By Charles James
The battle continues on the ATV Adventure Trails Pilot Program, slated for a public hearing before the Inyo County Board of Supervisors onJanuary 22 at 10 a.m. in Independence.
Perhaps the “third time will be a charm” for the already twice-scheduled public hearing for consideration by the Supervisors to approve the project’s Environmental Impact Report and allow the pilot project to go forward.
The project has deeply divided the public and the postponements became necessary “out of an abundance of caution” to provide more time for the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to provide the County with guidance about the ability of all five members of the Board of Supervisors to participate in the decision-making process.
On October 7, 2011, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 628, which allowed Inyo County to establish a pilot project, known as the ATV Adventure Trails of the Eastern Sierra Pilot Project, to designate combined-use highway segments up to 10 miles long on unincorporated County roads to link existing off-highway-vehicle (OHV) trails and trailheads on federal Bureau of Land Management or United States Forest Service lands. Its stated purpose is to link OHV recreational-use areas with necessary service and lodging facilities, in order to provide a unified system of OHV trails in the Owens Valley. The bill, which only authorizes a proof of concept trial of the program, was supported by the governor’s office.
The pilot project is set to expire in 2018 and “Further delay is impractical,” says Dick Noles, the founder of the Advocates for Access to Public Lands. He has been working on the project for almost seven years and notes that AB 628, sets a deadline of no later than January 1, 2016, for the County, in consultation with the Department of the California, Highway Patrol, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Parks and Recreation, to “prepare and submit to the Legislature a report evaluating the pilot project as described in Section 38026.1 of the Vehicle Code.” With only a year to conduct the pilot project and evaluation, time is critical says Adventure Trails’ supporters.
As to the potential outcome of the conflict of interest concerns stemming from the FPPC’s 500-foot rule, the Inyo County Planning Department explains that, if more than two Supervisors declare a conflict and recuse themselves from the decision making process, in order to ensure a quorum of the Board exists to make the legally required decision, those Supervisors declaring a conflict would have to draw straws to determine which of the disqualified Supervisors will be selected to create a quorum to participate in the decision despite their declared conflict.
The same process will be employed if the FPPC states that three or more Supervisors cannot vote in the process. As a matter of law, if only three members of the Board of Supervisors – a quorum – are available to vote on a decision, then the decision must be approved by all three Supervisors.
“If it turns out only three members of the Board of Supervisors are able to vote on the Adventure Trails project, it will require a unanimous vote, instead of a majority vote,” said County Administrator Kevin Carunchio. “There is an overriding need to use every opportunity to ensure that each member of Board of Supervisors has the best possible information on which to determine their ability to participate in the decision making-process and maintain the integrity of the Adventure Trails project.”
Carunchio acknowledged that nobody was pleased with the need to cancel the December 2nd meeting, and some people did not agree with the decision to schedule the hearing on December 30th. He also recognizes that there may be others who may not be happy with the need to reschedule the meeting.
Regardless of the ruling from the FPPC, Dan Totheroh, who replaces Linda Arcularius in January as the new First District County Supervisor, will need to come up to speed quickly. His vote will be significant in that it will signal whether or not he places the need for more local jobs and the needs of businesses which provide those jobs over the concerns of local environmentalists and homeowners opposed to the project.
Then there is the no-small matter that, if the project is green-lighted by the County Supervisors, the combined-use routes within the City of Bishop must also be approved by the City Council as well. A draft map of local streets and roads were approved by the City Council in July of 2012. There are two newly-elected city councilmembers (Karen Schwartz and Joe Pecsi) and a vacancy created by councilmember Dave Stottlemyre’s resignation to take up the job of County Assessor in January. Stottlemyre’s vacancy will need to be filled for the councilman’s remaining two-year term either by special election or appointment by the Council.
The 500-foot rule on potential conflict of interest may or may not play as a factor on the city council, but because of the city’s small size, councilmembers are more prone to fall under the FPPC’s 500-foot rule than the County Supervisors in the second-largest county by area in California. If so, any conflict of interest will be resolved along similar lines as the County. Based on comments in the past and during the recent campaign candidates’ forum and past council actions, there appears to be support for the project. Businesses and local chambers of commerce have been supportive of the program, as have many residents, especially those that ride ATVs, as well as Veteran and OHV groups concerned over keeping open-access, and multi-use recreation on public lands.
The issue has heated up considerably in online forums on the Sierra Wave and in local newspaper’s Letters to the Editor, pitting opponents and proponents; many of whom are friends and neighbors. As with most issues that involve the passions of the voters, often hyperbole and unproven assumptions become the hallmark of many of the arguments presented so far.
Proponents cite other successful similar programs such as most notably, the Paiute Adventure Trails in Utah, which has operated for over twenty years and proves that opponents citing, air and noise quality issues, safety, and liability concerns, are unfounded. “Why haven’t there been lawsuits in the other communities with similar projects?” said Dick Noles.
While opponents are pushing for a complete re-do of the project, which was approved by both the state legislature and the governor three years ago, Noles stated that starting the planning process over would “kill it,” which is precisely what some of the opponents are hoping will happen. He went on to say that “if there are problems, we can fix it during the trial run,” emphasizing again that he and others feel that claims of increased liability, safety, worsened air quality, and lower property values are unsubstantiated, with no evidence presented by opponents to back their concerns with facts or studies which back their claims.
For more information on the Adventure Trails Project, you can visit the Inyo County Planning Department website at: http://inyoplanning.org/projects/AdventureTrails.htm or http://www.inyocounty.us/ab628/. You can also contact the Inyo County Public Works Department at(760)878-0207. Materials for the rescheduled Board of Supervisors meeting will be available on the websites above in early January, where you will also receive another notice regarding the Public Hearing at that time.