Driveway to nowhere

Supervisors again nix a controversial access in Butte Creek Canyon

When is a driveway no ordinary driveway? When it takes more than three years to build, necessitates three public hearings, generates more than 300 pages of documentation, and remains unfinished, that’s when.

As Supervisor Jane Dolan put it Tuesday (Sept. 23), during yet another hearing on a controversial half-finished driveway to nowhere cut into a hillside off Centerville Road in Butte Creek Canyon, “It’s remarkable to me the amount of information we’ve received regarding a driveway.”

Readers may remember—the CN&R has published three stories about the driveway since 2005—that the controversy began when a group of canyon residents discovered that two Southern California developers had made a steep and deep cut into the hillside right across the road from the late Harvey Johnson’s historic duck pond. Their goal was to build a driveway leading to two homes on separate 40-acre parcels higher up on the hillside, but they never got that far.

Helped by the late attorney Paul Persons, the neighbors complained to the county that the developers lacked a grading permit. A stop-work order was placed, the dozers were shut off, and the two sides have been arguing ever since.

Two lengthy public hearings were held. The first was before the county Planning Commission, which denied the developers an ex-post-facto grading permit. They appealed to the Board of Supervisors, who on Sept. 11, 2007, denied the appeal by a vote of 4-1 (with Supervisor Curt Josiassen dissenting) and ordered them to fill in the cut. If they wanted to build a driveway, they needed to start over and get the proper permits, supervisors said.

Canyon residents thought it was a done deal, but seven months later, in April 2008, the supervisors vacated their decision on the advice of County Counsel Bruce Alpert.

The developers, a father-and-son team named Dan and Ben Allen, own a company called Signalized Intersection West, LLC, based in Poway. On Dec. 10, 2007, they filed a petition for a writ of mandamus challenging the supervisors’ action, alleging that the supervisors had failed to make findings to support their decision.

Rather than go to court, the board decided to hold another hearing—the third—and scheduled it for Sept. 23.

There wasn’t much new to be said. The single shockeroo occurred when the Allens’ attorney, Sacramento-based Bill Warne, charged that someone had been placing tire spikes on the property as an act of harassment and wondered, not too subtly, “Who knows if the complaining neighbors are the same ones who placed the spikes?” Members of the audience gasped.

Dolan quickly responded. “That doesn’t pertain to this issue,” she said sternly.

Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi agreed. “That’s not appropriate here,” he said. “That should be dealt with as a criminal complaint.”

Warren’s basic argument—and that of both Allens when they spoke—was that the Allens had been sandbagged. County Public Works staff had known what work they were doing, given them an encroachment permit, and stopped the work only when the neighbors complained. As a result, the Allens had been unable to exercise their “constitutional right” of access to their property. He implied that a lawsuit might result if that right wasn’t upheld.

Dan Allen reiterated what he’d said in 2007, that they’d cut the road because the two potential driveway sites originally approved as part of the parcel map impinged on either a small creek or a wetlands area, and the site they’d used did not. He acknowledged that the cut “looks terrible,” but that’s because it’s not finished.

Linda Cimino, one of the Allens’ neighbors, reminded the supervisors that Allen was an experienced developer who hired an experienced engineer to design his driveway, “and I have to believe they knew they needed a grading permit.”

It has long been established that the Allens moved nearly 9,000 cubic yards of earth, far more than is allowed by an encroachment permit.

The neighbors’ biggest concern was the health of the pond across the road. Erosion from the driveway cut was increasing the amount of algae in the pond, they argued. The Allens insisted they’d made every effort to shore up the driveway using jute netting and that it wasn’t eroding into the pond.

In the end the supervisors voted to approve a motion of intent to deny the Allens’ appeal. This time the vote was 3-2, with Bill Connelly joining Josiassen in dissent, both saying they thought county staff had misled the Allens. After the hearing, an obviously frustrated Dan Allen said he didn’t know what he and his son would do next.

“The reason we didn’t cave on this is because the other routes impacted the creek and wetlands,” he said, suggesting they didn’t have many options. He wouldn’t say whether he intended to sue.