By Elden Fowler
Residential density and clustering in the foothills, once again, has become a hot topic as it pertains to Yuba County's Development Code for rural and agricultural areas. The Planning Commission was scheduled to hear the "Clustered Development" plan at the regularly scheduled May 16th meeting.
Residential clustering development is the grouping of residential properties in a development plan that uses the extra land as open space, or includes recreation or agriculture.
However, those plans were halted when County Council pulled the matter from the agenda after the Planning Commission received a 20 page letter from a San Francisco law firm which seemingly shreds the County's plan.
The letter states "The projects proposes a massive “upzone” of the County's rural and agricultural areas east of the Loma Rica/Browns Valley Community Boundary." The letter continues "the project is flatly inconsistent with the General Plan policies limiting density and prohibiting clustering outside of Rural Community Boundaries.
County Council acknowledged receiving the letter from the firm Shute, Mihaly & Wineberger and, in response, decided the matter should be studied further to evaluate the claims. A decision to bring the matter before the Commission again, or not at all, will be made at a later date after a full review.
The letter raises a host of issues to be considered. Does the Project violate the California Environmental Quality Act? It states "The Initial Study/Negative Declaration's (IS/ND) description of the project is incomplete, and its characterization of the Project as merely implementing the General Plan is misleading and inaccurate." Secondly it states the "IS/ND completely ignores the Project's inconsistency with the policies protecting the rural character of the foothills and mountainous areas...." Third, the letter states the IS/ND glosses over potentially significant impacts, particularly impacts related to inconsistency with the General Plan, the loss of agricultural lands, increased wildfire risks, and groundwater supply. Lastly, the letter states "the IS/ND entirely ignores the Project's potential cumulative impacts."
The San Francisco Law Firm also expressed an opinion on Planning Commissioner Warner Phillips stating "Commissioner Phillips has a conflict and must recuse himself from participating in decision-making on this project." The letter states "The Political Reform Act prohibits public officials from "making, participating in or in any way attempting to use their official position to influence a governmental decision in which they know or have reason to know they have a financial interest."
As documented in the letter, according to the County Assessor's Office, Phillips owns 170 acres north of the Brownsville/Challenge Community which under current development code can now be divided into eight parcels. However, the letter states "under the proposed Project, the same property would be subject to development at a much higher density." The letter continues "the proposed revisions to the Clustered Development provisions would allow development on this agricultural/residential property of up to one dwelling unit per five acres. This density, which would allow for 34 units, would represent a four-fold increase in the property's development potential, thereby increasing the development potential of his property and making it more valuable."
The lawyers expressed their opinion “Commissioner Phillips must publicly disclose his interest, recuse himself from all deliberations and decisions concerning the Project, and leave the room when the Board discusses and votes on any decision concerning the Project..."
A review indicates Phillips disclosed his interest in the referenced property when filling out the 2016 Fair Political Practices Commission Form 700 which requires a disclosure of Investments, interests in real property, and business positions held on the date of assuming office
Phillips was appointed to the Planning Commission in 2015 by 5th District Supervisor Randy Fletcher.
Former 5th District Supervisor Hal Stocker has retained Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger and commissioned the letter to the Planning Commission. Stocker is well known for his long-standing position of controlling development in the foothills.
For now, pending the outcome of the review by County Council, clustered development outside of a community boundary does not appear to be in the County's immediate future.