Are bureaucratic hoops blocking access to an emergency road in Mono City?
Some members of the Mono County Board of Supervisors thought so at their Tuesday, Sept. 17 regular meeting.
Assistant Public Works Director for the County, Jeff Walters explained to the Board where the County currently sat with the issue of access to Mono City.
“Access into and from the community of Mono City is provided by a single County-maintained road, East Mono Lake Drive. In the summer of 2004, a wildfire in the Lundy Canyon area crossed Highway 395 and nearly closed off the community from its exit route,” Walters said. “Further, fire chiefs from surrounding communities have taken the position that responding to a mutual aid call to fight a fire in Mono City would put their crews at serious risk since there is only one escape route out of the community.”
According to the staff report, Mono City residents organized an effort in 2009 to generate support to improve an existing dirt road that connects the community to Hwy 167. A community meeting was held in April 2009, to start a dialogue between residents and local agencies, including the Mono County Department of Public Works. The discussion was focused on need, location, limitations, and process; no commitments were made and funding was not identified.
Katie Bellomo, a member of the Mono Basin Regional Planning Advisory Committee (RPAC), as well as the Chair of the RPAC’s subcommittee for the road said that the issue has become more of a problem over the years because of increased population.
“More homes and residents make this a problem,” she said. “Bottom line is we must have this road.”
But disagreements over agency responsibilities have divided Caltrans, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the County.
The emergency access route proposed by residents focused on a dirt road that extends through BLM lands north of the community and along the east side of the former borrow pit in the Caltrans reclamation area, the staff report said.
“Caltrans was obligated to reclaim disturbed areas at and around its former borrow pit on BLM lands north of the community,” Walters said. This included a portion of the dirt road. Last year, a portion of the Reclamation Plan was amended to exclude the easternmost road running through the site from reclamation activities and reserve its future use as a possible emergency road for Mono City. By amending the reclamation plan 200’ of road was saved from being restored to open space. A right of way agreement would be needed between the agencies to use this portion of the road, but the agreement would also put expectations on the agencies to fund the project.
As an additional part of the process, blocking the road with boulders was retained from the original reclamation plan to help protect the reclaimed area from being potentially impacted.
Residents, however, wondered why the boulders couldn’t just be removed while the details are worked out to allow access if needed, and several supervisors agreed.
“I see this as two issues,” Supervisor Fred Stump said. “One, we should do something immediately about replacing the boulders blocking the road with crash gates [a breakable barrier], and two we should negotiate the rest.”
Both Stump and former supervisor Tim Hansen felt the issue was being blown way out of proportion.
“The other agencies are piling it on us to take care of their issues,” Stump said.
Supervisor Larry Johnston pointed out that boulders block people from getting in as well as getting out. “The boulders have made it even less safe for Mono City,” he said.
Supervisor Tim Fesko was livid at the potential harm to human life that could come from this.
“This is bureaucratic bullshit,” Fesko said. “If a fire comes through and someone dies, I’ll make sure to hold them accountable, at least in the media.”
BLM representative Larry Primosch explained that the people who have studied the road said it could be used if improved. The bureaucratic catch 22, as Supervisor Stump referred to it as, is who will do the improvements?
According to the agenda, the estimated construction cost for the project, including access road improvement, Hwy 167 apron construction, and remediation of abandoned roads, is between $75,000 and $100,000.
Primosch added that Caltrans was the only agency capable of removing the boulders and replacing them with crash gates, “and they’re not going to,” he said.
The supervisors directed staff to meet with the BLM to discuss mitigation measures.
“Find out what we can do to get access soon,” Stump said.