Environmental Impact Reports in Progress
Two important Environmental Impact Reports are now in the works ‒ one for the Greilich Ranch proposed residential development in Plymouth and the other for the SGI Ione gravel quarry extension. Both EIRs should be completed and available for public review sometime in 2022. The reasons we’re interested in these two projects are summarized below.
Our main question about the proposed Greilich Ranch project is how water will be provided to 448 new households and associated firefighting demands. Amador Water Agency’s Tanner treatment facility, which supplies drinking water to Plymouth, is already at or over capacity and needs substantial maintenance and upgrading. Does the city have sufficient wastewater treatment capacity to serve a large new subdivision and expansion of the 49er RV Park? We’re concerned about direct effects on vernal pools, wetlands, oak woodlands, air quality, and cultural resources in the areas that would be disturbed by construction activities. A project of this size could affect the quality of life for Plymouth residents, as well, so it is essential to identify potential impacts on aesthetics, traffic circulation, noise, recreation resources, schools, working ranches, and demand for emergency services. We hope the city will consider increasing biking and pedestrian access as part of this project, should it be approved.
SGI has operated an open-pit gravel mine northeast of Ione for over three decades. Their current permit is good for more than an additional half-century until 2175. Nonetheless, they are requesting an extension for another century‒ until 2275. The mine would roughly double in size (from 155 to 290 acres) and, because of excavating much deeper, the stockpiles would almost triple in height (from 70 feet to 200 feet). Foothill Conservancy submitted a scoping comment letter identifying specific environmental impacts that should be addressed in the environmental review, but, honestly, the purpose and need for this project has us scratching our heads. Typically, most mines wait until their operating permit is closer to the expiration date and then apply for an extension of another 30 years or so. It is unclear why SGI seeks permission to mine for another century and a half and it is virtually impossible to predict environmental impacts that far into the future. How can we know how the environment may change and the community grow so far in the future? Extending this permit would also mean that site reclamation would be pushed well off into the future because current law requires that reclamation begin after all excavation is completed. No one alive today would be around to see the reclamation work, which would leave a hole over 250 feet deep with some water in the bottom, next to a 200-foot high vegetated stockpile mountain.
Wine Tasting Rooms and Event Centers
In other land use news ‒ the owner of La Mesa, a new Shenandoah Valley wine tasting room that received a conditional use permit in 2019, has applied to substantially expand its hours of operation and the number and size of special events. The hours spent by county staff completing the environmental analysis on what the owner proposed initially seem to have been a waste of time. Same for the input from nearby residents and interested parties, including the Foothill Conservancy. The conservancy did not object to the original (owner-proposed) conditions that were approved because they seemed in keeping with other recent CUPs approved for similar properties that are zoned R1A. But now, the owner is requesting greatly expanded privileges, claiming that wineries on parcels zoned A or AG have vastly more rights and do not even have to apply for special permits or pay for environmental review, etc. This is true, but zoning exists for a reason. Granting owners of R1A parcels essentially the same rights as owners of A/AG properties would render the zoning code pointless.
The conservancy believes that zoning, while not perfect, does serve a purpose. It grants certain development rights for parcels with specific zoning while making some of those rights on other properties with different zoning “conditional.” This means that additional rights may or may not be extended based on environmental analysis and public review. While it may create what appears to be an “unlevel playing field” for property owners who desire tasting rooms and event centers, this approach to zoning is sensible. Typically, property prices reflect the differences in development rights associated with different zoning.
The Amador County winery ordinance aims to preserve large agricultural uses and help them stay in business by allowing wine tasting related to products they grow on-site and limited special events to increase patronage and revenues. It was not intended to turn the Shenandoah Valley into a theme park loaded with event centers in the absence of the planning and infrastructure work needed to support high levels of commercial activity.
There are now more than 40 wine tasting rooms in Amador County. Some may think the more, the better. But consider this: there are 118 parcels in Amador County zoned and sized to permit wine tasting rooms and event centers “by right,” meaning that owners can build approximately 85 additional such facilities in the future without environmental review or public consideration. In addition, there are more than 600 additional parcels zoned R1A that could potentially apply for CUPs to conduct similar activities. Other wine-growing areas of California, such as the Napa Valley, discovered a “saturation level” beyond which problems such as traffic jams and loss of economic viability can occur when too many wineries compete to attract similar clientele.
The conservancy is working with a coalition of interests, including grape growers and winemakers, to gather data and continue the conversation about protecting the Shenandoah Valley’s economic viability while protecting the quality of life of area residents. We hope these efforts will result in policy inputs in the future to help achieve these goals.