Canyon builders have residents fuming

CUT THAT HURTS<br>Butte Creek Canyon resident Tony Cimino points out a driveway dug out without a permit that he says is eroding and polluting a nearby pond. Cimino, a contractor who has built 17 custom homes in the canyon, called the driveway a “disaster” that is entirely wrong for the area.

Butte Creek Canyon resident Tony Cimino points out a driveway dug out without a permit that he says is eroding and polluting a nearby pond. Cimino, a contractor who has built 17 custom homes in the canyon, called the driveway a “disaster” that is entirely wrong for the area.

Photo By Robert Speer

What does it mean to be a good neighbor? That’s a question a number of residents of Butte Creek Canyon are asking Sam Allen and his son Ben.

The Southern California men want to build two houses on adjoining parcels they own in Butte Creek Canyon. No big deal, right? Ordinarily, yeah, but the Allens have gone about it in a way that has most of their neighbors ticked off at them and opposing the project.

Those neighbors plan to turn out in force when it comes before the county Board of Supervisors on Sept. 11.

The home sites are located 1.8 miles up Centerville Road from the covered bridge, across the road from a historic duck pond owned for decades by the late Harvey Johnson. The neighbors have several issues with the Allens, but the main one right now concerns the access road they’ve cut into the hillside right across from the pond.

The parcel map for the site shows two places best for cutting driveways into the properties: one north of the duck pond, the other south of it. The Allens chose instead to cut just one driveway at a location between the two.

That would seem to be an earth-friendly choice—one driveway has less impact than two—but the ground forms a steep hillside there. As a result, the Allens had to make an extremely deep cut that’s longer than a football field. The resulting road is narrow—most of it is less than the 16 feet in width required by the county, and some of it only 10 feet wide—and bordered by steep slopes.

The road was cut in August 2005. The slopes were hydroseeded and covered with jute netting, but a visual inspection this week showed the slope stabilization effort hasn’t succeeded. Beneath the netting, the slopes were mostly bare dirt and rock and showed signs of erosion.

The man who now owns the pond, Pat Bernedo, an appraiser by profession, was one of several canyon residents who met with the CN&R at the site. He said that since the road went in he’s been having problems with algae blooms on the water. He attributed this to fertilizer runoff from the hydroseeding. “All of this has eroded into the pond,” he said.

The neighbors are also upset by the way the grading was done. The Allens obtained an encroachment permit, which allowed them to do some minor bulldozing, but they went ahead and made the entire cut, removing more than 8,000 yards of dirt and rocks. County regulations, however, require a grading permit in order to move more than 1,000 yards of material.

When the neighbors brought the illegal grading to the attention of county staff, they got nowhere, they said. It was only when the late Paul Persons, an attorney and canyon resident, wrote to the county on Aug. 29, 2005, that it issued a stop-work order halting the ‘dozing.

"[Ray Allen] needs to follow the rules like everybody else,” Mark Lightcap, another neighbor, said.

Lightcap recently retired as district manager for California Water Service. He and his wife have had their own unpleasant run-in with the Allens, who own another large parcel bordering their land and have talked about clustering a high-end housing development there. They are currently locked in litigation over use of an emergency easement and the Lightcaps’ driveway.

The county Planning Commission conducted two hearings earlier this year on the Allens’ application for a grading permit. Canyon residents turned out in large numbers to register their disapproval.

The issue of the algae bloom came up. Commissioners wanted to have the pond tested to see what was causing it, and the Allens agreed to pay for the testing. The hearing was continued for 90 days to give the county time to find a third-party consultant, but when it reconvened the Allens were no longer willing to pay.

Instead they had hired their own guy, who said the algae had other causes.

According to minutes of the July 12 meeting, county staff thought his one-page report was insufficient. Canyon residents testified they’d never seen such a bloom before.

The commission subsequently voted 3-1, with one member absent, to deny the application. In a phone conversation this week, Commissioner Chuck Nelson said the majority was “upset that what we saw in the initial application was not what we saw on the ground. … There were a lot of holes in the [applicants'] testimony.”

The commissioners also were put off by the applicants’ reneging on their agreement to pay for testing the pond, Nelson said.

The applicants subsequently appealed the denial to the Board of Supervisors, which will hold a hearing on the appeal at the Sept. 11 meeting.

Contacted at his office in Poway, near San Diego, Ben Allen said he didn’t want to comment on the matter before the hearing. He did suggest, however, that if the appeal is denied, he and his father would find another route for their driveway.

That would be OK with their neighbors, as long as it was done well and with proper permits. “We have no problem with them building on their land,” Lightcap said. “We just want them to do it right and be good neighbors.”

But this raises another question: What about filling the cut back in and restoring the hillside? Ironically, that would require the Allens to get a grading permit—something they didn’t do in the first place. That, or the county could do the restoration and put a lien on their property. And the Allens also could cut two driveways into their parcels, with potentially far more impact than the one there now.