Wetlands Issues Raised Over Lake in Calaveras County

 

Lake Tulloch Shores is one of the few large lakes in California where homes can be built on the water’s edge, even into the water. While it sounds like a vacation paradise, it’s been a planning nightmare. Until recently, the Calaveras County lake was a place where environmental impact reports weren’t done and federal wetlands permits weren’t required.

Now, the Army Corps of Engineers is required that some — but not all — of the lake’s property owners retroactively obtain federal wetlands permits. And this has left the lake’s homeowners upset and confused.

The lake, which is located about an hour’s drive east of Stockton, was created in the late 1950s behind a dam built by the San Joaquin and Oakdale Irrigation Districts. As part of the negotiations to acquire property, landowners were given the right to build on the water. In contrast, at nearby Melones Lake, which is owned by the federal government, the land around the lake is not developed, said Calaveras County Community Development Director Ray Waller.

In recent years, development around Lake Tulloch Shores has boomed as the area has become a popular weekend retreat. New homes up to 5,000 square feet that can sleep two or three families have sprung up — often on land that was subdivided in the ‘50s and ‘60s, before current environmental laws were enacted. Part of that construction includes new residents putting in seawalls to hold back the lake water and filling in the land behind the seawalls, which makes the lake smaller. The lake has 55 miles of shoreline and can hold 65,000 acre-feet of water.

The seawalls prevent wildlife such as deer, foxes, and raccoons from getting to the lake. They also created a bathtub effect with waves going back and forth, said Jack Cox, former president of the Copper Cove Homeowners Association at the lake. In addition, the seawalls weren’t constructed with Section 404 permits as required under the federal Clean Water Act. The permits are needed to place fill materials in U.S. waters.

The Tri-Dam Project, which runs the lake, had never required the 404 permits along with the permits they issued for seawalls. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced about a year ago that permits should have been issued, homeowners were upset and confused.

The Army Corps announced in May that only homes built after mid-December 1992 needed the permits. That left about 200 homeowners without permits. A few permits have since been granted. The deadline for filing for the permits is November 1.

Cox has also complained that the California Department of Fish and Game requires stream alteration permits for building sea walls. But Steve Felte, the new general manager of the Tri-Dam Project, said Fish and Game’s concerns will generally be addressed if homeowners simply get the 404 permits. The Fish and Game permits are for streams, Felte noted, and this is a reservoir.

In recent months, Cox and others have raised questions about why the county didn’t require environmental impact reports to be prepared for the lake’s subdivisions and home construction. The county’s Waller responded that most of the lake’s subdivisions were created prior to the enactment of CEQA in 1970. Development since that time has been of individual lots on the lake. For the last big development, the 160-lot Connor Estates built during the 1980s, a mitigated negative declaration that included biological and other studies were done, he said.

But things are starting to change. Waller said recently that the developer of an 80-lot project, the final phase of a subdivision, has been told he’ll need to do an EIR. Cox said a county supervisor also told him that no development will be allowed on the lake without an EIR.

The rapid growth has also forced the county to look into the situation. In recent weeks, the Sanguinetti Land Co. pulled plans for a three-lot subdivision after citizens began requesting that the County’s Board of Supervisors manage growth around the lake better. "Some people are saying this was the straw that broke the camel’s back," said Waller.

Two homeowners associations — Copper Cove at Tulloch Lake Owners Association and Connor Estates Master Association — sent the supervisors an 11- page letter prior to its August 31 meeting, outlining their concerns. One passage of the letter, written by the Sacramento law firm of De Cuir & Somach, cited two lawsuits: Citizens Ass’n for Sensible Development of Bishop Area v. County of Inyo (1985) 172 Cal. App.3d 1515, and Bozung v. Local Agency Formation Comm’n (1975) 13 Cal.3d 263, 283-284. Citizens Ass’n for Sensible Development took Inyo County to task for treating two different approvals required for a shopping center project as two separate projects for CEQA purposes. Bozung established that LAFCO decisions are subject to CEQA.

"[I]t appears that by approving successive, related residential subdivisions along the lake with Negative Declarations," the letter said, "The County is improperly piecemealing development, treating what is really one project as a succession of smaller projects, none of which, by itself, may cause significant impacts. This practice violates CEQA."

The supervisors recently set up a local committee to come up with a community plan for the lake and the nearby unincorporated town of Copperopolis that will plot a future course for development in the region. Waller said that the citizens committee will examine all development issues regarding the lake, as well as whether to limit jet skis. The committee is expected to provide a report in the fall of 1999.

Calaveras County has 38,000 people, and is one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

Some local residents blamed Cox, a Los Angeles resident who owns a second home at the lake, for stirring up trouble. But he said: "It’s not a NIMBY thing. What we’re interested in is proper planning."

Contacts:

Ray Waller, Calaveras County Community Development Director (209)754-6394

Jack Cox, former president of Copper Cove Homeowners Association (323) 851-7372.

Steve Felte, general manager, Tri-Dam Project (209)965-3996