APRIL 5, 2014 –––– Live in Inyo County for any significant length of time and you get used to some things: impenetrable cliques found in almost every demographic; keeping your mouth shut to avoid preaching to a bored choir surrounded by hostile audience members; and when it comes to policy-making, watching common sense be introduced as the last resort.
You also learn a few things about the people: who’s friends with whom, who does or doesn’t support which groups or causes, who’s in it for the accolades and who’s in it for the greater good.
The past several months have both confirmed and turned a lot of these beliefs on their head – evidenced in two dramatic, standing-room-only public meetings where a sheriff’s deputy was called to keep the peace at one and an impromptu puppet show broke out at the other, which wasn’t even the highlight of the afternoon.
It all started in August with the Inyo County Board of Supervisors dismissing residents’ warnings regarding the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s proposed Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch, a project that may very well be in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act since it was not subject to a Notice of Preparation or public scoping period.
The board was equally dismissive in October when it approved comments to submit for the record in response to LADWP’s draft Environmental Impact Report, declining to make minor – yet critical – changes suggested by constituents who spoke to the agenda item, complimenting the county on excellent feedback to the DEIR but warning about key areas where the county could be sending the wrong message to LADWP.
The city of L.A., for its part, held two meetings in the Owens Valley where many of residents’ questions couldn’t be answered by the LADWP staffers in attendance. Residents were told the answers were in the DEIR and mumbled assurances were given at the Bishop meeting that comments would be addressed. LADWP had to be lobbied to hold a hearing in Los Angeles so the Japanese American community could weigh in. The project is proposed to be located across U.S. Highway 395 from the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Against the advice of environmental groups, tribal representatives and National Park Service officials, the board had approved a term sheet in August that, while non-binding, was going to be used as the basis for a Memorandum of Understanding between the county and LADWP. If approved, the MOU gives the county $4.5 million to mitigate impacts to county services caused by the solar ranch, as well as a $2 million economic development loan. In exchange, the county could not legally challenge LADWP’s project. Even as they explained the term sheet was non-binding, the supervisors also reminded their constituents the county had no regulatory authority over LADWP land and not approving the term sheet could jeopardize receiving the mitigation money.
And that was the atmosphere in which the Inyo County Planning Department introduced its draft Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment, an addition to the county’s General Plan that would create zoning overlays – rather than re-zone areas for industrial use – to accommodate large- and industrial-scale solar and wind development projects expected as a result of Gov. Brown’s green energy mandates. Having 14 areas identified in the REGPA as suitable for these types of development would hopefully keep developers’ eyes off the rest of Inyo County’s lands, according to the Planning Department.
That was about the extent of the explanation given, and that was the atmosphere in which the Inyo County Planning Commission voted on Feb. 26 to send the REGPA to the Board of Supervisors as presented. More than 70 residents were in attendance and 32 spoke to the commissioners about the pros and cons of the draft plan. Thirty-one of those 32 speakers opposed the plan in its current form. Needless to say, the commission’s actions – seen as an appalling disregard for the will of the people – didn’t go over well.
But something important happened because of that meeting, as disastrous as it was. Residents got outraged. And they took action.
And in hindsight, maybe that meeting was one of the best things to happen to Inyo County in a long time.
People started opening their mouths, and the audience started listening. Groups and people that never fraternized before – residents with different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds – aligned in an effort to stop what they viewed as a potential travesty for the environment and the economy that depends on it … what they viewed as a grave mistake in planning that, rather than protecting the rest of Inyo County’s open space, advertised 14 areas for development that shouldn’t all be developed.
Residents from here to L.A. called and wrote local officials. They took to websites, blogs and the newspaper to shout from proverbial rooftops for a more responsible answer to the draft REGPA – to save Inyo’s special wild places – and it was a cause people could get behind regardless of how they felt about each other.
And the great thing, perhaps the best part, is that county leaders listened.
The public’s collective outrage woke several of the supervisors to the fact that they answer to the people – something this board, whether it wants to hear it or not – had lost sight of. Supervisors new to the process also learned that letting someone stand at a podium and speak and then telling them why they’re wrong is not the same thing as taking public input into account.
And this was the atmosphere on Tuesday in which close to 100 residents squeezed into the Board of Supervisors chambers to appeal to their leaders once more before the board told the Planning Commission how to proceed with the draft REGPA.
Only no appeals were needed.
The Planning Commission presented a revised draft REGPA based on public input collected over the past several months. It’s not perfect, but it’s a perfect start – and a helluva lot better than where we started.
Thank you, Board of Supervisors, thank you, Kevin Carunchio and thank you, Planning Department, for listening. Really listening.
Mostly, thank you to everyone who spoke out. You made a difference. You made a lot of people proud to live in Inyo County on Tuesday.
(Today’s Top of the Morning is written by Darcy Ellis, a Bishop resident, third generation Owens Valley native and editor of The Inyo Register.)