As public floggings go, this one could have been much worse.
El Dorado County Development Services Director Roger Trout was master of ceremonies on June 27 for an environmental “scoping” meeting for the Dixon Ranch residential development project.
The 714-lot development sits on 280 acres of the historic Dixon Ranch, a relatively flat spot south of Green Valley Road, east of the Highland View and Green Springs West subdivisions.
Neighbors are concerned about the increased traffic and other impacts, all of which will be studied extensively in the upcoming environmental impact report, the first public step of which was last Wednesday night at Fire Station 85.
The meeting provides overviews of the project and the environmental review process. Trout said his purpose was to solicit written comments on specific issues to be studied in the EIR, not to answer questions about the nature of the project.
But the plan quickly went awry as angry questions from what soon became a standing-room-only affair dominated the exchange. Fire Deputy Chief Jim O’Camb closed the doors to latecomers when the room reached capacity at 140. Another couple dozen people waited outside for a meeting repeat an hour-and-a-half later.
The presentations got off to a rough start. There were more bodies than chairs. Those in back couldn’t hear and no one thought to bring a microphone. The presenters had to shout, and for most of the time the audience shouted back. Trout used a long dose of empathy to keep the cauldron from boiling over, running interference for his staff and consultants and jumping in to explain complex land use matters.
Attorney Joel Krotkin represents the project proponents. He pushed through a brief overview of the project, explaining between combative questions that 25.3 acres of parks are included as part of 84 total acres of open space and trails, for an overall average of 2.55 units per acre.
A diagram intended to show the slopes and the oak trees clustered along the Green Springs West and Highland View boundaries instead triggered several more pointed questions from attendees whose properties border the project.
A sewer and water exhibit showed two tentative water line routes, one through Serrano and one down Green Valley Road with potential hookups for neighbors currently on wells.
The preferred sewer alternative that would pump effluent up to Highland View then let if flow back down toward Silva Valley Parkway was met with much more consternation.
Craig Campbell said, “I live at they bottom of Aberdeen and I know which way it flows.”
“There were a lot of shortcuts taken when these subdivisions were built,” he continued. “How do I know the impacts of something like that are fully investigated?”
Trout interjected: “The reason we put this information out there is so you know what to comment on.”
Another questioner was worried about impacts to the water table. He noted that the project plans indicate that additional wells might be drilled to sustain a couple of old ponds on the property.
Krotkin replied that to his knowledge, no new wells were planned for the project.
In response to a shouted question about the current and planned zoning for the project, Trout explained that the land is designated in the 2004 General Plan for low density residential in a community region.
Krotkin argued that the requested density increase is appropriate because his project is in a community region.
Community regions are appropriate for “the highest intensity of self-sustaining compact urban-type development or suburban type development within the county based on … availability of infrastructure, public services, major transportation corridors and travel patterns, the location of major topographic patterns and features, and the ability to provide and maintain appropriate transitions at Community Region boundaries,” according to General Plan Policy 126.96.36.199.
Krotkin argued that his current land use, “LDR within a community region,” was envisioned as a holding zone until the infrastructure is available and the right project comes along.
Asked to confirm Krotkin’s interpretation the next day, Trout pointed to other language in the same policy, which states that LDR is “appropriate within community regions and rural centers where higher density-serving infrastructure is not yet available.”
The policy continues, “Within community regions and rural centers the LDR designation shall remain in effect until a specific project is proposed that applies the appropriate level of analysis and planning and yields the necessary expansion of infrastructure.”
The Dixons had agreed to carve their home out of the Community Region, according to Krotkin, to protect it from further subdivision, eliciting hoots of dismissal.
“That’s nice for the Dixons. They get plenty of room but we have to suffer,” said one man.
Another comment was stripped of pretense, and was left unanswered: “Why are you doing this here?”
Project Manager Kelly Jackson of environmental consulting firm LSA Associates followed Krotkin with an overview of the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act, “which requires state and local agencies to identify significant environmental impacts of their actions and avoid or mitigate them if feasible,” and the Dixon Ranch EIR process.
A Notice of Preparation describing the Dixon Ranch project was mailed to residents within 500 feet of the project on June 6, initiating a 30-day public review and comment period for the EIR.
The deadline for comments to the Planning Department is 5 p.m. Thursday, July 5.
One man shouted, “That’s outrageous … Why only 30 days?”
“It’s extremely standard,” said Jackson. “I’ve done a lot of these and they’ve all been 30 days.”
Jackson forged ahead, describing the impacts that CEQA is concerned with: aesthetics, biological resources, hazards and hazardous materials, agricultural resources, cultural resources, hydrology, water quality, air quality, geology, mineral resources, noise, population and housing, pubic services, recreation, global climate change, transportation and traffic, utilities and service systems and cumulative impacts.
The EIR starts with technical analysis, “in depth reports on a single issue,” she said, the recently completed traffic report as an example. Noise analysis and air analysis are next.
The draft EIR will be prepared, followed by a 45-day review period with public input.
The final EIR is a summary of the technical reports, and includes responses to all comments submitted.
One man asked if inaccuracies in the traffic report could be rectified. “If we got together and leveraged another study that offset the one you have, would that carry any more weight than us just writing our concerns?”
Norm Rowett, who chairs the Green Valley Corridor subcommittee of the El Dorado Hills Area Planning Advisory Committee, also had concerns about the traffic study, noting that it didn’t mention public safety, which is an obvious impact in Highland View.
A woman pointed out that the plan indicates the mix of products and densities might be changed. “Most of these lots are smaller than this room, how do we know they won’t propose something even denser?”
Jackson suggested they ask their questions later, when a firmer project plan and environmental analysis were in place. “Right now we’re in the planning stage, trying to establish the scope of the document, trying not to get bogged down in the details.”
The temperature in the fire house rose several degrees.
In response to a question about the disposition of the comments, Krotkin said he’d read every one submitted thus far. “To the extent that we can, we will look at alternatives in the course of this process,” he said. “We’re not opposed to working with you…. There’s a process.”
“All we care is that it stays low density,” said another anonymous voice.
With the presentations complete, Trout urged his audience to disburse to the tables full of maps and diagrams, but few left their seats and the steady barrage of aggressive questions continued.
A question about the role and independence of Jackson, and Gold River traffic engineers Kimley-Horn, got Deputy County Counsel Paula Frantz on her feet.
Frantz advises the El Dorado County Planning Department, the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors on all development projects.
“One of my duties is to review Kelly’s work from a legal perspective, especially the CEQA stuff,” she said, describing herself as a 22-year CEQA attorney known to local developers as a “CEQA Nazi.”
“My job is to tell the board whether this process is lawful.”
She had their attention.
“I’ve dealt with hundreds of EIR consultants, including this one,” she said, pointing to Jackson. “She worked on the Silva Valley interchange and did some of the best work I’ve ever seen.”
“We’ve also got Pat Angel, one of the best project planners in the state working on this,” Frantz added. “Neither of these people have a dog in the fight. They get paid the same whether the project is approved or not. The only way they get hired by us again is by providing us a document that is factually accurate and analyzed correctly.”
The question shouting stopped. Frantz continued her straight-talk.
“The way this works here in California is the owner gets to propose their project first,” she said. “We take a first look at what we think the environmental issues are. In this case we’re saying that all but two of the possible categories need to be analyzed.”
“This is a big enough project that everything will get looked at, but you can help us by giving us specifics, like some intersection that we might have missed, or the fact that the sewer system has some weakness that we might not know about. That’s good stuff. Write it down,” she continued.
“I know you’re frustrated that we’re not taking verbal comments right now,” Frantz said. “Know that we’re not trying to shut you up in any way. When you write it down your concern becomes part of the project record, and you can look it up and know we have responded.”
Frantz also refuted a woman who claimed that the meeting was a mitigation measure. “This meeting isn’t mitigation; it’s not even something we have to do. We have to take comments but we’re not required to have a public meeting like this.”
The project’s fate will eventually be decided by the Board of Supervisors. The Planning Commission will review it first. Both will take public comments.
Trout predicted the project was six to 10 months, minimum, from the Planning Commission.
Green Valley Road Alliance member Cheryl McDougal said she distributed fliers over the weekend at Safeway and found that 95 percent of people had no idea about any of the proposed projects. She encouraged everyone in the room to join the GVRA mailing list by e-mailing [email protected]
The woman who prompted Frantz’s performance continued to question whether the county staff or the consultants advocated the project, to which Trout replied, “I wish I could pick the developers we work with, but it doesn’t work that way. We’re brutally neutral.”
Krotkin agreed. “It sure doesn’t feel like they’re on our side.”