Implementation of Landmark Settlement In Foresthill

Winning isn’t everything. When it comes to litigation, sometimes settling the lawsuit achieves more than litigating and winning in court.  That certainly was the case for SMW’s clients, Foresthill Residents for responsible Growth (FROG) and Friends of the North Fork in their challenge to Placer County’s approval of the Foresthill Divide Community Plan.

In September, after over a year of meetings, FROG and Friends of the North Fork reached a landmark settlement with Placer County providing benefits to the Foresthill community that a lawsuit alone never could have obtained.  From economic revitalization of Foresthill’s historic downtown, to protection of residents from wildfires, to preservation of the American River, the provisions in this agreement address a wide range of issues critical to the future of Foresthill.  As Sherry Wicks, a 32 year resident of Foresthill and president of FROG remarks, “This settlement is not just for FROG and Friends, but for the entire Foresthill community.”  So that the community can realize those benefits, the agreement also creates a framework for FROG and Friends of the North Fork to work cooperatively with the County to implement the settlement.

SMW’s role began in January 2009 when it filed a lawsuit on behalf of FROG and Friends of the North Fork.  The lawsuit—brought under CEQA and State Planning and Zoning Law—challenged Placer County’s adoption of a community plan for Foresthill that paved the way for extensive scattered residential development in sensitive rural and forest lands.  As part of the County’s general plan, the Foresthill Divide Community Plan provides the blue print for all future development in Foresthill and would allow the community of 5,700 people to grow to nearly 63,000 residents.  In approving the plan, the County neglected to consider the environmental impacts that would result from the growth allowed by its land use designations and instead assumed that the community would grow to only a fraction of that allowed under the plan.  The County not only understated the true growth allowed by the plan, but gave short shrift to consideration of the plan’s environmental impacts, including its impacts on water supply, climate change, wildfires, and the American River.

The settlement reflects the widespread concerns of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.  While FROG and Friends shared common goals and had overlapping concerns, they each brought different priorities and expertise to the bargaining table.  FROG is a grassroots community group made up of concerned Foresthill citizens who are committed to preserving the rural character of Foresthill and protecting the environmentally sensitive watershed area of the Sierra Nevada.  Led by the tireless and enthusiastic Sherry Wicks,  FROG reached out to other residents and interests in Foresthill, including the Chamber of Commerce, to figure out how to structure the settlement so that it delivered needed benefits to the entire Foresthill community.

Friends of the North Fork focuses on preservation of the American River, especially the remote and beautiful canyon that surrounds the North Fork and runs through the Community plan area.  Michael Garabedian, its president, brought to the table his extensive knowledge of the river and river canyons, which proved invaluable in crafting the river preservation provisions.

Together with these two community organizations, SMW crafted and negotiated the multi-faceted settlement agreement.  The settlement includes a number of different components.  It addresses the serious fire risk in Foresthill – a result of residences located in and adjacent to flammable  forestland.  To better protect the community from devastating wildfires, the County will hire an independent fire consultant to evaluate and recommend improvements to Foresthill’s existing fire and emergency services as well as its evacuation plan. These changes are critical given that only one rural road provides access to and from the forested Foresthill community

The settlement also addresses the need for community members to have access to information about what is happening in County government.  To that end, the County will now keep an updated list on its website of development applications so that community members know what is in the development pipeline.  County residents can then participate early in the process to influence the scope and design of development, rather than first learning about a project so late in the process that influencing the outcome is an uphill battle.  The County will work to make as many public documents as possible available and accessible on the County’s website.  Such accessibility is especially important in a rural community like Foresthill, where the County offices and files are a long drive from home.

The agreement also spells out a series of amendments to the Foresthill Divide Community Plan that the County will seek to adopt over the next year.  These include limiting the Foresthill population to 22,010 instead of the potential 62,948 residents allowed under the adopted plan, requiring fuel breaks in high fire risk areas to buffer residences from fire prone forested areas, and ensuring the availability of a long-term reliable water supply for new development before the County grants any approvals for the development.

A critical issue in the negotiations concerned the preservation of the American River canyon so that rafters, hikers and other visitors can appreciate the natural beauty of the area.  The amendments to the plan, once adopted, will require the County to minimize both the visual impacts of new development on views from nearby roadways, public trails, recreation lands and the American River and the impacts of private development on Federal and State open space and recreational lands.  A new viewshed map will replace the existing map in the Foresthill Divide Community Plan to more accurately identify the sensitive areas that can be seen from the river, and a new policy will call for the County to develop design guidelines that identify measures and standards to consider when approving development within the viewshed area.

The amendments to the plan, once adopted, will also address climate change, a topic sorely missing from the adopted Foresthill Divide Community Plan.  New policies will require that the County promote development that minimizes emissions of greenhouse gases and incorporates energy efficient design and building.  To assist lower income homeowners, the policies call for programs to help weatherize their homes.  Other policies will reduce the number of vehicle miles travelled and vehicle emissions by encouraging carpooling, biking and walking.  The new plan will also focus economic development in the historic core of Foresthill with the goal of building a thriving walkable downtown and reducing trips to Auburn, twenty miles away.

Finally, the agreement provides a number of community benefits to revitalize the downtown business district and create a County community partnership.  Under the settlement, the County will print maps for tourists to use while exploring Foresthill.  To help County residents secure funding for community projects, the County will help community members identify grant resources and write grant proposals.

The settlement goes far beyond the relief requested in the lawsuit.  A court victory would have invalidated the County’s approval of the Foresthill Divide Community Plan and led to another year or two of environmental review.  Ultimately, the County could have adopted the exact same Community Plan.  In contrast, the settlement addresses head-on the issues at the core of the lawsuit and of most concern to FROG, Friends of the North Fork, and the Foresthill community.