Grading the foothills
County sues property owners over soil movements
Butte County announced last week that it is suing the owners of seven properties who are accused of violating county code in regard to alleged illegal soil-grading operations, most in connection with marijuana gardens in foothill communities above Oroville.
“The illegal grading has damaged the natural beauty of the landscape and threatens to cause slope instability, erosion, and siltation of nearby waterways if the properties are not restored or secured prior to the upcoming rainy season,” reads a Butte County Administration press release dated July 31.
County code calls for the issuance of a permit before any grading work involving more than 50 yards of soil can take place.
The lawsuit asks that each property be deemed a public nuisance and that the owners immediately pull all plants, remove all structures and equipment from the sites, and submit plans to the county Public Works Department to have the property restored to pre-grading conditions. If the property owners do not do the restoration work themselves, the county will do it and charge the property owners for the work done.
Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert said the grading has increased greatly over the past few years and is scarring the foothills.
“This is not about marijuana cultivation, although unfortunately it appears almost all of them are cultivating marijuana,” Alpert said, responding to criticism by some that the sheriff’s office is using the grading ordinance to stop marijuana cultivation.
“Let’s assume someone put a house up there without a grading permit,” Alpert said. “We’d go after them. Or someone puts in a greenhouse, [or] someone puts [in] a shed, [or] a barn. Someone puts a road in and grades all sorts of dirt to get a road to their house—you can’t do that.”
He mentioned the prosecution two years ago of John Bessolo, the owner of a wedding chapel in Butte Creek Canyon who also graded large areas of ground without a permit.
“We not only got orders for him to put it back to the extent he could, but we [also] had our attorney’s fees and costs reimbursed,” Alpert said.
In an interview with the Chico Enterprise-Record published Aug. 3, brothers Stephen and Matthew Burgess denied having pot gardens on their respective Jordan Hill Road properties. They said they’d been assured by “professional graders” that they wouldn’t need a permit if the grading work disturbed less than 10,000 yards of soil.
Landowner Dan Levine, who ran for state Senate last year and is a self-proclaimed medical-marijuana advocate, also spoke with the E-R. He suggested the lawsuits are a means of discrimination against medical-marijuana gardeners. There is an online video (go to www.tinyurl.com/levinepot to watch it) of Levine at a conference for the marijuana-legalization group NORML in which he says, “We need to free [cannabis] up for medicine, and for fuel and fiber and everything, and we need to protect our natural resources in California, and Northern California especially.”
There has been reluctance on the part of state agencies such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) to get involved with enforcing the violation of environmental laws.
“We’re trying to get other agencies involved. But I have to tell you—whether it’s manpower or funds, they just are so reluctant to jump in,” Alpert said. “We just couldn’t keep trying to coordinate any longer. We had to move.”
State Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Marysville) accompanied Butte County sheriff’s deputies to a couple of the sites on July 24.
“There were whole sides of mountains where they basically cut off all trees and brush, and stacked them around these parcels where they had marijuana growing,” he said. “They cut in culverts, and there is no erosion protection, so you’re going to see a lot of the chemicals that they use flowing into Lake Oroville.”
Logue said he was holding a meeting in his office on Aug. 7 with representatives from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and the RWQCB, as well as Butte County Sheriff Jerry Smith and County Supervisor Bill Connelly, whose district includes the properties in question.
“We want to find out what steps need to be taken to ensure a secure environment for the water-quality control board,” Logue said. “My big question is where are the environmentalists in this thing? I’m kind of confused.”
For her part, Robyn DiFalco, executive director of Butte Environmental Council, said she is very aware of and concerned about what is going on in the foothills.
“I think this is one of the most alarming and egregious environmental violations taking place,” she said. “It impacts the water, the soil, vegetation, habitat and human health. Our drinking water is being polluted with fertilizer and pesticides.”
DiFalco said she has spoken with county staff to find out what can be done.
“We have been concerned about whether or not it is safe for code-enforcement officers to go in there and enforce the law,” she said. “We are pleased to see they are out there issuing citations and seeking legal actions.”