On April 25, 2018, the El Dorado County Superior Court issued a Tentative Ruling that appears to hand Rural Communities United (RCU) a major defeat in their lawsuit challenging El Dorado County’s 2015 adoption of the Targeted General Plan Amendment and countywide Zoning Ordinance Update (TGPA-ZOU).

In a detailed 239-page ruling, Judge Warren Stracener rejected nearly every argument in RCU’s wide-ranging lawsuit challenging the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The court will require the County to make a few minor changes to the EIR – to revise the County’s responses to seven out of literally thousands of public comments, and to move the discussion of a disagreement with the Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention about the required timing to complete future state-mandated General Plan updates concerning fire safety to a more prominent location in the EIR.

Other than these minor revisions, the Court seems poised to reject all of RCU’s substantive objections to the County’s environmental analysis and uphold the County’s adoption of the Targeted General Plan Amendment and Zoning Ordinance Update.

The voter approved 2004 General Plan has been attacked by RCU members since its adoption.

The General Plan adopted a land use plan that assigned colors representing the allowed use of each of nearly 108,000 existing parcels countywide. In most instances, the General Plan map continued the historical use designations from earlier plans. The 2004 General Plan required the County to update its archaic zoning map to conform to the assigned land uses by 2005.
In 2015, ten years late, the Board updated the zoning map, ensuring each landowner the right to use their land consistent with the land use as designated in the General Plan. The Board made some targeted changes to a few of the more than 500 separate plan policies and directives, including:

1. Changed Camino/Pollock Pines from Community Region to Rural Center;

2. Expanded Agricultural Districts by 17,000 acres;

3. Allowed marginal agricultural parcels to “opt-in” to agricultural zoning;

4. Strategies to enhance the economic viability of agricultural operations, such as agritourism and ag homestays, direct marketing of agricultural products, and simplified permit processing for uses complying with established standards; 

5. Adopted Historic District Overlays to protect the historic townships of Diamond Springs and El Dorado;

6. Allowed a range of agricultural support services and other economic uses of rural lands as an alternative to rural subdivisions; 

7. Set standards and permit requirements for home occupations, which employ up to 16% of the work force in El Dorado County.

RCU members opposed and tried to obstruct the TGPA process by a range of tactics, including:

1. Initiated a “Total Recall” effort against the entire Board as an intimidation tactic, which fizzled out when they failed to collect enough signatures by the deadline to even bother submitting petitions to the elections department.

2. RCU members went on to submit hundreds of pages of comments on the TGPA-ZOU EIR with nearly 5,000 pages of attachments – and then tried to convince the Board not to allow the county’s EIR consultant and outside counsel to prepare the legally required responses.

3. Demanded the County grant RCU its own separate hearing before the Board and asked the County to establish a task force of Supervisors and Planning Commissioners to meet in the back room with RCU representatives to negotiate changes to the TGPA-ZOU – the complete opposite of an open and transparent process.

4. Sponsored and promoted a series of initiatives to obstruct the General Plan.

5. They have totally misrepresented the zoning update, alleging that the county changed the use of over 37,000 parcels without notice to landowners. In truth, of about 108,000 parcels in the county, the TGPA-ZOU changed the land use of only about 160 parcels, all of which represented administrative clean-ups and mapping error corrections.

6. When all else fails, they attack the agricultural community, business leaders and community members who agree with the broadly supported effort as if all are part of a vast conspiracy controlled by an El Dorado County developer.

Lawsuit – Issues and Court Tentative Findings

RCU filed their lawsuit in early 2016 after their threats and obstructionist tactics failed to derail the TGPA-ZOU. RCU challenged virtually every component of the TGPA and ZOU, including:

1. Expansion of Ag District boundaries to add 17,000 acres providing maximum protections to lands in active agricultural production or suitable for agricultural use. RCU contested this expansion. The court rejected their objection and found that these boundary changes had been thoroughly vetted by the Ag Department and in public hearings before the Ag Commission, contrary to assertions by RCU. The court found there was no evidence in the record to support RCU’s opposition to this change.

2. Ag Zoning “opt in” program, developed with assistance of the County Farm Bureau, whereby landowners whose property did not meet all the criteria for agricultural zoning had the option to request ag zoning for their property. RCU characteristically misrepresented the voluntary “opt-in” program in its briefs as a program allowing landowners to passively “opt-out” of ag zoning. The court rejected this mischaracterization and found the evidence “does not support petitioner’s argument that current land owners are being allowed to passively opt out of agricultural districts in violation of mandatory policies.”

3. Lori Parlin, a member of RCU, requested that several commercial parcels, including two improved parcels adjacent to her home be downzoned. All the parcels are designated commercial on the General Plan Land Use Map, and front on Highway 50 at an interchange with a major north/south arterial road. The Court ruled that “Lori Parlin was not entitled to have her comment concerning [a] specific parcel be treated individually... In addition, the administrative record shows that... Lori Parlin received favorable consideration of her comments at the planning commission hearing” but ultimately, she failed to prevail on her request. “Although she did not ultimately prevail, it would appear she received due consideration of her concerns.”

4. RCU attacked the County’s traffic model analysis. The court rejected the argument, finding that the County had analyzed Level of Service (LOS) for 227 road segments using a traffic model that was peer-reviewed and verified by both Caltrans and SACOG. “The program EIR is not required to analyze each and every road and road intersection in the County. The traffic impact analysis is sufficient.”

5. Further, RCU argued that the County’s Traffic Impact Mitigation (TIM) Fee program is underfunded, but because existing residents are not contributing their share of costs. Really? TIM Fees are entirely funded by new homes or business, not existing residents.

6. And, what about the misleading, politically-motivated charge the TGPA/ZOU changed the land use of 37,000 parcels without notice to landowners? This political propaganda is aimed at those who do not know that parcel-specific land use for some 108,000 parcels in El Dorado County is designated by the General Plan, including the range of use. The TGPA/ZOU did not change the 2004 General Plan land use map – except for roughly 160 administrative and mapping error corrections. The zoning update was to replace an archaic hodge podge of regulations dating back to the late 1940s, to add new zones required by the General Plan, delete obsolete zones, change the names of others, and revise the map to ensure consistency between the General Plan land use and zoning. The General Plan required these regulations be updated by 2005, within one year of General Plan adoption.

The County Deserves Kudos for Doing this Right

It’s fair to say the County has had its share of troubles with CEQA compliance over the years, most notably with the EIR for its 1996 General Plan. As a result, for nearly five years, El Dorado County found itself as the only jurisdiction in the state without a valid General Plan.

In addition to the excellent staff in El Dorado County Long Range Planning, for the TGPA-ZOU, the County brought in top-notch traffic and environmental consultants, and one of the most highly regarded CEQA attorneys in the state. That expertise is costly and was made more so by the obstructionist tactics employed by RCU. Still, the County stayed the course, and the outcome reflects a determination to avoid mistakes of the past.

A former County Supervisor liked to say “The County never has time to do it right, but always has time to do it over.” This time, the County took the time and got it right.

See our report Land Use and Zoning – Myths, Misunderstandings and Misrepresentations for more information about the TGPA and ZOU.  For more information about the Court's decision, see our Tentative Ruling Summary Table, or read the El Dorado County Superior Court Tentative Ruling here.