Sierra foothill residents who deplore the destruction of blue oak woodland and rolling foothill ranch land are dismayed by the go-ahead for a gigantic Calaveras County housing and resort project on 3,251 acres west of Copperopolis.
At full buildout planned for 2023, the Oak Canyon Ranch project south of Highway 4 will be the largest mixed-use development in the county's history.
Despite considerable public opposition at several meetings during the lengthy review process, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors in January gave final approval to the massive project, in the works since 1997.
The vote was 3-1 with Supervisor Merita Callaway the lone dissenter. Although she called the project generally a good one, she said there are "too many unanswered questions and concerns" about the current plans. Supervisor Lucy Thein was absent.
With 3,475 housing units, the project will be able to accommodate up to 6,700 permanent residents, 2,000 visitors and 600 employees. It will include:
- 2,275 single-family homes.
- 400 other full-time residential units such as condominiums and apartments.
- 800 tourist accommodation units such as hotel, motel or townhouse rental units.
- Two 18-hole golf courses.
- A resort area with 300,000 square feet of retail space for shops and restaurants.
As part of the deal, the developers will build a 19-acre community park, a county library, a community center, an elementary school and a high school. Grading could begin in April 2005 on the first phase, including part of the resort and up to 250 single-family homes.
Major controversy was generated by conclusions in the environmental impact report (EIR) that there would be significant negative impacts on traffic, air and water quality, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.
Opponents said the EIR failed to adequately examine potential problems or defers those studies into the future.
But the majority of Calaveras supervisors felt those adverse impacts will be outweighed by such benefits as new jobs, more tax revenue, additional housing, preserved open space and new public services.
At numerous meetings of county agencies, one of the most vocal opponents has been John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.
He says Oak Canyon Ranch "is one of the most extreme examples of the pro-development bias of local county planners and decision-makers." Buckley said requiring the developers to create open spaces, conservation easements and other environmental protections would not make up for the loss of about 2.5 square miles of oak woodland.
The EIR says construction will take out more than 70 percent of the blue oaks and more than 30 percent of the live oaks. One estimate is 150,000 blue oaks will be destroyed.
"At this time, the site is beautiful oak woodland with many wildlife species utilizing its woodland, grasslands, streams and wetland habitat," says CSERC's newsletter. But many species "will forever lose habitat as this giant project is built out and sprawls across the area."
The newsletter denounces such projects in which "oaks are cut, hillsides are leveled, roads are expanded, and congestion and commercialism replace the oak woodland web of life."
One hot issue is the project's impact on traffic into neighboring Tuolumne County. That county's officials say the fully built-out project will send more than 8,700 cars daily into their county on O'Byrnes Ferry Road.
The concept is for the developers ultimately to help pay to widen four roads and improve seven intersections, but the plan adopted by Calaveras supervisors does not actually require any payments.
Instead, the developers and Calaveras are to consult with Tuolumne in an effort to develop a fee program addressing impacts on Tuolumne. That prompted Tuolumne County to sue Calaveras County on February 5.
The suit says the approval process violated the California Environmental Quality Act because it failed to adequately evaluate and mitigate the impact on Tuolumne County.