Brush Fire Heading Towards Carrizo Plain Nat’l Monument Spreads to 1,800 Acres

Crews from CAL FIRE, including two air tankers, two helicopters and one dozer, as well as fire crews from Santa Barbara County Fire and Santa Maria City Fire, are all on scene trying to contain the flames. The reports started coming out with 500 acres under threat, and it is now up to 1800 acres.”This fire is burning very actively we’re going to trying to get it picked up as soon as we can,” said Rick Todd with Santa Barbara County Fire.

Within hours the fire raced up the hillsides, blackening hundreds of acres of dry grass. Now the flames threaten the Carrizo Plain National Monument to the Northeast, “We do have a few structures dotted out through there additionally there’s some communications equipment up on top of Carrizo peak or one of the peaks there and as it moves to the east if it continues to do so we have some oil fields that will be impacted out there,” said Todd. KION News

By Sam Womack/Staff Writer swomack@santamariatimes.com | Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010 1:00 am |

A tanker plane drops retardant Saturday on the Cotton Fire west of Cuyama Saturday. //Mark Brown/Staff
Throughout the night, fire crews have been battling a brush fire north of New Cuyama that grew to an estimated 1,500 acres Saturday.
Officials predicted that the blaze would tear through the brush overnight because of the steep terrain, but “we’ll go after it hard tomorrow morning,” Battalion Chief Bill Fisher, with San Luis Obispo County Cal Fire, said Saturday.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, the wildfire, known as the Cotton Fire, was only 15-percent contained, Fisher said.
It sparked to life Saturday just after 9:15 a.m. along Highway 166 near Cottonwood Canyon Road, about 40 miles east of Santa Maria.
It spread west and blackened about one-half mile of vegetation along the north side of Highway 166 in San Luis Obispo County.
A western wind started in at about noon Saturday and pushed the flames northeast over the hills and into the Carrizo Plain National Monument area, which is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The protected area is home to diverse communities of wildlife and plant species, and is an area culturally important to Native Americans, according to the BLM website.
The fire continued to head east into federal land and a northwest wind was blowing from 15 to 20 mph Saturday evening, Fisher said.
It is burning in light grass and brush, but with strong winds, the fuel burns fast and presents a danger to firefighters, Fisher said.
Airplanes and helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on the flames all day Saturday and into the night, he said.
Fisher added that fire crews and bulldozers had made good headway on the flanks, or sides, of the blaze during the day, but that the front of the fire had an open lane.
Approximately 250 fire personnel were assembled to battle the blaze as of 7 p.m. Saturday and plans were in motion to set up a command center in New Cuyama, according to Michelle Puckett, a BLM fire representative.
No one was injured in the fire fight, no structures were threatened and the cause is under investigation, she said.
Farther into the preserve, there are a few oil fields and small structures in the canyons, according to fire officials.
Coincidentally, at 1 p.m. Saturday, fire crews were also sent to the Washburn Ranch in the Carrizo Plain National Monument area, near Highway 33 and Soda Lake Road.
As of 7 p.m. Saturday, the Wash Incident had burned approximately 400 acres and was 65 percent contained, according to Rod Hezlund, a BLM fire representative.
Posted in Local on Sunday, May 16, 2010 1:00 am Updated: 11:34 pm.

Marlene Braun, 1958-2005

In Memory of Marlene A. Braun July 3, 1958 – May 2, 2005. First Monument Manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The Carrizo has the greatest concentration of threatened and endangered vertebrates species as well as many plant species in California. Her many friends recall her brilliance, kindness, deep appreciation of the natural environment, her loyal friendship, and her beautiful laugh.

It has now been five years since her death. Many articles and blogs have been written about her and are listed below. Her contributions to the CPNM are not forgotten, and the many people who visit there each year reap the benefits of her stewardship.

Grazing Will Remain a Controversy on Carrizo Monument Under the New Plan

SLO Tribune: Finally, A Plan for the Carrizo
The plains monument has its first management guidelines, which will direct it for 20 years
By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

Nearly a decade after it was created, the Carrizo Plain National Monument has its first resource management plan.
The plan uses grazing as a management tool for helping rare plants and animals and provides additional protections for those parts of the monument that have wilderness qualities. The plan will determine how the monument is managed for the next 20 years.
Jim Abbott, the Bureau of Land Management’s state director, formally approved the plan Saturday at a celebration at the monument, which attracted more than 400 people. Many were drawn by one of the most spectacular wildflower displays seen at the monument in years.

Tucked into San Luis Obispo County’s southeast corner, the monument covers about 250,000 acres, 206,000 of which are managed by the BLM. Other organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game, own holdings within the monument and helped write the management plan.
“The plan is really a major achievement for the various parties,” said Scott Butterfield, Carrizo program manager for the Nature Conservancy. “It’s amazing that everyone has come together to recognize the importance of the place.”
The plan is generally being greeted with support. However, the issue of grazing continues to attract some controversy.
Historically, the monument was heavily grazed. Now, cattle along with prescribed fires and other tools are used to create a habitat that is beneficial to the many rare and endangered plants and animals that live there.
The starkly beautiful Carrizo Plain is often described as California’s Serengeti, because it contains the last remnants of the grasslands that once covered the Central Valley. It also contains Painted Rock, a significant Native American rock art site, and highly visible sections of the San Andreas Fault.
Many environmental groups have praised the management plan. These include the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club. They particularly like that the plan gives added protection to 60,000 acres where roads and motorized vehicle use is minimized.
Other groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity say the management plan is a good start, but they don’t want any grazing to be allowed. They contend that scientific evidence shows grazing is harmful to endangered species.
The monument was created in 2001 in the final days of the presidency of Bill Clinton. It has been managed using cooperative plans drawn up in the late 1900s.
The BLM began drafting a new resource management plan in 2003. That effort foundered because of controversies over grazing and oil drilling as well as the death of monument manager Marlene Braun in 2005. Efforts to write a management plan were restarted in 2007.
Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

As this article points out, grazing will remain a controversy. There are no scientific studies that show that grazing is beneficial to the Plain. It was over this issue that Marlene Braun found herself locked in a struggle with her supervisor, Ron Huntsinger, and the top BLM California bureaucrats, Jim Abbott (now director of BLM California) and Mike Pool (appointed by the Obama administration as Deputy Director of Operations in DC).

****UPDATE****
Carrizo Plain Management Plan Unveiled
Thursday, April 22, 2010
by MATT KETTMANN

The long-awaited, first-ever management plan for the Carrizo Plain National Monument — a 200,000-plus-acre, grassland-covered landscape in southeastern San Luis Obispo County known as “California’s Serengeti” — was released earlier this month and prescribes wilderness protection for some areas while using livestock grazing on other spots to aid native plant and animals. While the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations applauded the plan, the Center for Biological Diversity decried the grazing, arguing that such practices harm species such as the rare kit fox and giant kangaroo rat. Those who’d like to visit the Carrizo while helping to improve the habitat for pronghorn antelope and tule elk should sign up for Los Padres ForestWatch’s fence removal weekend, May 1 and 2, by emailing info@lpfw.org.

Comments

The Sierra Club together with the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch and Western Watersheds Project all lodged protests about the proposed RMP see http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/mediali…
Cal and Letty French, (tel 239-7338 Prefer e-mail
lettyfrench@ gmail.com) from the Sierra club are also leading the next weekend on the CPNM.

John_Weatherman
April 22, 2010 at 3:40 p.m.

Carrizo Is Place of Togetherness: Chumash

Taft Midway Driller

Carrizo Plain: ‘This land has always brought people together’

By Doug Keeler
Taft Midway Driller
Posted Apr 15, 2010 @ 10:40 AM
Last update Apr 15, 2010 @ 12:39 PM
Taft, Calif. —

Carrizo Plain, the people who treasure it now, and the people who have treasured it for centuries met Saturday in a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the National Landscape Conservation System.

Its something that has been going on for a long, long time, as long as anyone can remember

“This land has always brought people together,” said Pilulaw Khus, an elder of the Bear Clan of the Coastal Chumash Nation.

The Carrizo’s natural beauty and human history provided the backdrop for the observance on a cool breezy day.

From Painted Rock, a sacred site to the Native Americans and a nesting area for rare raptors, to El Saucito Ranch, the first European settlement on the plain, and wildflower tours later in the day, it was a celebration of the land and its importance to those who know it.

Tributes were handed out to the public and private partners involved in the Carrizo, including the Bureau of Land Management, who manages the monument and works in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game, the Friends of Carrizo and others.

Among those honored was Ray Hatch of Taft.

Monument Manager Johna Hurl cited Hatch, which was unable to attend the events, for his work not only on the Friends of Carrizo Board and Carrizo Advisory County, but for helping promote the area through the Taft Chamber of Commerce.

“Taft was our first gateway city and Ray Hatch was instrumental in that,” Hurl said.

David Dennis, president of the Friends of Carrizo, was also singled out.

Dennis, a teacher at Taft Union High School, is also a Carrizo Plain resident.

Saturday’s celebration also marked the completion of the Carrizo Plain Management Plan. BLM officials in attendance included Hurl, Tim Smith, head of the Bakersfield BLM office; California Acting State Director Jim Abbot and Central California District Manager Kathy Hardy

Khus spoke of the relationship between the Chumash and the Carrizo through the centuries.

“This land, the Carrizo, is very important,” she told the gathering at El Saucito Ranch. “It has been since the beginning of time.”

For centuries, until European settlers settled it in the 19th century, it was a place where the Chumash and Native Americans of many nations gathered in the Carrizo, Khus said.

They came for sacred rites at sites like Painted Rock and for councils.

To this day, the Native Americans have an obligation, a sacred responsibility to the land and to the spirits.

“We have to take care of it,” Khus said. “No matter who else is here, we have to take care of it.”

But as the Europeans turned it into farmland, growing wheat, and grazing sheep and cattle, that task became difficult, she said.

Years of mistrust between the Native Americans and the settlers followed.

But the people of the BLM, Friends of Carrizo and others have helped build a new relationship, Khus told more than 100 people, many of the BLM employees and their families.

“People really care about this place,” Khus said. “They go way beyond their job to keep track of this place. We gave them a lot of trust and they returned the trust.”

Khus spoke from the porch of the El Saucito Ranch as the crowd sat under large cottonwood trees.

The program was held after a barbecue lunch that followed tours of Painted Rock

Just before the program started, a large white barn owl flew of the lawn.

Khus also paid tribute to former Carrizo Monument Manager Marlene Braun, who died in 2005.

“She loved this land more than her life,” Khus said. “She didn’t want to leave this land. I know there are still times when Marlene and her dogs still run this land because she loved it so much.”

The Carrizo Plain is a part of that system which was created a decade ago to provide an overarching guidance plan for the Bureau of Land Management’s 27 million acres of National Monuments, National Conservation Areas, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Scenic and Historic Trails, and Conservation Lands of the California Desert.

Carrizo Plain National Monument’s Plan Stiffs Conservation in Favor of Cattle

The actions of the Obama Administration on environmental matters is disappointing to say the least. Now, the Carrizo Plain National Monument has a plan, and The Wilderness Society published an article lauding the newly adopted plan and the protections it will give endangered species of flora and fauna. The Center for Biological Diversity gives the plan a more negative and mixed review.

Below is the Center for Biological Diversity’s press release.

For Immediate Release, April 9, 2010

Contact: Michael Connor, Western Watersheds Project, (818) 345-0425 (w); (818) 312-4496 (mobile); mjconnor@westernwatersheds.org
Ileene Anderson, (323) 654-5943 (w); (323) 490-0223 (mobile); ianderson@biologicaldiversity.org
Carrizo Plain National Monument’s Plan Comes Up Short for Conservation

SAN FRANCISCO— The Interior Department has put in place a 20-year plan for California’s Serengeti – the Carrizo Plain National Monument – that sacrifices rare wildlife habitat and native-plant preservation to entrenched livestock-grazing interests. Located in the western foothills of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the monument was created in 2001 to protect the visual splendor, cultural resources, rare plants, and wildlife of the valley’s largest remaining native habitat. The Carrizo Plain, an arid plain formed by the San Andreas fault, includes 206,635 acres of Bureau of Land Management-administered lands as well as lands administered by the state, private entities, and conservation groups.

“The Carrizo Management Plan is a step forward,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, “but it still fails to recognize the science, which clearly shows that grazing hurts rare species.”

While the management plan is an improvement over the Bureau’s long history of neglect of the Carrizo, it inexplicably allows livestock grazing to continue despite scientific studies that confirm grazing activities degrade habitat and undermine the long-term conservation of wildlife. The national monument is home to many endangered and rare species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, giant kangaroo rat, California condor, pronghorn antelope, tule elk, vernal pool species, and a suite of rare native plants.

“The BLM is trying to argue in this plan that livestock grazing should continue as a management tool, but all the science shows the opposite,” said Michael Connor, California director of Western Watersheds Project. “The science shows that cattle presence on the plain increases nonnative weeds, is detrimental to rare plants, and impacts federally protected species, so this simply is not a viable approach.”

“In the face of a changing climate, preserving the Carrizo Plain ecosystem with its suite of rare and imperiled species is imperative if we are to recover these species in the wild,” said Anderson. “The Bureau of Land Management’s previous management was based on 19th-century practices; the new plan moves the Bureau’s practices into the 20th century, but they still need to get to the 21st.”

Here are some of the public comments. The BLM’s RMP process can be found here.

If you have thoughts about the plan, please share them in the comments section.

Obama Admin’s growing “environmental” record is cause for concern

This is a repost of PEER’s (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) ObamaWatch newsletter. Ordinarily I just deal with things that have to do with the Carrizo, but the administration’s position on whistleblowers and several other decisions by Ken Salazar, Sec. of Interior, and Lisa Jackson of the EPA, relate to broader issues that affect the Carrizo, including solar energy. PEER is also looking for people to serve on its ObamaWatch committee called Support Scrutiny. PEER’s Membership & Outreach Coordinator, Debbie Davidson, who can also be reached by phone at (202) 265-7337. Information provided is considered CONFIDENTIAL and is protected by law.

Campaigns – Obama Watch – At Issue

A visitor to the White House website for information about eco-policies will not find an “agenda” for the environment. Instead, the category is “Energy & Environment” and that ordering appears intentional.

Other than curbing greenhouse gases, there is no mention of environmental priorities such as safeguarding clean water, reducing pollution threats to public health, conserving wildlife and protecting vital habitat, averting collapse of marine fisheries, or ending abuse of public lands through practices ranging from mountaintop removal to overgrazing.

Nothing….

Look at a growing record that is cause for concern:

Climate Change

* Obama has embraced a watered-down climate change bill that Dr. Jim Hansen and other experts warn will do too little too late;
* Central to the Obama effort is embrace of a cap-and-trade approach that is unworkable and unenforceable.

Coal Embrace

* Central to the Obama energy program is an embrace of more coal and developing “Clean Coal Technology” – a process that does not yet exist. In the interim, the administration is funding schemes to pump sequestered carbon into the ocean floor;
* The Obama team has backed away from promises to restrain the environmental damage wreaked by mountaintop removal coal mining;
* In a huge and dangerous hidden subsidy to the coal industry, the Obama administration delays taking action to address toxic coal combustion wastes.

Oil & Gas
The Obama plan seeks to reduce reliance on foreign oil by increasing production of domestic oil – with no limits:

* Drill, Baby, Drill – No part of the Outer Continental Shelf or the domestic U.S. has been put off-limits to petroleum production. Some lease sales have been slowed for further review – but they will be back;
* The Obama administration has approved a pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands, one of the most environmentally destructive petroleum extraction sources, to U.S. refineries (so much for ending dependence on foreign oil);
* Obama’s Interior department has defended a Bush plan to lease western Colorado’s beautiful Roan Plateau for oil and gas drilling; and
* A key priority is to back the construction of the Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline championed by Alaskan ex-Gov. Sarah Palin;
* Washington Post, Oct. 20: The Interior Department has approved permits for Shell to drill exploratory oil wells on two leaseholds in the Beaufort Sea off the north coast of Alaska.

Mining

* The administration did not object to a Corps permit allowing a gold mine to dump its wastes into Alaska’s Lower Slate Lake, killing all its aquatic life;

Natural Resources

* The Obama administration has embraced the failed Bush salmon recovery plans for the Pacific Northwest that put power production ahead of species survival;

Oceans

* The administration has allowed Bush permits for destructive fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico to go into effect;

Forestry

* The administration approved the first timber sale in a roadless area of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest;

Endangered Species

* In one of its earliest actions, the administration took the wolf off the endangered species list, clearing the way for hunting to begin through much of the West;
* Backing a move by the Bush administration, the Obama administration issued rules forbidding use of the Endangered Species Act to address habitat loss, like the shrinking ice shelves on which polar bears depend, caused by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change

Parks & Refuges

* Obama signed legislation allowing the open carrying of loaded firearms in parks and refuges – the first time a president has signed a law weakening wildlife protections in the National Park System;
* Obama’s Interior Department is defending the planting of genetically-modified crops on National Wildlife Refuges.

Toxics

* EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson dropped an appeal to the Supreme Court in a case that struck down Bush-era limits on mercury pollution from coal power plants, which unnecessarily permit more of the toxic chemical into the atmosphere;
* The Obama administration has ducked the problem of growing water pollution from oil “fracking” chemicals and coal-bed methane gas operations; and
* EPA continues to endorse using shredded tires in playgrounds despite red flags raised by its own scientists.

Appointees

* The Obama Administration has nominated a former pesticide lobbyist to be the chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the United States Trade Representative (October 26, 2009).
* Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, proclaims that “energy independence” is his number one priority. Not only is energy independence an unrealistic goal but any attempt to realize it from the public lands managed by Interior would involve turning America’s great heritage of wild lands into a giant energy farm;
* Obama’s EPA pick, Lisa Jackson, compiled an abysmal record in New Jersey including a dysfunctional toxics program, suppression of science, and retaliation against whistleblowers;
* The pick to head the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sam Hamilton, has the weakest record on Endangered Species Act enforcement in the country and tried to fire a scientist who exposed scientific fraud by the agency in issuing an unending stream of development approvals (even to this day) in shrinking habitat of the highly endangered Florida panther; and
* The choice to head the Office of Surface Mining, Joseph Pizarchik, has drawn the opposition of citizens and conservationists alike for his horrid record on acid mine drainage, subsidence from longwall mining, valley fill with mine slag and using toxic coal combustion waste as mine fill. Astoundingly, he ducked all questions on mountaintop removal mining at his confirmation hearing.

Whistleblowers

* As a candidate, Barack Obama frequently promised to “strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority.” Since he has been president, the only time he mentioned the need to protect whistleblowers was when he addressed the Parliament of Ghana.
* None of the prominent Bush-era whistleblower cases has been settled. In fact, the Obama administration is continuing the persecution of these whistleblowers in court;
* New whistleblowers are being fired or targeted while Obama appointees do nothing. Cases out of the Labor Department, Homeland Security, NASA, Wildlife Services and other agencies originated after Inauguration day and are heading to hearing;
* A package of strong whistleblower protections for federal employees was dropkicked out of the stimulus bill with not a peep of protest from – or with tacit support of – the Obama administration;
* The Obama administration has not committed to support whistleblower reform legislation that has passed the House for the past three years in a row; and
* After denouncing Bush’s signing statements, President Obama promptly issued one while signing the FY09 Omnibus Appropriations bill that he reserves the inherent authority to prevent civil servants from disclosing inconvenient truths to Congress.

Consider Taking Action for PEER to protect the Carrizo and other special lands from environmental destruction, as well as to protect federal employees from interference with their job duties and from workplace bullying that still goes on in the Department of Interior.

Sarah Christie, environmental expert, forced to resign from Planning Commission

A story is playing out once again that will end with the removal of a woman of intelligence, vigor, dedication and vision from the Carrizo. It is not the work of BLM this time, but apparently being too good at one’s job is dangerous for women in cattle/oil’n’gas/and solar energy country. “Headstrong” is a bad quality in women working for the environment, and a lot of people like to see these women put in their place. (KT)

So long, Sarah
Supervisor Jim Patterson intends to ax Planning Commission Chairwoman Sarah Christie.
BY COLIN RIGLEY

AXED
Sarah Christie is expected to resign from the SLO County Planning Commission at the request of Supervisor Jim Patterson, who appointed her five years ago.

Sarah Christie is the type of public official who can rip you to shreds and hold a quizzical look that says, “How did you not see this coming?”

She’s a brutally incisive decision maker who can steer a meeting, sway a vote, and shift opposing political views, using keen reasoning and unparalleled knowledge of local laws.

Maybe it’s because of those very qualities that Christie has become one of the most divisive members of SLO County government. And maybe they account for why, after five years, she’s being forced out of office.

Christie is expected to resign from the SLO County Planning Commission during the Dec. 17 meeting. She’s been perceived by some critics as an extreme, left-biased roadblock and by supporters as one of the best planning commissioners in memory. When she steps down—barring a change of heart by Supervisor Jim Patterson, who appointed her—she may allude to spending time with her family or other such political clichés. Whatever her official explanation may be, Christie is not stepping down by choice.

Throughout her tenure, Christie has been at the forefront in the pitched battles between SLO County’s environmentalists on the left and developers on the right. Despite vigorous campaigns by pro-growth agitators to unseat her, her position has been secure. But somewhere along the line very recently, Patterson turned against her.

About 15 people met with Patterson on Dec. 7 to change his mind: As far as anyone can tell, they failed.

Many political figures self-destruct amid scandals and corruption charges; Christie may meet her demise for no reason other than she’s an expert. “I just think it’s really sad for Sarah personally … just because she’s so smart,” one supporter said. “Just because we have an intelligent woman. And that’s a bad thing?”

Christie is an undeniable pain in the ass to any developer who relies on smooth public relations consultants and slick PowerPoints. Pat Veesart, a former District 3 planning commissioner, thinks “it’s always been an unlevel playing field” in the world of county development. Christie, he believes, provided a counterbalance for the public, who is usually shortchanged compared to developers with deep coffers and ready access to decision makers.

Ultimately, Christie is just one vote on the commission, a government body that can be easily overridden by the Board of Supervisors. And the Planning Commission rarely gains much public attention, aside from a small circle of activists and wonks. But Christie’s departure would signify much more than just the loss of a mid-level decision maker who is virtually a volunteer (planning commissioners make $150 per meeting); it would be a sign the county’s political infrastructure is vulnerable to pressure from private interests.

“I think the message is going to be loud and clear among those circles,” Veesart said.

What’s odd is not that Christie might be forced out; what’s odd is the timing. She’s served for five years as Patterson’s appointee and has come under fire before. Calls for her blood peaked months ago but have faded.

Why now?

By most accounts, her position on the county’s future energy policy was the final straw; a position that poses a financial threat to large solar projects—projects involving people with ties to certain county officials.

“I think it’s the solar stuff, I do,” said Robin Bell, of the Carrisa Alliance for Responsible Energy.

Two large solar electric projects have been proposed for construction in the Carrizo Plains, which is in Patterson’s district. There were originally three projects, but after several sales and company buyouts, SunPower and First Solar stand as the only applicants. Both companies have a lot riding on those projects, which came about after PG&E brokered a deal to add 800 megawatts of power to its grid. State law requires utility companies to increase supplies of renewable energy.

The latest Wedbush research report for stock investors, published Dec. 4, gave both solar companies neutral ratings. The report warns that expected lawsuits and delays in the approval process could significantly extend company timelines to construction. According to the Wedbush analysis, SunPower’s share price anticipated for the next 12 months is scaled back from $29 to $21.

And the escalating global market, particularly because of Chinese solar manufacturers, means First Solar and SunPower must build a lot of solar panels to stay competitive, explained Wedbush solar analyst Christine Hersey.

“Investors just need to realize it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than maybe they were previously thinking,” Hersey said, adding that the Carrizo projects are the largest U.S. projects ever proposed by either company.

Although the projects are the vanguard of a state and national push for green energy, they have come under intense scrutiny because of potential impacts to wildlife. Neither project has yet moved to the county’s approval process—both are still drafting environmental review documents.

In June 2009, a deliberative process began to unfold that potentially could undercut such large projects as the ones proposed in the Carrizo, and it originated in the Planning Commission.

Simultaneously, some critics were calling for Christie’s resignation as she and the other commissioners were redrafting the county’s General Plan. Over multiple meetings, the commissioners have been updating policies for the Conservation and Open Space Element of the plan. Some of the policy reforms focus on energy: namely what kind, where should power plants be built, and should there be large power plants or should we instead favor solar panels on rooftops? Should energy companies be required to avoid environmental impacts or merely offset them?

Such were the questions the commissioners pondered during the course of the early meetings. It was a rough start, but as the commissioners gained momentum in their review, Christie became the focal point in the most contested debates about the new energy policies. Indeed, Christie provided the groundwork for the current version of policies with a draft she wrote based on public comments—if only because no one else brought language to the table. Though the commissioners continued to work from Christie’s draft, she personally caught so much flak she felt obligated to explain what she had provided. “They’re not necessarily my edits,” Christie said on July 6. “They’re a reflection of the public’s input.”

But what the public wanted and what some commissioners were willing to concede were mostly disparate. Some policy language gave preference to distributed power sources—solar panels on rooftops—instead of large local industrial solar plants. Other bits of wording went a bit beyond historical county guidelines by saying that in SLO County, new projects should avoid environmental impacts. Historically, commissioners and some county planners argued, projects are only expected to mitigate impacts. But asking developers to avoid impacts may preclude some projects from passing county standards.

“My guess is four of us are a little more on the side of accepting that there may be some trade-offs,” Commissioner Anne Wyatt said. In other words, the policies Christie proposed went too far.

Commissioner Carlyn Christianson also warned the policies might restrict projects from moving through the county’s approval process. But Christie countered, laughing as though she was going crazy, “So nothing in this document is going to prohibit anything from happening. All this document is going to do is to lay out a general path. These are general guidelines.”

She continued, “And I’m getting a little bit of a sense that we’re trying to craft this document to meet the needs of some specific applicants, which I think is completely inappropriate.”

By July 23, representatives from the solar companies were attending the meetings in person and submitting letters on the record urging the county to pull back on the restrictions.

As the commissioners wrapped up the energy element, they tentatively approved the language, but left it on uncertain ground. Surprisingly, Christianson and Wyatt, who are both part of the Democratic 3-2 majority, actually apologized as they closed the books on the energy element.

“I do not feel that some of the decisions made by the commission are things I do agree with, but I do think the Board of Supervisors will have a chance to review some of those decisions made by the commission,” Christianson said.

On Dec. 17, Christie and the rest of the commission are scheduled to finalize the new General Plan elements. Some commissioners hinted they want to revise the earlier language and gut the suggestions Christie included.

It is an undeniably tense issue for the commission, so significant that solar representatives have been drawn into the debate before their projects go up for public review.

“There’s been quite a bit of discussion about Sarah’s role as chairman of the Planning Commission and her extensive involvement in revising the open space element of the county’s General Plan,” said Chris Crotty of Crotty Consulting in San Diego.

NOT WORTH IT ANYMORE
Supervisor Jim Patterson long withstood pressure to remove Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie, but something or someone recently changed his mind.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Crotty’s name might sound familiar for two reasons. First, he has a long history as a political consultant in SLO County, having guided the election campaigns of Supervisors Patterson, Adam Hill, and Bruce Gibson. And second, SunPower recently hired Crotty as a consultant.

“Let me put it this way,” Crotty said. “The document that the planning commission utilized to make those changes was a document that was authored by Sarah Christie.”

It’s not only that Crotty is being paid to represent a company trying to build in SLO County and is buddies with the people who will make the decision, or that Christie may have upset the balance on a project in Patterson’s district. If you ask Bell or Veesart why they think Christie’s job is on the line, it’s because she irked the wrong people.

When it comes to the large-scale solar projects, Bell said, “It was apparent that Sarah was going in one direction and Jim was going in the other.”

But after tidal waves of pressure for Patterson to remove Christie, which she had always survived, would the solar companies somehow be able to drown her out? “You can bet that it’s a factor in this,” Veesart said. “You can bank it.”

Crotty responded that no one from SunPower asked that she be removed.

Damage control

Neither Christie nor Patterson would confirm she’s slated to retire from her position, though Patterson told New Times on Dec. 14 he would have a statement later during the week. Perhaps a wave of support for Christie would sway Patterson’s decision, though many say they worry it’s unlikely things will change.

According to several of Christie’s supporters, who asked not to have their names disclosed because a decision has not been made official or public, Christie will be replaced during the first meeting next year. One of her supporters, referring to criticism levied against Christie throughout her five years in the position, said, “I think that it’s just been this drum beat. I figure that it’s gotten harder and harder for the supervisor to ignore.”

Her worried supporters have lobbied Patterson. But Patterson insisted a recent meeting with several of them had nothing to do with Christie and anything about her being kicked out was merely gossip.

One person who attended that meeting told New Times “it was just weird.” The group urged Patterson to change his mind while he sat, listened, jotted a few notes, but didn’t indicate what he would do.

“What prompted him to even think about hanging her?” the attendee wondered.

For now, the message is being tightly controlled. One potential replacement could be Patterson’s appointee to the Water Resources Advisory Committee, Dan O’Grady, who was nervous to comment on the matter and a bit cryptic about whether he had been pegged for the job.

“I need to just refer you to Jim about any questions about his appointments,” O’Grady said dryly. “I don’t think that would be appropriate for me to [comment].”

O’Grady didn’t return a follow-up call.

Andy Caldwell, who’s a Santa Maria talk show host and executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, has become one of Christie’s biggest, or certainly one of the loudest, critics. On July 14, Caldwell publicly called for Christie to be removed from the commission. He asked the Board of Supervisors directly and repeated his opinion in a commentary he contributed to New Times (“Remove Sarah Christie from the planning commission,” July 23).

Asked about Christie, Caldwell was thrilled she might be on the way out.

“But I think what’s occurring right now is what I would refer to as an echo,” Caldwell said, meaning the blasts from himself and others were reverberating from the opposing political spectrum. “And that is the truth about Sarah Christie is a lot of the lefties don’t even like her because she doesn’t listen to them.”

He went on: “I think ultimately this is going to come back to Patterson and [Supervisor Bruce] Gibson where it rightly belongs because they’re not reining her in. … Sarah Christie’s days are numbered.”

Christie has never pretended she’s trying to win friends. Her reputation and tone on the commission is usually hard-edged and sometimes stubborn. After the 2008 election—which switched the Board of Supervisors from a Republican to a Democratic majority, which was reflected by the commission—Christie appeared to mellow a bit. No longer on the defensive as far as voting, her attitude tempered from boiling to a quiet simmer. By reputation, Christie has been a strong voice on the commission for smart growth and environmental stewardship—a voice that has likely won her as many fans as it’s created enemies.

“Sarah has shown more people skills than she had previously,” said Jerry Bunin of the Homebuilders Association of the Central Coast. “But I wouldn’t call her a fair and balanced commissioner. She’s not objective unless the housing is overwhelmingly affordable and therefore difficult to make financial sense to build.”

Patterson was first elected in 2004—he was re-elected in 2008—beating out contender Mike Ryan. Christie was integral in the first campaign and was appointed to be his planning commissioner. She held the office through his re-election last year. She’s also the legislative director for the California Coastal Commission, and has a long résumé of community and environmental activism, starting as a journalist and local government employee.

In 2009, as part of a regular rotation, Christie landed the commission chairmanship, which seemed to throw a fresh coat of paint on the target on her back. Earlier this year, the bloodlust from Christie’s detractors spiked after the release of a 2008 grand jury report. Though Christie wasn’t named, the grand jury reported that she may have overstepped her bounds when she contacted the state Department of Fish and Game about a sand and gravel mining operation proposed in Paso Robles. But the grand jury recommended no punishment, nor in fact any actual wrongdoing, stating instead that planning commissioners should have more training.

If indeed Christie is forced out, it would be a huge loss, several supporters told New Times.

SLO Councilwoman Jan Marx said Christie is “very thorough, very bright, and she knows a lot. Sometimes that’s threatening to people.”

“She is magnificent,” Veesart said. “There’s no other way to describe her. … She’s leagues above everybody else in county politics.”

If Christie is forced out, her absence will resonate far beyond the Planning Commission. As one supporter said, “I think this is getting very political and I am sorely disappointed in Jim Patterson.”

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

Christie says she was betrayed
By Bob Cuddy | bcuddy@thetribunenews.com

Former Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie says the man who appointed her, Supervisor Jim Patterson, betrayed her in “a muscular act of political disloyalty” and has created a rift in the North County environmental movement.

Christie resigned Thursday under pressure from Patterson, who asked her to leave.

Christie said Patterson knuckled under to people “who came running into his office with their hair on fire and said Sarah Christie is trying to hijack the General Plan.”

Patterson denied the existence of either a betrayal or a rift among environmentalists.

Some Christie supporters said at a minimum Patterson may lose support among his base should he run for re-election in 2012.

Sue Harvey of the environmental group North County Watch said the chief problem with Christie’s departure is the loss of her knowledge and skills. But, she added, “If you are asking does this fragment and erode Patterson’s political base, yes I believe it does.”

Morro Bay Vice Mayor Betty Winholtz was part of a group that tried to talk Patterson out of replacing Christie a week before he did so. She told The Tribune on Tuesday that the group warned him it would be political suicide to abandon Christie.

However, Patterson told them and later the general public that he asked Christie to resign because a growing number of people were telling him that they were not being treated even-handedly when they went before the commission.

He said, for those people, “It was like going to court and thinking the judge is biased and you don’t have a chance.”

“I try to … build consensus,” Patterson told The Tribune. “I don’t think she was good at building consensus.”

Asked if that were perception or reality, Patterson said, “It’s actuality as well.” He said he observed her at commission hearings and “she was not handling herself well,” coming off as confrontational and “too forceful.”

Political fallout

Christie and Patterson spoke with The Tribune in separate interviews.

The discussions delineated a fissure that has been widening since at least last summer between the two old friends and political collaborators. The pair worked to dislodge conservative Supervisor Mike Ryan in 2004 and fend off a strong attack from Ryan acolyte Debbie Arnold in 2008.

Christie, a strong-minded, highly knowledgeable environmentalist and a member of the California Coastal Commission staff, drew criticism from the start, particularly from North County ranchers, gravel miners and property rights advocates.

She acknowledges being a lightning rod for criticism but adds, “Lightning rods are important; they keep your house from burning down.”

Until this past summer, Patterson defended her, even during the 2008 campaign when she was being loudly reviled by Patterson’s opponents. He said in light of that and other acts of loyalty, he finds Christie’s accusation of betrayal “odd.”

“I don’t get the betrayal thing,” Patterson said.

During the 2008 election, Christie said Patterson’s campaign polled to see how much of a drag she was on his re-election chances. “It was on the table,” she said.

Patterson was re-elected in June 2008, but it was not until this past August that he told her to prepare her exit strategy, she said.

Christie said he told her there are people in the community who would not speak to him because she was his planning commissioner.

“He thinks with me gone the noise will stop and he can go back to being the beloved, benevolent politician he sees himself as,” Christie said.

Christie believes the change in Patterson’s thinking occurred after she submitted comments ahead of time for the commission’s discussion about energy last summer. None of the other commissioners did that this time around, although Christie said they had in previous meetings on other subjects.

She said people unhappy about the way that meeting went showed up at the next hearing and “excoriated the Planning Commission.”

Patterson said it is “absolutely untrue” that he is being pressured by energy companies.

He said he had been “thinking about this for a long time,” and his feeling that it was time for a change grew when he began hearing complaints about Christie’s confrontational style from people who were “not the usual critics.”

“I’m talking about the general public,” he said, citing people in business, health care, agriculture and housing, for example.

None of Christie’s fellow planning commissioners who spoke at the commission meeting after she resigned echoed Patterson’s criticism.

Bruce White, who represents the conservative North County on the commission, called her “thoughtful, considerate and respectful.”

South County farmer Gene Mehlschau, who sometimes disagrees with Christie on policy, added that “the issues are more widely discussed because we are different; that’s the beauty of it.”

In one sense, the matter is academic. Patterson has appointed Dan O’Grady of Atascadero, who has similar values but a different style, saying, “She (Christie) is not the only one who can do this work.”

But if the coalition that worked to put Patterson in office falls apart, it could put a conservative back on the board from the 5th District. That in turn could tip the board’s 3-2 environmental balance back into a 3-2 pro-growth dynamic.