Resource Protection Ordinance continued for now

by Carolyn Chase
he County Board of Supervisors afternoon session on January 24th heard testimony regarding proposals to repeal the Resource Protection Ordinance. [SDET 1/96]. The RPO protects sensitive habitats, floodplains, steep slopes, wetlands and historic and prehistoric sites from inappropriate development on private county land. The Board voted 4 to 1 to continue the item, with Supervisor Horn opposing.
"While many people at the hearing were seeking immediate repeal of the ordinance today, it was clear that there had not been adequate time to consider all points of view. The motion the board has approved will guarantee that all interested citizens have time to analyze the RPO's complex issues and documents before us," said County Board of Supervisor Chairman Ron Roberts.
The property rights proponents were there in force wearing large "PROTECT THE 5th" stickers, blue-on-blue lapel ribbons, and attached messages along the lines of, 'this blue ribbon represents the suffering of a property owner trying to deal with the RPO.' There were at least 100 of them, filling almost all the seats in the hall. Folks with "Please Continue RPO" stickers, numbered about 30 to 40.
Ron Roberts called the meeting into session at 2:17pm and moved quickly to the report from the Planning Commission chairman who set the tone. He focused on the fact that in the name of "streamlining RPO," currently a 16-page ordinance, the Planning Commission was confronted with 92 pages of new implementing regulations, the new 11-page RPO itself, 192 pages of staff reports and 1 inch of comments from others. The Planning Commission had voted 6 to 1 to continue and refer back to planning and sponsor groups.
Key quotes from Supervisors:

Pam Slater (District 3):
"Let's look at all the related issues ... RPO, MSCP [Multiple Species Conservation Program], MHCP [Multiple Habitat Conservation Program], etc We need to get to a defensible position in making changes."
"The citizens should be reminded that RPO was intended to be an interim ordinance to a fill a need while other things developed"
"Why do we need an EIR [Environmental Impact Report] to rescind RPO when it wasn't required when it was passed? It is my understanding that RPO only duplicates parts of other ordinances."
Bill Horn (District 5):
"I am not aware of any ordinances passed or rescinded that require an EIR. Ordinances do not impact the environment... I don't think an EIR is required."
Diane Jacob (District 2):
"What would happen to projects in the County if we eliminated RPO?"
"Even if we wanted to repeal RPO today, it seems we have four problems: process problems, legal problems, impact on federal permits issues, and fiscal problems."
[NOTE: Fiscal problems arise because the Board would have to find the money to fund the EIRs evaluating the repeals/replacements. This was estimated by staff to be $180,000.]

The public speaks

Public comments at the meeting were relatively evenly split between those for and against the RPO. The audience realized a continuance was destined, although some anti-RPO individuals expressed contempt and disgust for the process. On the whole, the property rights folks were agitated and more flamboyant. One individual started out with the memorable comment, "No blacks, no Jews only 50 years ago Adolph Hitler was confiscating property in just the ways all of you on this Board, with the exception of Supervisor Horn, are."
I was profoundly reminded of the old saying, "if looks could kill." There was a palpable feeling of hatred projected toward the federal agency employees who testified that they would provide staff to support evaluations of the RPO vs. state and federal regulations.
When one audience member laughed out loud at Horn's assertion that "no ordinance harmed the environment," the anti-RPO forces around them quickly responded amongst themselves, "He's right, he's right," as if to counter the expressed astonishment at Horn's point of view.
After all, if he is right, then why all the bother?

Bother, please

The reason for the bother is that ordinances are needed to protect the environment. Without that protection, the environment is subject to any and all types of destruction and transformations.
And what about the people? According to the RPO opponents, it's their property and their environment; they own it and ought to be able to do what they want with it without government interference. These individuals are far beyond the point that assurances from government that their land will not be taken without just compensation can make any difference. By regulating their land uses at all, we are taking away from them. And with complete distrust of the system, they have already decided that even when there is compensation, it would not be just.
Having had family property condemned for public right-of-way, I empathize with their feelings. My family "lost" their property for the good of a freeway. The state paid for it and there was no choice; it was deemed to be for the common good. But every time I drive past it, I remember that it was once our land but now serves a higher purpose. And now, 20 years later, shouldn't the common good of conserving natural resources and managing them appropriately at least count for as much as the common good of a freeway?
But dreams of what you want to do with your own lands die hard. It seems that in many ways the property-rights advocates are mourning the loss of the freedom of their youth. It seems un-American to them that other people should have a say as to what happens to resources on their land. Within their lifetimes, it used to be OK to do things on your own property with little concern for the impacts on others or the scarcity of the resource. There were not so many people - and there were many more open spaces.
But those days are gone.
To those of us trying to protect natural places, it's democracy at work. We see the purpose of government to protect diminishing resources against destruction, wherever the resources happen to be.
But the property rights people are not going away, nor should they. Nor should we.
If resources are to be protected for the future, we are going to have to stand up for that consistently in the coming months and years as the pressures of growth continue to bring these conflicts to the forefront. Please contact me at 272-0347 if you would like to help in any way or are able to schedule a presentation to any interested groups.