By way of background, we first met with the planning department in October, 2012, when we were still in escrow on the Reverie property, to find out from the Planning Department staff if we could do the Reverie project with the current zoning (assuming we would have to get a special use permit no matter what zoning it was) or if we would have to do a re-zone. We spoke to two different senior staff people at that meeting and both of them told us that we could do what we want to do with the current zoning.
Fast forward to last week, when we received a call from the Senior Planner assigned to our project to let us know our application was “incomplete.” He told us we could not do our Reverie project as is it currently configured without doing a re-zone. And even worse, the zone we would need to apply for is not allowed under our General Plan Land Use designation, so we would also have to request a General Plan amendment, which is difficult to do.
However, he told us (and we already knew this), that the county is in the process of finalizing a long-overdue Zoning Ordinance Update, and once that is complete, then our land parcel is being rezoned automatically to a zone that would allow the Reverie uses we are asking for. In fact, last week the Board of Supervisors held hearings on the Zoning Ordinance Update and the hope was that it would be approved by the end of the week. If we could just wait a little while, he said, then we could resubmit our application under the new Land Use Designation and Zone and our project would probably sail right through.
Not so fast.
Nothing about the Zoning Ordinance Update in El Dorado County has been easy or quick. When the County redid its General Plan, as required by the State of California, it took 15 years, finally getting approved in 2004. As part of that process the County was also required to do a Zoning Ordinance Update (to make sure all of the zones were compatible with the General Plan), but no one wanted to touch it since the General Plan process was so difficult. Finally, around 2010, Planning staff started working on it. As you might imagine, everything about land use is extremely contentious in El Dorado County, since this is a primarily rural county that has had many less-than-desirable suburban developments foisted upon it over the past 30-50 years. Think major suburban sprawl where vast vistas of majestic oak groves used to be and you can understand why many people don’t trust the process or the planning department in general. The response from the no-growth contingent to the Zoning Ordinance Update process has been to stymie it at every step of the way. While I sincerely sympathize with this sentiment, since I don’t think suburban sprawl is in any way a good approach to land use planning, the result has been to keep an extremely outdated zoning ordinance in place that makes it difficult to do anything in the county, even if that project would be good for the economic development of the community and fits in with the rural character (like Reverie does).
The irony here is that I spent a good chunk of my twenties working for an environmental group on land use issues in the Bay Area (along with water policy), fighting big developers. And I stick to my beliefs about the importance of smart growth in a community, particularly in areas of California that still have a tremendous amount of open space and swaths of rural lands. Once those areas are developed, you’ve lost them forever. So I get it. And agree with it. It’s just ironic that we are being thwarted by these very issues.
So where does this leave us?
Last week the Board of Supervisors held three full days of public hearings on the Zoning Ordinance Update. At the end of those hearings, rather than approving the ZOU, the Board directed staff to make some technical updates to the document and come back to the December 15 meeting with a final corrected draft. The Board is expected to approve it at that point.
Unfortunately that will not be the all clear for Reverie. The public has 30 days after approval by the Board of Supervisors to file a lawsuit challenging the ZOU’s implementation. And given the history so far, I don’t think there is any doubt that at least one lawsuit and perhaps several will be filed. Then we will have to see how long the lawsuits take to wind through the courts. Could be as short as two months, could be one year, could be five years. We won’t be able to predict until we see the nature of the lawsuits.
So once again, we are in a holding pattern. We won’t know until mid-January, 2016 (at least, assuming the Board of Supes approves the Zoning Ordinance Update in mid-December) what lawsuits have been filed. At that point we can make an educated guess as to how long they will take to get resolved. Then, we will have three options: 1) wait for the final ZOU and apply for a special use permit under our new Zone Designation; 2) don’t wait (if we think it will be too long) and apply for a rezone and general plan amendment (expensive, and no guarantee of success); or 3) give up the project entirely and go to Plan B for our life and our future.
We might also have some political options but we will have to see how this all shakes out before invoking the nuclear option.
So there you have it. If I had known three years ago what we were getting ourselves into I’m not sure I would have done it. But here we are, we are committed and on a path, and I sincerely hope this is just a bump in the road and not a dead end.
Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of your intrepid retreat developers…