Wild & Scenic Mokelumne Update

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Conservancy comments on Sutter Creek general plan update
Photo by Mike Linksvayer
Draft general plan update could lead to alterations on Sutter Creek skylines.
The Sutter Creek Planning Commission has recently been considering an update to the city general plan. The general plan is considered the “constitution” of a county or city. It describes where development will and won’t occur, establishes goals and policies for development, and addresses key issues including natural and cultural resources, wildlife, parks, drainage, traffic, public safety, and air quality.

The 2017 general plan update is based upon the city’s 2012 plan update effort. That effort was suspended pending the resolution of the litigation against the Gold Rush Specific Plan, which occurred in 2016.

The city has declared its intent to rely on a mitigated negative declaration to analyze the plan’s environmental impacts. In 2012, Foothill Conservancy requested that the city carry out a full environmental impact report for the plan update, which contemplates Sutter Creek growing from fewer than 3,000 residents to as many as 20,000 residents at buildout.

The city released the 2017 draft general plan update this fall. Unfortunately, instead of retaining some of the better aspects of the current general plan, the city is proposing to weaken several standards to those approved in the Gold Rush Specific Plan.

Our comments on the draft plan and environmental document

In mid-November, we submitted a letter to the city about the direction of the plan update.

We pointed out positive aspects of the plan update, including:

  • Using a city-owned mitigation parcel on the north end of the city to provide separation from Amador City and protect a scenic viewshed.
  • Retaining Visually Sensitive Areas and Planned Development overlays. Use of the planned development overlay will give the city the authority and the flexibility to address environmental issues as each planned development comes forward.
  • Describing a spectrum of housing types even in the Downtown Commercial and Commercial designations and a Mixed Use designation for future application.
  • Retaining the Visually Sensitive Area east of town outside the city limit but within the Plan Area. That gives the city the opportunity to assert jurisdiction in the future over this portion of the scenic ridge above the town.

We also pointed out some concerns about the plan, including:

  • The general plan update would allow annexations to expand the city even when they would adversely affect the city and its residents. The update would allow development on un-forested slopes that exceed 30 percent, opening up to future development the steepest hills with the fewest visual buffers. It would also allow new development to alter the natural skyline.
  • The update removes many of the mandatory mitigation policies relied upon in the existing general plan with no clear justification for their removal. Many of the remaining policies are optional, “should” policies rather than mandatory “shall” policies, rendering them relatively meaningless as environmental mitigation.
  • Weakening the plan’s policy protecting natural skylines along ridgetops will not protect Sutter Creek’s scenic beauty and may compromise the ability to use ridgetops for wildland firefighting.
  • Allowing new development to eliminate swales and redirect the drainage could result in significant impacts to watercourses, wetlands, and wildlife habitat.
  • The greenhouse gas section doesn’t include mandatory implementation measures and the previous policy calling for new development to take advantage of natural heating and cooling (required by state law) was eliminated in favor of compliance with Energy Star guidelines.
  • Removing the requirement for berms and vegetative buffers between the Highway 49 Bypass and new development will reduce visual quality, increase noise, and reduce space for bikeways and walkways.

We made several recommendations regarding the plan, too. We urged the city to:

  • Use the Highway 49 bypass as the western edge of the city.
  • Drop the Martell “triangle” from the city’s proposed planning area since the county is clearly unwilling to cede planning jurisdiction there to Sutter Creek.
  • Consider retaining the protective policies of the 1994 General Plan for all the areas outside of the Gold Rush Ranch Specific Plan, recognizing that different neighborhoods can and should have different development standards.

Planning Commission recommended changes based on our comments

At its November 13 meeting, the Sutter Creek Planning Commission considered our and others’ comments on the draft plan. Correspondence from the city indicated the commission made the following requests of the city’s planners:

  • Review the state’s general plan guidelines and the requirements of the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Act and modify the Plan Area to comply and not require an EIR. This may require moving the Plan Area boundary back to its existing location.
  • Review the general plan goals, policies, and implementation measures to confirm they have been appropriately designated as shall or should.
  • Prepare a response to our letter, either making the changes to assure a mitigated negative declaration is appropriate or justifying why the change does not lead to an environmental impact.
  • Provide the Local Area Formation Commission with the draft general plan and mitigated negative declaration so that LAFCO staff can review. (Editor’s note: The city failed to provide LAFCO with these documents earlier even though LAFCO is responsible for defining city and county spheres of influence and approving annexations. We sent LAFCO a copy of our comment letter, which led them to
  • Circulate the documents for 45 days to assure adequate time for review and schedule the require public hearing in January 2018.

Your comments will help shape the city’s future

If you are a Sutter Creek resident, business owner, or visitor – or simply care about the city’s future, we would urge you to comment on the general plan update. If you would like to be notified as the update proceeds, please contact Sutter Creek City Planner Mary Beth Van Voorhis by phone at 209-267- 5647 ext. 245 or send her an e-mail.

If you’d like to help us with future comments on the general plan or other land use matters, please contact Foothill Conservancy Executive Director Amanda Nelson at 209-223-3508.

THE FOOTHILL CONSERVANCY  |  35 Court Street, Suite 1   Jackson, CA  95642  |  209-223-3508