Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Our "To Do" list for Santa Clara County Supervisors

Santa Clara County Supervisors will be holding a land use workshop this month, and below is our suggestion on the subjects that need discussion and potential changes.



Date: August 16, 2005

To: Santa Clara County Supervisors and aides

From: Brian Schmidt, Committee for Green Foothills

Re: Potential subjects for the forthcoming Land Use Workshop

The Committee for Green Foothills suggests the following potential subjects for the Land Use Workshop to be held at the end of this month:

Conducting environmental analysis for land use decisions that are not regulated by expert agencies. The de facto position of County staff is that if an expert agency does not regulate a particular environmental problem, that problem does not exist. Two examples would be wetlands that are not subject to regulation by federal agencies under the Clean Water Act, and cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions. In both cases, CEQA documents produced by County staff in the last year have said there is no requirement to impose feasible mitigations for impacts. Some wetlands escape regulation under the Clean Water Act because they are not directly connected to “navigable waters,” an issue that has nothing to do with the environmental value of those wetlands. The environmental impact from greenhouse gases is self-evident.

The County could resolve this issue by clarifying that it has to independently examine environmental impacts, and it can also examine why an expert agency does not regulate a problem – if the lack of regulation is for reasons unrelated to the issue’s environmental significance, then the County should analyze and require feasible mitigations. With regards to greenhouse gas emissions in particular, a no-impact standard for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Clara County could lead to funding beneficial programs such as installing solar panels on County schools and hospitals, and increasing funding for public transportation. Analyzing environmental issues can lead to direct societal benefits.

Tightening General Plan restrictions on development in Ranchlands, Hillsides, and Agricultural-zoned lands. Maintaining these areas as the least-developed and most agriculturally-productive parts of the County will be a tremendous challenge as ranchettes, monster mansions, and high-priced exurbs are pushed by developers. The County should consider changing the General Plan rules so that future subdivisions will not create lots too small for these areas, which currently can be as small as 20-acre parcels. Size limits on mansions and ridgeline protections have also been discussed as viable changes. Natural resource protections for riparian areas, wetlands, and endangered animals and plants could be added.

Ending certain process problems in land use planning. Examples include County staff making decisions on whether Negative Declarations are adequate when such decisions should be made by the Planning Commission, and scheduling public hearings weeks before written comments are due (which guarantees that the oral comments will not be substantive), and failing to put all publicly-available environmental documents on the Planning Office website.

Managing land under conservation easements. Some arrangement should be worked out with the Open Space Authority and MROSD over conservation easements; those agencies are much more involved in these issues than the County is.

Regulating vineyards/wineries, greenhouses, and mushroom production. Vineyards are spreading in Santa Clara County, a welcome development in some places and worrying in others. Erosion, pollution from pesticides, and development from associated wineries need better regulation. Santa Clara County should compare policies with other wine-growing counties and adopt comparable standards that it currently lacks. Greenhouses and mushroom production also get into a gray area of permanent development. Mushroom farming done inside buildings is little different from any other industrial operation. Greenhouses constructed with all-cement floors and plants grown on trays also constitute permanent alteration to the land (other types of greenhouses are much less problematic). These issues would also be worth examining.

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