A MESSAGE FROM OUR PRESIDENT
Much has happened since our last update, with the Tulare County Superior Court having denied our legal petition for Environmental Review. While we expected to meet hurdles at a County level, our legal team was surprised that Judge Hillman put so little effort into his 9 page case opinion, which left us with more questions than answers.
This ruling was a blow, but we are far from the end of the road. After much consideration with our legal team, we have made the decision to appeal our case.
There is too much at stake in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and we have come too far to back down. We will have the opportunity to establish a vitally important California Case Law at the 5th District Court of Appeal.
This has been a pivotal case in deciding the future of rural lands within Tulare County, now we are pushing ahead to advocate for proper environmental review of new development all over the state.
Case Law (or judicial precedent) is law which is made by the courts and decided by judges.This principle means that a court must follow and apply the law as set out in the decisions of higher courts in previous cases. Case Law refers to a court decision that is considered as authority for deciding subsequent cases involving identical or similar facts, or similar legal issues.
Tulare County allowed the Redwood Ranch project to conduct un-permitted illegal activities for more than 12 months and then exempted the project from Environmental Review. The County claims that the illegal activities were the “environmental baselines for the project”. Exemption from the EIR cannot legally be adopted for projects where there is a clear “expansion of use”. Here, the County argues that there is no “expansion of use” because the baseline for the project are the illegal activities, not the project site before the creation of the illegal activity.
Environmental Review is essential to assess what the proper scope of a project should be. It analyzes factors like fire hazards and safety, impacts to wildlife, natural resources, and public infrastructure.
If we lose, this precedent will allow developers to conduct illegal activities and then ask for forgiveness later, exempting these illegal projects from Environmental Review under CEQA.
If this sounds as absurd and unjust to you as it does to us, please consider reading on and donating to our fundraising campaign!
Roughly 30 environmental case laws are established every year, and these “legal precedents” are extremely influential in how lawmakers and planning agencies interpret the law. Additionally, we have filed several legal actions within our petition, and we hope to have a comprehensive opinion established for each of these actions. In turn, the Appellate Court’s opinions will help inform how development proceeds within rural Tulare County.
We are being provided a direct channel to influence and shape the decision-making processes of our local regulatory agencies. For far too many decades the Resource Management Agency and local Supervisors have disregarded the concerns and values of foothill residents. We simply cannot let the moment pass without seizing this opportunity.
Help us raise $25,000 to support sustainable land use in the Sierra Foothills!
This battle is no longer simply “The Kaweah Coalition v. Tulare County” it is the future of California land use, it is part of the legacy we will leave for future generations. Help us in making that legacy something beautiful.
Concerns Re: Tulare County RMA
Since the formation of The Kaweah Coalition, the Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA) has had trouble conducting “business as usual”. Several actions taken on behalf of the RMA call into question their ethical and legal standards. We have been keeping a detailed record of these actions, all of which directly impact the community of Three Rivers and surrounding areas.
As the lead planning agency, it is the responsibility of the Tulare County RMA to uphold CEQA, as well as our county planning and zoning codes. It is the agencies responsibility to share information and work with other agencies, such as the Department of Fish & Wildlife, CalFire, Tulare County Fire, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the Native American Heritage Commission. These agencies are there to ensure public safety, and protection of natural resources and culturally sensitive sites.
Some of the more alarming actions of the RMA:
1) A deceitful and inadequate Project Application was circulated by County staff to commenting agencies regarding the Redwood Ranch Use Permit. The County then attempted to doctor the original Project Application and submitted this before the Planning Commission, in their Draft Resolution 9691, as if this “doctored” application had indeed been recirculated to commenting agencies, which it had not. One month after the Planning Commission project approval, County staff then sent the Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) the un-doctored original Project Application, again attempting to downplay the scope and impact of the Redwood Ranch venue.
2) County Staff and the project applicant’s attorneys edited and substantially revised the Draft Resolution for the project AFTER it had been voted on by The Planning Commission. Official transcripts of the Public Hearing, along with the original project Draft Resolution, highlight the major differences between these documents and what was adopted after the fact. These are not minor discretionary edits. The Word document in which these editing footnotes took place was submitted to The Kaweah Coalition during a Public Information Request.
3) County Staff repeatedly misrepresented the Fire Safety Plan submitted by Fire Inspector John Mayer.
4) County staff misrepresented to the Board of Supervisors the consultation and recommendations provided by the local Tribal Chairman and the Native American Heritage Commission. These recommendations should have triggered an automatic Environmental Review of the project, based on State Law.
5) County staff misrepresented the suggestions made by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife for a “non-focused” study. A non-focused study is a broad study that analyzes plant communities on the whole of the property.
6) County staff downplayed the emergency response time to appear as if emergency ambulances could respond to the event venue within 30 minutes, despite the statement of the Manager of the local ambulance district who stated that response time would be a minimum 1.5 hour.
Call to Action
Our small community must join together to face unregulated development. We are hitting a breaking point in the Sierra Nevada. Cumulative development impacts to our watersheds are being compounded by climate change and corrupt government agencies, with little regard for the longterm survival of our rural culture and livelihoods.
The mechanisms to do this are already in place. Several decades have been spent on creating the Foothill Growth Management Plan, which directs development into sustainable areas. It simply needs to be enforced.
Legal action carries enormous weight. As of right now, the Redwood Ranch continues to hold wedding events in excess of their 12 allowable events, despite numerous assurances from County officials to hold the venue accountable. Instead, the County has allowed the Redwood Ranch to decide what defines a wedding event is at their own discretion.
The creation of a commercial wedding venue on agriculturally zoned land, outside of the Urban Development Boundary, undermines every single aspect of our local zoning. In the “Land Use Planning” world, this is known as a “plan buster”. Agencies often use these plan-busters to establish a precedent. That precedent in turn, can then be used to breakdown local guidelines and laws, making way for more development and urban uses over time.
This Lawsuit isn’t about an individual project, it’s about land use policy in rural areas and how development will happen in the future.
With a commercial wedding venue operating at the outermost portions of our community, on roadways that cannot be adequately serviced by emergency personnel and firefighting response, we are opening the floodgates to further land subdivisions, and urban growth that cannot be sustained by the local region.
To date, no emergency fire evacuation plan has been established by Cal Fire for the Redwood Ranch wedding venue, despite Conditions of Approval established by the County. Our local fire emergency plans have been directly impeded by these commercial activities on a narrow, dead-end roadway with no alternative evacuation routes.
How far we’ve come!
As wildfires once again overtake California and we experience unprecedented drought, it is of the utmost importance that we hold our county and state agencies to their own standards. These standards are for the protection of our communities against the immanent threat of catastrophic wildfire, polluted and depleted water sources, and unregulated checkerboard development that threatens our rural way of life.
When we first began this journey, it was unfathomable to us as a community that we would be taking on a multi year legal battle, raise tens of thousands of dollars at a grass roots level, successfully retain one of the top environmental law firms on the west coast, and have our case go on to set precedent for all of California.
This is land use advocacy in the 21st century and together we can mend that which is broken.
President, The Kaweah Coalition
SOUTH FORK KAWEAH RIVER
Commercial developments in remote, “open space” lands impact traditional Agricultural land uses, introducing severe wildfire threats to the community of Three Rivers and beyond.
What Is Happening
In 2015 a commercial wedding venue, the Redwood Ranch, began operating illegally outside of the Three Rivers Urban Development Boundary (UDB). This commercial business brings thousands of individuals annually into a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone on a substandard rural roadway with no alternative emergency evacuation route.
With climate change, California is getting hotter and drier, increasing the chance of devastating fires. The last time a significant wildfire occurred in the South Fork canyon was almost 100 years ago. A wildfire event in the upper South Fork Kaweah canyon would be catastrophic, creating life-threatening scenarios for nearby residents and farmers. A wildfire would cause mineralization of soils on excessively steep slopes, thereby degrading water quality for years, as well as impacting numerous species of flora and fauna already weakened by years of drought conditions and hotter temperatures.
Why It's Important
The lives of hundreds of individuals are potentially imperiled during wedding events at Redwood Ranch in dry summer months. A fire started anywhere within the 8 miles of canyon below Redwood Ranch leaves guests virtually stranded, as no alternative evacuation route exists. The upper South Fork canyon consists of thousands of acres of highly flammable chaparral vegetation, steep south-facing slopes, and the highest fire ignition frequencies in Tulare County, resulting in the highest Cal Fire severity rating.
The fragile economy of Three Rivers would be drastically imperiled during a wildfire, as would several other disadvantaged communities who rely on the water from the Kaweah River.
In its remote location, Redwood Ranch has impacted nearby residents with loud A-weighted and C-weighted noise from music and events, increased traffic on a dangerous substandard roadway that falls one (1) full traffic lane short of County standards, and introduces light pollution to several conservation areas, including the Kaweah Brodiaea Ecological Preserve and the Grouse Peak portion of the Case Mountain BLM corridor.
Large scale economic growth needs to be focused within core economic areas, thereby preserving the integrity of our open space lands. The Foothill Growth Management Plan is an excellent planning document which has been shaped through thousands of hours of democratic and community input. We need to uphold this document, and say NO to unregulated development in areas of severe wildfire danger.
Legal planning documents and development standards prohibit commercial developments from being located in Non-Corridor areas without direct access to a major highway. The Redwood Ranch wedding venue sets a dangerous precedent in Tulare County: there are no other large commercial establishments operating in these land use areas. Despite this, the Tulare County RMA has illegally exempted the project from CEQA environmental review.
Emergency Medical Services (EMS), including ambulances and County fire response, cannot meet the established State response time criteria in the outer stretches of our canyons. For each ambulance call to the upper North Fork or South Fork, that response time results in excessive fines that burden the Exeter District Ambulance. Similarly, local fire departments have their ISO ratings negatively impacted, resulting in higher fire insurance premiums for every resident of Three Rivers.
While Tulare County collects millions of dollars in TOT taxes annually on local Three Rivers businesses, that money is allocated elsewhere. With just one full-time law enforcement officer, “overtourism” has created an impossible situation for violation enforcement and compliance, leaving residents without remedy. Consequently, our community increasingly suffers lower “quality-of-living” standards.
The Kaweah Coalition has secured legal counsel through the services of Chatten-Brown, Carstens, and Minteer LLP, a prestigious law firm based out of Hermosa Beach, CA.
With legal aid, The Kaweah Coalition aims to hold our local planning agency accountable to the environmental and economic development standards established in the Foothill Growth Management Plan and Tulare County General Plan.
The Kaweah Coalition is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission to protect and preserve the Kaweah River land community through sustainable land use and planning advocacy.