On Tuesday December 4, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors approved a general plan amendment, a rezone, and a Williamson Act Contract for the Airola family’s 3,171-acre cattle ranch adjacent to Copperopolis. As in other Williamson Act contracts that cover tens of thousands of acres in Calaveras County, the County agreed to reduce the property tax on the land and the Airola family agreed to keep the property in agricultural use.
The contract is on land approved for development in 2003 as the Oak Canyon Ranch. The approved-but-never-built project included more than 3,000 residential units and 300,000 square feet of commercial development. The property was foreclosed on after the 2008 housing market crash.
The Airolas, who had been leasing the site for cattle grazing, took the opportunity to purchase the land in 2015. In 2016, the California Rangeland Trust wanted to purchase a conservation easement on the land, in part with funds provided by the California Department of Conservation. At that time, the board of supervisors adopted a resolution supporting the proposed easement.
Everything seemed to be moving along fine until just before the planning commission hearing in October 2018. At the hearing, Copperopolis development supporters began asking for the county to condition the rezone on the Airolas granting a public road easement across the property.
Regarding the Airolas’ application, Scott Thayer of Castle and Cooke asked the Planning Commission to “condition its approval on the reservation of a future roadway on the eastern portion of Oak Canyon Ranch that abuts Saddle Creek.” Copper Cove Homeowners’ Association Director Jack Cox wrote that if the Airolas’ application was not amended to ensure a secondary access would be built, “the request should not go forward.” Thomas Hix of Integrated Development Strategies wrote on behalf of the owner of the Tuscany Hills project. He wrote that the Airolas’ application should be approved, “if and only if the (road) dedication is made.” Such a road would facilitate adjacent future development and emergency evacuation. There was only one problem with their suggestion: Nothing the Airolas were doing created a need for a new road.
Quickly, the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, MyValleySprings.com, and the Calaveras Planning Coalition pointed out the problems with the road easement suggestion in e-mails to the planning commission. Colleen Platt of MyValleySprings.com wrote that, “A secondary access road is not in the Copperopolis Benefit Basin and is not in the Circulation Element.” John Buckley of CSERC reminded people that the Tuscany Hills project was approved without any CEQA evaluation of or condition for a regular public road through Oak Canyon Ranch. Tom Infusino of the CPC echoed Buckley’s other observation by noting, “the Constitutional prohibition on imposing an additional easement as a condition of approval of the Airolas’ application.”
As Planning Director Peter Maurer explained to the planning commission, under the Constitution, a local government can only require a project application to mitigate an impact their project will cause or exacerbate. With the Airolas’ application, the actual use of the land will not change at all. In fact, by reducing the future development capacity of the land, the Airolas actually reduced the future traffic related to the site.
Director Maurer wrote, “There is no nexus between establishing an agricultural preserve and a requirement to dedicate a road easement.” The requirement for a “nexus” between the project’s impacts and the local government exaction was established in the 1987 landmark case of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission. Heeding Mauer’s advice, the planning commission voted to recommend that the board of supervisors approve the Airola family’s applications without the easement.
However, before the applications reached the Board of Supervisors, Grey Mayer of Copperopolis got more than 200 signatures on a petition asking the board to require a public road easement, given the increased threat of wildfire over the last two years. After invoking the loss of life in the wildfires in Malibu and Paradise, the petition stated that the “huge conservation easement” should “not go forward without being amended.”
At the board of supervisors’ meeting, there was unusual agreement among the conservation groups, the Calaveras County Taxpayers Association, and Supervisor Dennis Mills – parties who are often at odds. Before the start of public comment, Supervisor Mills, who has fought fires himself, agreed that there is a need to look at evacuation routes and evacuation plans, perhaps in the context of the general plan update. Nevertheless, he would not place that evacuation route burden on one land owner.
Buckley, also a former firefighter, stated that while he would support easements for fire safety if needed in the future, such an easement could not be required of the Airolas as a condition of their application’s approval. “There is no legal justification for a road easement,” he said, echoing Maurer’s earlier advice.
Finally, Antonie Wurster from the Calaveras County Taxpayers Association concurred that, “To put a condition onto the Airola Ranch would be an unconstitutional taking.” She encouraged the board to direct the Calaveras County Planning Department and Department of Public Works to do something in the general plan and general plan EIR to look throughout the county at evacuation route accessibility and capacity. Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to approve the Airolas’ general plan amendment, rezoning, and Williamson Act Contract without the additional road easement.
Ironically, this Williamson Act contract approval and win for the environment and agriculture may actually make it easier for other development projects in Copperopolis to seek approvals and get constructed. Since the huge Oak Canyon Ranch project has been eliminated, the water supply, road capacity, and wastewater capacity needed to support that project will now be available for other developments. Existing infrastructure may meet local needs for a longer period of time. And it may be easier for the county and other service providers to plan for and to finance smaller and less-costly facilities to meet future needs.