A week after Plumas County Planning Director Randy Wilson issued his finding that heliports were allowable on all agricultural preserve lands in the county, a group of 14 people met at the Quincy library to hear opponents of the heliport give their interpretation of events.
Elisa Adler, a member of Genesee Friends, who is opposed to the heliport, and Michael Jackson, attorney for Genesee Friends, led the meeting.
Started as a special use permit
Adler, who has lived in Genesee Valley for almost 40 years, started off the meeting July 7 by saying, “The heliport in Genesee has been devastating for me and my family.”
Noting that Wilson found that heliports are allowed throughout the county, she exclaimed, “It’s not about Genesee Valley now, guys, it’s about Plumas County.”
Adler said that the Palmaz family applied to the Federal Aviation Administration on Jan. 8, 2016, for a heliport at their Genesee Valley ranch.
In February 2016, she said, the planning department told her and others that the Palmaz family would need to file for a special use permit to construct a heliport and they should wait for the filing of that application for the permit, which they would be informed about, before getting further involved.
When she and others saw a hangar being built at the ranch, they went to the planning department and were told that the structure being built was a “no-fee agricultural storage building.”
On Aug. 8, 2016, the Palmaz family attorneys submitted a request for a “zoning determination” to allow the heliport to be built without the need for a special use permit. This was, the attorneys argued, because a helicopter was the functional equivalent of a truck or tractor.
Adler said she and opponents of the heliport were not informed of this change.
On Aug. 26, 2016, Genesee Friends filed an “investigative services request form” with the planning department, documenting the existence and use of the heliport.
Adler said that it was only when the group pressured the planning department for information during a public meeting Aug. 31, 2016, that the group learned about what was going on procedurally with the heliport.
Jackson said that he feels this case is about the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which, he said, is meant to protect the environment. He said an environmental review is mandatory for any governmental action or private actions if the government is involved, if there is any question about harm to the environment.
Jackson said a CEQA review would have been necessary with a special use permit.Jackson stated he believes the Palmaz’ lawyers found the term “functional equivalent” in the county’s general plan. They decided, he opined, that they could argue that the decision that Wilson was making concerning the heliport was only “ministerial” in nature and thus, according to CEQA, didn’t require environmental review.
Jackson said that Wilson, agreed with this argument in his decision on June 30.
Donald Atkin, opponent of the heliport, said at the meeting that ministerial decisions don’t involve any discretion or special judgment on the part of the person making them. A person just follows the regulations as they are written, checking off the boxes.
Jackson argued that if a decision is ministerial, it means that the county believes it has no control over the decision; in this case, whether heliports are allowed, sight unseen and without environmental review, anywhere on agricultural preserve lands in Plumas County.
Jackson said that if the county’s final decision goes to trial, the county will have to prove in court that their decision was not discretionary and that there will be no effect of the county’s heliport decision on the environment.
Jackson said that if the case goes to court, the county would have to answer the following questions: Is the Genesee Valley Special Management Area Plan, which he believes is already a part of the county plan, alive or not? Did Wilson use discretion when he decided a helicopter is a tractor? Will there be no environmental impacts of heliports on every piece of agricultural preserve land in Plumas County?
Jackson emphasized that CEQA exists to allow discretion to be applied to situations like the placement of heliports in wetlands and other sensitive areas.
Jackson said that the Genesee Valley Ranch hangar is within a Army Corp of Engineers designated wetland. He added, “Anyone who claims that Genesee Valley is not a wetlands is trying to do the impossible.”
Jackson warned that if the county doesn’t do the right thing concerning wetlands, the Army Corp of Engineers and perhaps the State Water Resources Control Board will step in.
Jackson said that the county’s current position, based on a ministerial decision, allows heliports throughout the county on agricultural preserve lands without environmental review. “If one can do it,” he said, “all can do it.”
He said that someone could buy the place next door and decide to put in a heliport and, if Wilson’s finding prevails, there will be no recourse.
Jackson added, “With real estate, you are not always dealing with the original owner.”
It’s not about an individual family and how nice or progressive they are, he said, land use decisions go with the land.
What Jackson feels the Palmaz family and county should do
Jackson said both the general plan and the Genesee Valley plan were designed to protect a way of life in the county and in Genesee Valley specifically.
Jackson said he believes that the framers of the county plan never expected the county plan to be used in the way the county is using it in this case.
He said the Palmaz family and their lawyers decided to go this route, “opening up the whole county to heliports.” He maintained, “If they had applied for a special use permit, it would have been about them and their property. They chose to do it this way.”
Jackson added, “They can do the right thing and do a special use permit and not drag the rest of the county into this.”
Jackson also said that the county will be liable for the outcomes of its decision. He said, “I feel for Randy, he’s in a crack because he let this go so far.”
Where things go from here
Jackson filed an appeal to the Plumas County Board of Supervisors for the Genesee Friends on July 10.
He said the board will hold a public hearing on the appeal. Lawyers use the term “de novo,” meaning “anew” in Latin, for this kind of full reconsideration of a case.
Jackson said the opponents of the heliport should give the board the same information they gave to Wilson. The board will then make its decision.
Jackson said that after the board has made its decision, plaintiffs will have exhausted all legal remedies with the County and they can file an injunction with the superior court in Plumas County. Again, that court will decide the issue de novo.
Following that, the state Supreme Court can take the case. Jackson said, “This will go on for a while.”