A tireless collection of land-use and economic development activists attended the Jan. 28 El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting to show support for the Economic Development Advisory Committee’s three-plus year quest to untangle inefficient, contradictory or outdated county regulations that they say stifle the local economy and inhibit job creation.
The resulting collection of interrelated regulatory reform has been dubbed the Land Use Policy Programmatic Update, aka “LUPPU,” pronounced “loo-poo.” No kidding.
LUPPU is a diverse collection of land use, transportation and economic development deliverables, including county zoning ordinance, sign ordinance and General Plan updates, plus mixed-use zoning provisions, a new travel demand model and groundbreaking community development standards.
The draft environmental impact report is due shortly, with the final version to follow in spring, precipitating some tough board decisions in summer on what to include in General Plan update and zoning changes.
At Monday’s workshop supervisors looked out on a full house. Pony Express re-enactors in red shirts and yellow bandanas joked with EDAC engineers and architects. Railroad enthusiasts rubbed elbows with chamber leaders. History buffs and even the president of the local Gem and Mineral Society took their seats.
Most came to hear local attorney Jim Brunello propose that a small portion of the county’s Transit Occupancy Tax, collected at motels and inns as a tax on the room rate, be used to bolster their passions.
Brunello called out Davey “Doc” Wiser, who thrills children of all ages with free stagecoach rides in downtown Placerville; Betty January, who spearheads Clarksville Day, the annual El Dorado Hills history event; members of the El Dorado Western Railroad, who offer train rides on the historic Placerville branch of Southern Pacific rail line; plus Apple Hill growers, winery owners and others who celebrate and promote the county’s rich past, natural beauty and bountiful agriculture, calling them “the fabric of the community” and “this county’s greatest asset.”
Brunello reminded the board that EDAC’s mission went beyond regulatory reform, to include coordinating the efforts of the county’s economic providers and other organizations woven into the fabric of the community.
“That’s community development,” he said. “This is the first (EDAC) meeting that moves from land use to community development.”
But first they need to get through LUPPU.
Targeted GP Amendment
LUPPU’s origins lie in the 2004 General Plan, which calls for periodic reviews of its own effectiveness and regular tune-ups.
The 2011 review found major shortfalls in job creation and moderate-priced housing goals, and also recognized ongoing sales tax leakage (shopping outside the county).
LUPPU includes a targeted general plan amendment consisting of an as-yet-unfinalized list of policy changes to address the shortfalls while promoting and protecting the county’s agriculture and natural resources.
LUPPU also includes a long-overdue update to the county’s zoning regulations, known collectively as the zoning ordinance.
The General Plan assigns each parcel in the unincorporated area of the county a broad land use designation such as commercial, single family residential or agricultural. It calls for the zoning ordinance to be brought into line with the plan’s land uses within a year of adoption. But the two have been out of sync since 2005.
Property owners hoping the zoning ordinance update or targeted General Plan amendment might include specific changes to their property’s land use designation were disappointed to learn that other than a couple administrative corrections, the General Plan land uses will remain unchanged, said Brunello, explaining, “We considered updating the land use map, but that’s a side show that would take over the circus.”
Likewise, zoning changes for specific parcels will only be made to comply with General Plan land uses.
Most General Plan land use designations have multiple potential zonings, creating weighty board decisions on the estimated 11 percent of parcels potentially subject to rezoning as part of zoning ordinance update.
Board-approved initiatives that pre-date LUPPU might also affect the update. The prior board wanted to convert Camino-Pollock Pines from a community region to a rural center, expand agricultural districts and soften the 30 percent open space requirement for infill projects, any of which would affect the zoning ordinance update.
LUPPU also includes the state-required housing element update, which requires each jurisdiction to demonstrate compliance with state housing legislations every five years.
The update includes a Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which must show adequate vacant land to support state-mandated quantities of new housing at various levels of affordability, with an emphasis on land zoned with sufficient density to support homes or apartments affordable to families with moderate and below moderate incomes.
Moderate income in El Dorado County for a family of four is defined by the state as between $61,000 and $91,000 per year.
Importantly, the state is merely asking the county to demonstrate adequate vacant land where such dense housing might be legally constructed. There is no requirement to build the affordable housing in question, at least not yet.
The state has softened the 2013 to 2021 housing mandate in some areas, slashing the inventory required for below-moderate housing by half, to 1,623 parcels, counting bank-owned vacant properties as vacant parcels and stretching the review cycle to eight years for compliant jurisdictions.
But compliance is still enforced, with the threat of road funding cuts and forced approval of compliant but otherwise undesirable projects, such as unattractive apartment buildings along scenic roads.
The larger threat is civil action such as the lawsuit that froze the permit process in Folsom in 2001. The city was sued again in 2011 for allegedly backing out some of the affordable housing policies in its housing element.
Locally, the concern is that the below-moderate category consumes nearly all of the vacant high density land, leaving no suitably zoned land to meet the state’s moderate income category. Enter mixed use.
The General Plan encourages the co-mingling of business and residential uses, but current zoning contains many constraints, and requires expensive and time-consuming layers of planning and approvals.
EDAC supports mixed-use development, aka MUD, constructed on commercially zoned land, as a way to meet state requirements in the moderate category, while creating a land-use model that facilitates walkable, affordable communities that not only meet strict state greenhouse gas and housing regulation, but contain vibrant downtowns.
EDAC has proposed that LUPPU include MUD II, which will allow mixed use “by right,” without a plan overlay under specific conditions.
Brunello pointed out that the current inventory of underutilized or vacant commercial lands is down to 1,500 acres, just two-tenths of the unincorporated county. “So we have to do a lot with a little,” he said. “These are the core areas that link our neighborhoods, and in many ways define our rural communities.”
One often-cited reason that moderate housing is difficult to build profitably is the county’s road fees. The development community regularly questions El Dorado County Department of Transportation’s estimates of the impact and cost of mitigating proposed projects.
DOT has proposed new traffic modeling software, with modern mapping and GIS interfaces to address their concerns. The current modeling software is outdated and no longer supported by the vendor.
Community Development Agency
The board’s recent reorganization of Development Services, DOT and Environmental Management Departments into a Community Development Agency will include a unified, long-range planning unit. It will also include formalized links to EDAC and board-appointed community design review commissions.
EDAC has long advocated a community identification process as essential to move from traditional, prescriptive land use planning to more visual “form based codes,” which facilitate more creative outcomes and allow those not trained in land use to understand and contribute to the planning process.
“The community designs itself,” said Brunello. “Rather than reacting to each proposal that comes along, the community plans what it wants and asks that proposals conform. Developers would rather have the toughest standards than try to guess what the public wants.”
Compliant projects would earn fast-track building permits.
“The General Plan directs us to plan what Shingle Springs should look like and to establish design guidelines,” said Brunello. “And it should be Shingle Springs residents who do the planning. Maybe they want something besides the Beacon.”
Funding Community Development
Brunello called for a portion of the proposed 10 percent TOT fund be used as seed money for grants to fund community identification efforts.
Historically the TOT fund is split three ways, with the Treasurer Tax Collector taking 10 percent off the top. Roughly half of the remainder went directly into the county’s general fund with the other half awarded to arts and economic development programs.
Brunello’s chart showed the 10 percent set-aside coming from the general fund, but he later deferred the exact breakout to the board.
He proposed that a portion of the set-aside be used for seed money to fund larger community development grants, and suggested letting a professional grant-writing firm manage the process, a strategy that the El Dorado Winery Association used recently to win a $180,000 grant with $20,000 in seed money.
He ticked off a quick dozen grants awarded to neighboring jurisdictions with similar strategies, the best example being Placer County, which spent $30 million in TOT funds over 15 years to generate a total of $130 million.
Smaller direct grants, similar to those awarded from the TOT promotion fund today, should also be awarded to specific “fabric of the community” organizations that have historically made their own way, Brunello added.
“Davey Wiser isn’t driving that stagecoach around Placerville for the money,” he said. “Maybe he needs a new wagon wheel, but he probably doesn’t even know how to ask.”
“Betty January gets 3,000 to 4,000 people at Clarksville Day,” he continued. “But she’s not asking for anything for herself. She wants to see all the county history groups combined into the old courthouse building one day.
“The Apple Hill Growers are another independent bunch,” Brunello added. “They’ve never asked for or received a cent from anyone, but look what they do for this county.”
District 4 Supervisor Ron Briggs was reticent. “It’s a closed system,” he said. “That money’s got to come from somewhere. The general fund pays for the sheriff; it pays for the roads….”
“We’re talking about less than $100,000,” countered District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp. “But it might generate 50-fold that much and solve a lot of our problems.
“There are ways to do this,” Veerkamp continued. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here. These people are volunteering hundreds of hours to move this county forward. It’s time to get off the wagon and get going.”
John Thompson, who sits on the Clarksville Region Historical Society Board, suggested that the supervisors not limit their thinking to a $2 million TOT fund, and consider the proposal as a way to double or triple it.
“People come here and enjoy our wineries, our roads and all our scenery, then go home,” he said. “We need to get them to stay overnight. Let’s have eight or 10 things for them to do. We need attractions. But it takes seed money.”
Cameron Park CSD General Manager Mary Cahill applauded the effort and recounted the success of grant programs at her previous employer, Inyo County. “We had a public/private coalition … and leveraged seed money successfully going back 20 years.”
Camino resident Sue Taylor has followed LUPPU closely and wondered how the promised community ID process would affect existing downtowns. “These meetings make me nervous because there’s no talk of protecting our historic assets,” she said. “It’s all about new stuff.”
She lamented the $80,000 spent on Missouri Flat guidelines which were never adopted, and asked why the results of a visioning exercise she conducted in Diamond Springs were ignored.
Taylor also worried that grants wouldn’t cover all the proposed spending, and questioned the debt ratio of the grant winning jurisdictions cited by Brunello.
“We’re just implementing what the board has already dictated,” said long-time EDAC volunteer Art Marinaccio. “We’re not out here making this stuff up.”
The committee is scheduled to return to the Board of Supervisors with more concrete proposals on Feb. 25. But no firm decisions will be made until the environmental review is complete in early summer. Other aspects of LUPPU will continue to appear before the board throughout 2013 and beyond.
LUPPU has its own website: edcgov.us/landuseupdate. A list of specific features being considered for both the targeted General Plan amendment and the zoning ordinance update is available on the Jan. 28, 2013 Board of Supervisors’ agenda, under agenda item 1, and is titled 6A-Project Check List.v3.0.pdf.