General Plans are written to be just that … general, and Mono County’s General Plan is no exception, which is why community members left the Dec. 10 Mono County Planning Commission meeting dissatisfied.
If someone builds a structure that connects an old building with a new building, or one that changes the use of the building, is the entire thing now a new building that must conform to new codes, or is it still an old building that can allow old codes to be grandfathered in?
This was the issue still left on the table even after the Mono County Planning Commission recommended the Rock Creek Canyon Project for approval last week.
The most pressing items raised by the community regarding the project are four, non-conforming fishing cabins, a dilapidated restaurant, and a rehabilitated home on the property. These structures do not comply with current Mono County codes that state structures must be set back 30 feet from Rock Creek. This code was put into place years after the original Paradise Resort was built in order to protect the creek and to alleviate public safety issues such as flooding.
In 2008, John Hooper, who owns the entire 29.6-acre Rock Creek Canyon property, was granted permission to rehabilitate an old structure from the Paradise Resort to a home that he and his wife currently live in. Today, Hooper wants to enclose some decks on his already-approved home, plus he wants to have the ability to connect, by corridors or breezways, the four fishing cabins scattered in other areas of the property to new homes that will eventually be built. Lastly, he wants to take the old Paradise Restaurant, which straddles Rock Creek, and turn it into a single-family residence (keeping the creek-straddling feature).
Community members are having a tough time with these plans because of the subjective language in the General Plan regarding existing non-conforming structures.
Chapter 34, section 34.020, Nonconforming structures, Alterations and Expansions states: “Any structure which does not conform to yard, height, parking or lot coverage requirements of the land use designations may continue to be used as a lawful non-conforming use provided … This structure may not be altered or expanded except for minor alterations necessary to improve or maintain the health and/or safety of the occupants or if required by law or ordinances unless the expansion will not unduly increase any aspects of nonconformity and complies with 34.020 criteria A through D.”
Criteria A and B of A through D are where things get tricky. These criteria could be interpreted differently by different readers, which is what seems to be happening in the case of this project.
Criteria A: “Alterations of the nonconforming use shall not be detrimental to or prevent the attainment of objective, policies, general land use and programs specified in this General Plan.”
Criteria B: “The granting of permission to alter the nonconforming use shall not be substantially detrimental to the public health, safety or welfare or injurious to the property or improvements in the vicinity and district in which the use is located.”
Hooper is arguing that since he is removing 7,500 square feet of non-conforming structures elsewhere on the property, he is therefore not increasing any aspects of nonconformity because the corridors and the enclosed decks will balance out with what he is removing.
Many members of the community do not agree, especially on the corridor aspect. Many spoke against allowing these alterations and expansions at the Dec. 10 meeting because they felt the corridors created new structures and therefore needed to comply with the 30 foot setback code. Allowing Hooper to build the corridors would be allowing him to have something that others could not, structures within the 30-foot creek setback.
“It is really important to preserve the 30-foot setback from the creek,” said local resident Jay Jensen. “Fairness is also important and what’s fair for one should be fair for all. You did a good thing, that’s great [referring to removing non-conforming structures], but that doesn’t mean you can violate the General Plan. That’s like saying, ‘I gave my change to the Salvation Army ten times so if I rob a bank it’s OK.’”
Even Commission Vice Chair Steve Shipley was grappling with the nonconformance language at the beginning of the meeting.
“The options don’t fit the nonconforming use criteria in the General Plan,” Shipley said. “I just need proof that they fit into current policy.” Apparently Shipley got the proof he needed because he voted in favor of the project in the end.
Commission Chair Scott Bush felt the fairness in this situation came into play years ago when the property was for sale and anyone could have purchased it and proposed what they wanted.
“Everything he is proposing is lessening the nonconformance on the property,” said Bush, who became so agitated during the public comment period that he bullied some of the speakers until he was told by a member of the audience that he really should respect public comment. Bush apologized, but did state that the Commission made subjective decisions all the time when he was accused of being “on the proponent’s side.”
“This is one of the better projects that have come before us,” Bush said. “You can see the quality of Hooper’s work compared to the trash bin that the place was before.”
The Commission ultimately recommended the project with a 3-1 vote. Commissioner Sally Miller was not present at the meeting and Commissioner Dan Roberts voted no. Roberts’ main concern, however, was not the corridors and the closed in decks, but the use change of the old restaurant to a single-family residence. Not only would the structure continue to be able to straddle the creek, which goes back to nonconformance concerns, but Roberts was also concerned that it would lose much of its historic significance.
Hooper’s cultural expert Jeff Burton assured Roberts that the location is really what makes the restaurant a landmark, not the actual building, and that changing use is recognized in the business of preserving buildings, but Roberts was not convinced.
He claimed that Burton’s presentation cemented the historic importance of the restaurant but that Burton’s recommendations to go forward with the project didn’t jive with the significance. Roberts said he was not in favor of just shoving the historic building in a book and forgetting about it.
Latecomers to the table
Representatives of the Department of Fish and Game as well as the Sierra Club also attended the Dec. 10 meeting to voice their concerns regarding other portions of the project.
Tammy Branston and Tim Taylor of DFG expressed the organization’s concern that the study of the mule deer’s migration through the property was done at the wrong time of year, and requested that a new study be completed.
“April is not an appropriate time to do a survey on the winter herd because they are already moving north again,” Taylor explained.
Rosemary Jarrett of the Sierra Club stated that the Club was concerned about the water quality and resilient wildlife habitat. She said she would be reporting back to the conservation committee and coming to some kind of decision about how they would move forward.
During the Commission’s discussion, Bush reprimanded and taunted both organizations, claiming that they were coming to the table at the last minute.
“The deer are around and will be around,” Bush said, referring to the abundance of deer he sees around his home in Walker.
To the Sierra Club, Bush stated, “The world changes. The dinosaurs no longer live on this Earth and man was not here to run them off.”
The Rock Creek Canyon Project will go before the Mono County Board of Supervisors for final approval on Dec. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Crowley Lake Community Center.