High grades

County supervisors consider changes to grading ordinance

An aerial shot of a graded hillside on a property east of Oroville.

An aerial shot of a graded hillside on a property east of Oroville.

PHOTO Courtesy of Butte County Sheriff’s Office

From the start, County Counsel Bruce Alpert made it clear that the workshop held during the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 24) would not be specifically about growing pot. “Today, we’re talking about the grading ordinance, not the marijuana [cultivation] ordinance,” Alpert said, though he emphasized that the county “is not naive to the fact that these issues have become intertwined.”

Indeed, the influx of grading permits received by the county’s Department of Public Works this spring was largely due to the marijuana cultivation ordinance passed earlier this year, Alpert acknowledged.

“We saw a huge surge in permits, which is good,” he said. “We want people to apply and be legal.”

But in dealing with the high volume of permit applications and numerous complaints regarding grading activity this past spring, it became apparent to Public Works staff that the county’s grading ordinance has room for improvement.

The ordinance, originally adopted in 1989, was revised in 2009 to require a grading permit for any work involving the movement of more than 50 cubic yards of dirt, while any project exceeding 1,000 cubic yards of dirt requires Planning Commission approval in the form of a discretionary permit. The amendment also eliminated the grading threshold, which required a discretionary permit for grading done at an elevation of 300 feet or higher. Under the revised ordinance, Mike Crump, director of Public Works, can issue exemptions for grading projects between 50 and 1,000 cubic yards on a case-by-case basis through a process called determination of exemption.

Earlier this year, an investigation into the grading complaints—many of which stemmed from concern about environmental damage caused by eroded material making its way into creeks and Lake Oroville—revealed that the grading work at many of the sites in question was not permitted. On May 7, Supervisor Bill Connelly signed a letter sent to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board asking the state to help enforce the federal Clean Water Act; Connelly’s request was rebuffed.

But the county continued enforcement efforts. On July 24, the county filed seven cases against property owners just outside Oroville and Concow for illegal grading related to marijuana cultivation.

“When it became more public that we were out there looking around, we were approached by a number of individuals who wanted a determination of exemption from public works so they could be legal,” Crump said in addressing the board. Due to the sheer number of requests and the size of the sites—many involved grading projects larger than 1,000 cubic yards—all of the exemption requests were denied.

Through that process, Crump said, it quickly became apparent that his staff lacked “any clear criteria” for considering the requests.

“We want a more refined process to review these projects and issue permits,” he said. “We really want to have a better ordinance with understandable pathways for both the contractor and staff.”

Crump and Tom Fossum, land-development manager for Public Works, looked at the codes of neighboring Tehama, Yuba, Shasta and Sutter counties to develop recommended changes to the grading ordinance, which they presented to the board as a slideshow on Tuesday.

Their recommendations included raising the threshold for projects requiring a grading permit from 50 to 250 cubic yards; entirely eliminating the determination of exemption process for projects between 250 and 1,000 cubic yards in favor of ministerial permits, which would allow for designs by the property owner or an agent of the property owner, as long as they meet the county’s criteria; requiring additional review and designs by a licensed civil engineer for projects in sensitive areas like sites on steep grades or near waterways; raising the allowable driveway grade angle higher than its current 15 percent maximum; and maintaining exemptions for routine agricultural development, road maintenance, clearing fire breaks around homes, timber harvesting (which requires state approval), and drilling wells.

Supervisor Larry Wahl spoke in favor of reinstating the grading threshold as a means of curbing the environmental damage caused by marijuana grows. Wahl took a flight over the foothills a few days prior to the meeting, and he said he was appalled by “the desecration of the environment … on the western and southern slopes of every hill between [Oroville] and Bald Rock and Feather Falls.”

“We’ve got to put some limits on that,” he continued. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to have all kinds of pesticides, rodenticides, fertilizers and God only knows what running down into our creeks, our rivers and our lake, from people who care not about anything other than profits.

“There needs to be something stricter above that 300-foot elevation line than there is in the valley.”

Crump and Fossum told the board that they will consider the supervisors’ input and present more specific revisions later this fall.