA believes the public decided in the General Plan that this was not an area appropriate for development. The HSRA is committed to defending the goals and policies of the Sierra County General Plan.

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