Finding middle ground

Supervisors continue work on a grading code

Grading at this pot farm in the foothills was discovered last year.

Grading at this pot farm in the foothills was discovered last year.

PHOTO courtesy of butte county public works

The Butte County Board of Supervisors moved forward Tuesday (Aug. 12) with beefing up the county’s grading ordinance. The action is the result of a number of unpermitted grading operations by marijuana farmers discovered in the foothills over the past few years.

In March, the board tentatively approved amendments to the county grading code that would require a permit for any project calling for the grading of more than 50 cubic yards of soil. That is equivalent to a 30-by-15 foot swimming pool dug 3 feet deep.

Supervisor Bill Connelly was the lone dissenting vote at that meeting. When it came back to the board in April for final adoption, a number of local contractors objected. The board then voted for staff to engage in discussions with contractors to gather their input.

The issue came back to the board in May and then again on July 29. It was continued for further discussion both times.

Concerns about pot growers’ grading activity triggered the revisions. In a number of cases, the dirt-moving caused erosion to land and subsequent damage to streams. The work often violated state law, but the state has been less than proactive in enforcement, citing the potential danger of confronting pot growers.

While contractors say the regulations may be too restrictive, environmentalists say they may not be restrictive enough.

The current county grading code calls for permitting and detailed reports for the excavation and fill of 10,000 cubic yards or more that also include cuts or fills of more than 15 vertical feet or an existing slope of 20 percent or more. The changes proposed in March would have changed the permitting to include the excavation of just 50 cubic yards, as well as the grading of driveways that are longer than 150 feet. After discussion with contractors, the supervisors agreed to increase those numbers, to 250 cubic yards and 350 feet, respectively.

Local contractor Ted Bigelow said the process of grading property is already too oppressive and bureaucratic. He said he has a project in which he’s trying to eliminate a “hump in the road” on a client’s property. The client has already spent $16,000 to try to get the matter resolved legally, he said.

“I still haven’t done the work,” he told the board. “This is killing my business and tearing my heart up.”

Bigelow said he’d been talking to others in the county, whom he called “old timers and old vets,” who said the county was waging an “absolute war” on land owners.

“There are too high of penalties,” he said. “This is the United States of America, where somebody should be able to do some things on their own property. Go after the pot growers.”

Woody Elliott, conservation chair at the Mount Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, questioned the leniency of allowing driveways up to 150 feet to be exempted from permit requirements. He said the driveways should be reviewed by a state-certified engineer to make sure they are stable and not causing drainage problems, which would not be done under the proposed code changes.

“Large parcels could have large entrance roads that need to be looked at by more than just the [California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection],” he said. “They look at access for their equipment and staff safety, not whether the road is going to fail in the long run.”

In the end, the board voted 4-1, with Supervisor Maureen Kirk the lone dissenter, to have staff continue to work on a draft of amendments to the grading code with consideration of the contractors’ concerns.

Mike Crump, county director of public works, said his office would have something in place for the supervisors to consider within four to six months. Supervisor Larry Wahl suggested there be a two-year sunset clause, which would mean the supervisors would automatically revisit the issue after that timeframe to see if it’s working.