The Watchdog Woofs 10/17/12

The Watchdog Woofs: HSRA Speaks on the Demon Ordinance

101712 by The Fringe

Property rights activists in Sierra County have put forth an initiative to ask voters if they want Sierra County Code to reflect the belief that a person who owns a legal parcel should be able to build a house on it.  The Plumas Sierra Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR) is circulating the initiative in the hopes of getting signatures to put the measure before the voters.

Not surprisingly, High Sierra Rural Alliance, an “environmental watchdog” group which, by the description of the director, primarily files lawsuits to do their good work, has come out as opposed to the ordinance.  HSRA’s opposition is pretty much the final indicator most people needed in deciding to support the initiative.

The ordinance is a truly grassroots attempt to restore the right of a person to have a house on their land.   Any opposition HSRA has to the ordinance is in opposition with that simple right.  HSRA has shown an active opposition to people peacefully and simply using their land.

High Sierra Rural Alliance was neither a necessary nor sufficient cause for the ordinance, but rather functions as part of a swirling cesspool of a movement of thought in California, which devalues property ownership.  The natural world is increasingly being seen as a kind of commons, in itself not a bad concept and indeed, the proposed ordinance specifically addresses the responsibility landowners have to the environment and down stream landowners.  That kind of rational stewardship isn’t the point.  Ownership of land, particularly rural land, has come to be seen a dubious activity, selfish at its core, and those who own such land may pay taxes, and file endless permits to manage the land responsibly, but to actually use the land they must have oversight, and they must pay and pay more.

To be specific, HSRA in their press release ( makes these points:

    1. Sierra County is spending $200,000 to correct problems in the General Plan and update the Zoning Code in a comprehensive, informed process. If the Initiative is passed those taxpayer dollars will have been squandered.

    2. The Initiative will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Besides squandering what has already been spent, the Initiative will likely cost the Sierra County taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for a special election, analysis of the impacts of the Initiative, and another rewrite of the General Plan and Zoning Code.

    3. This Initiative will make good land use planning in Sierra County difficult, if not impossible. The hallmarks of good land use planning are that decisions are well-informed and that decisions reflect a comprehensive planning process and accommodate competing public interests. With the single brushstroke approach of the Initiative, balance is impossible.

Let’s discuss these sequentially:

First, the two hundred grand being spent on the general plan.  It was HSRA itself who forced this expenditure on the county.  Now, somehow the property rights initiative is wasting money?   There was a general plan; it was being observed, though it was not “implemented” in that not all code sections were in complete agreement with the general plan.

High Sierra used the courts to force the county to implement the general plan and forced draconian definitions on Timber Production Zone land use and stream setbacks.  The county may or may not actually meet the requirements of the court, and HSRA might still let some blood with this action.  The proposed CAPR ordinance would, perhaps, undo some of what HSRA accomplished through litigated buggery.  None of the money will be wasted except that amount which HSRA caused.  Undoing their mischief is money saved.

Next, HSRA warns that the change will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, for “a special election, analysis of the impacts of the Initiative, and another rewrite of the General Plan and Zoning Code.”  The special election is six thousand dollars.  A sufficient analysis has been done.  The code itself has been re-written; it’s part of the ordinance being submitted.  It’s unclear where hundreds of thousands of dollars would be spent, unless HSRA or some similar “watchdog” decides to sue.

The ordinance would allow a home on any legal parcel.  It effects only one thing: a house, a single family home.  It doesn’t change any other structures, or create parcels.  It doesn’t change zoning districts, or setbacks, doesn’t allow an undersized lot without room for a proper septic system to have a house.  It specifically excludes “zoned Community Commercial (CC), Business Park (BP), Industrial (M1) and Airport (AV).”  It effects only homes where people live.

The third “concern” HSRA brings up is that the ordinance changes a lot with one stroke, and it does.  It dismantles some of the requirements for parcels to be in a community core, meaning that residential, rural and rural residential are no longer confined to a growth cluster; people can build a rural home outside of a community core zone.  Some people are concerned that this might lead to houses scattered through the hills, and yep, that’s what rural housing looks like.  Everyone crammed into a community core zone is what a city looks like.  We’re rural here in Sierra County.  It’s perfectly fine to believe we should all live in condos in “community core” areas; but this ordinance gives the people of the county a chance to say “that’s great for somewhere, but we don’t believe that here.”

Does removing the requirement of community core constitute a change in those zoning definitions?  There’s no question that it does.  Carbon Footprint ecologists want us penned in to localized areas; they want you to be able to walk to work, and take a collapsible cart and cloth grocery bag to the market for your twice weekly shopping.  They don’t want your SUV farting dinosaurs eight miles out and eight miles back to mail a birthday card to your granny across the valley.  There is pressure to herd us folks into common areas where we can be kept “safe” economically and where we share services with many others, dividing the impact on the environment.

That kind of life isn’t being deeply rural, it’s just living a long way from the nearest Costco.  You’re really rural if you can shoot your pistol off your deck, and run out naked to get something from the car.  I’m here to tell you first hand, you can’t do those things in a community core zone.

The other thing wrong with community core zones is that eventually someone will speculate and the pressure to build will grow and the community core zone will become a city.  In fact, as it is now the community core zones are still the most common building sites, and that probably won’t change.  The new ordinance doesn’t insist you live in the hills, it just affirms your right to if you want to.

Even so, it is unlikely the new ordinance will change the county very much in the next ten to twenty years.  The growth potential simply isn’t there.

“Open Space” is addressed in California law, and the intention is “the use of unimproved land or water for: 1) the preservation or managed production of natural resources, 2) outdoor recreation, and 3) the promotion of public health and safety” (from the Ceres website).   The law seemed necessary for cities and counties with large populations, so there would be some green and natural places left.  The law, in its witlessness, requires Sierra County to have an open space element in the general plan just as Orange County does, even though our county is nearly all “open space.”  Someone might consider allowing a single family dwelling on open space a problem, and in L.A. maybe it is.  In our county, it isn’t, particularly if the home was possible but needed a “legislative” action like a special use permit.

Other changes which might be considered “zoning changes” would be the switch from legislative to ministerial, meaning from “special use” and “conditional use” to “permitted use” to build single family dwelling on 23 zoning districts, listed below.  “Permitted use,” means the Planning and Building department do a review of the building site and plans, and if there are no significant problems, they issue a permit.  It’s not that there is no process, it simply means that unless the process finds a compelling reason to amend or curtail the plan, it goes forward without other actions.

“Special use” and “conditional” permits mean a longer, more micro-managed process.  It also means the permit can be withdrawn and the use terminated for a variety of reasons.  When HSRA says “good land use planning… decisions are well-informed and … reflect a comprehensive planning process and accommodate competing public interests” they mean that micro-management.  The “competing public interests” include the people landowners have always considered: neighbors and downstream users, and everyone’s interest is the environment itself.  High Sierra and others “watchdogs” believe that the environmental interest is over-riding and can only be represented by people like themselves.

This rationale is how HSRA and other litigious organizations create an “interest” in your land.  They didn’t do it by helping you buy it, or helping with taxes and insurance, or coming over to swing a hammer for you.  They created the “interest” in your property by attempting to stand in for the larger good.  They imagine they represent the environment, that’s why the California Environmental Quality Act is such a trusted and well-worn weapon in their tactics.  Indeed, it’s really the only trick this “environmental” pony knows.

This ordinance is saying, “your micro-management and self-serving intrusion isn’t necessary.”  Instead of insisting the landowner present a good reason why the home should be built, “permitted use” means the planning and building department have to produce a reason why it shouldn’t.

I’ll propose that just because there is less oversight and intrusion by the county, it doesn’t mean the process isn’t well informed, since the county is involved.  It doesn’t imply there isn’t a comprehensive process, it simply means the primary interest becomes the person who owns the land and hopes to build a house.

There are other changes which might well have unintended consequences.  Unintended consequences are what happens when we try to do something good but the result has implications we didn’t expect.   Virtually every action we take can have unintended consequences, that’s what makes life such fun.

One likely unintended consequence of the ordinance is that someone will sue.  Given the colossal, even delusional, assumption that they speak for Gaia, that someone might be HSRA.  Here’s a piece from the Notice Of Intention for the initiative:

“Notwithstanding the environmental land use component in Sierra County, it is an important policy goal of this County to preserve property owners’ right to legal use of legally established lots and assuring that every legal lot is buildable.”

Does the ordinance suggest that the environment isn’t important to the issuance of a building permit?

If you make your living and reputation from CEQA, you might think it does.  If you remember that normal building permit processes protect the environment, it’s clear it doesn’t.  If the phrase were “notwithstanding the environment” it might.  It doesn’t say that, and only makes reference to the environmental land use component.  It is still illegal under state and federal law to foul the water, salt the earth, or disturb tiny willow dwelling birdies or even bugs in the elderberry.  The earth is still protected.

And, CEQA was never intended to provide a noose to curtail human activity, nor to force local governments to torment property owners over the environment.  It intended that local governments should identify significant issues and mitigate them if possible, that’s all.  HSRA has corrupted a good idea for its own welfare and aggrandizement.

The Plumas Sierra Chapter of Citizen’s Alliance for Property Rights states that the initiative will simply put the general plan back on track.  They contend:

“That the writers of the Sierra County General Plan, developed in October of 1996, while cognizant of environmental concerns, had no intention to remove the property owners’ right to a single family dwelling on their lots.”

In their press release HSRA warns that only 200 signatures are needed to put the CAPR initiative on the ballot, and that only 400 are necessary to force a special election.  That might be “only” somewhere else, but in Sierra County that’s a lot of voters.

Personally, I’m endorsing the initiative.  I think the people of Sierra County should get to decide where county government places its emphasis.  Do we want people to be able to live on their land?  Would we rather encourage “competing public interests” on someone’s house and yard?

Definitions which, under the change, would only require a permit and not a special use or conditional permit to build a single family home.

  • 15.12.080:  R1 Residential One Family District
  • 15.12.090:  R2 Residential Two Family District
  • 15.12.100: R3 Residential Multiple Family District
  • 15.12.110:  CR Commercial Residential District
  • 15.12.120:  NC Neighborhood Commercial District
  • 15.12.135:  SHC Stateline Highway Commercial
  • 15.12.160:  A1 Agricultural District
  • 15.12.170:  GF General Forest District
  • 15.12.180:  FR Forest Recreation
  • 15.12.190: RR-1 Rural Residential District
  • 15.12.195 RR 1.5 Rural Residential District
  • 15.12.200: RR-2 Rural Residential District
  • 15.12.205:  RR-2.5 Rural Residential District
  • 15.12.210: RRA Rural Residential District
  • 15.12.220: RR-5 Rural Residential District
  • 15.12.225:  RR-10 Rural Residential District
  • 15.12.230: 0S-20 Open Space Residential District
  • 15.12.240: OS-40 Open Space Residential District
  • 15.12.250: OS-60 Open Space Residential District
  • 15.12.260: OS-80 Open Space Residential District
  • 15.12.270: OS-160 Open Space Residential District
  • 15.12.280:  SC Scenic Highway Corridor District or SH Scenic Highway District
  • 15.12.310 TPZ Timberland Production District



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