bulldozes into trouble
County OK'd west county clearing, but state, feds object
By CAROL BENFELL
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
property owner John Tomich had the support of Sonoma County
officials when he cleared 200 to 250 feet of trees and shrubs
next to Atascadero Creek.
then, at least three state and federal agencies have descended
on the site and warned Tomich that he faces fines, possible
criminal prosecution and an order to restore the riparian corridor,
at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.
43, said the response took him by surprise. But it points to
an apparent gap in how the county treats agricultural land and
didn't have any idea what I was getting into," Tomich said.
"I thought I was just putting in a fence."
not the first small landowner to learn that county approval
is not the same as a green light to proceed, several agency
county alerts landowners about the interests of environmental
agencies as part of the permit process. But when no permit is
required, as was the case with Tomich, there is no notification.
one of the reasons the county is looking at enacting a grading
ordinance and improving protection for riparian corridors in
the current General Plan update, said Supervisor Mike Reilly,
whose district includes Atascadero Creek.
project might have been prevented if those ordinances were in
place because Tomich might have had to obtain a permit to clear
his land and would have learned about the other agencies' requirements,
Reilly and several agencies said.
whole point is that the county didn't see anything wrong with
it," Reilly said. "We have these black environmental
holes in our county permitting system that have to be fixed."
general plan is the county blueprint for growth for the next
43, said he and his wife moved to Sebastopol from Fremont four
years ago in search of good schools for their two daughters
and the beauty and peace of country life.
family has brought in horses and other animals and wanted to
introduce a small flock of Barbados sheep. But that required
building a fence, Tomich said.
phoned county officials, described what he wanted to do and
was told he didn't need a permit.
attempted to clear trees and brush from the fence line himself,
but eventually hired an excavator operator to complete the job,
excavator removed the trees and shrubs along the fence line
and, on his own initiative, cleared along the power line as
well, Tomich said.
work was clearly visible from Mill Station Road, and neighbors
and environmentalists began calling regulatory agencies.
was heartbreaking," said Chris Stover, who lives near Tomich.
"Everything was slashed away. Trees had been snapped off
and stacked in 15-foot-high piles. The way it was done, it looked
like someone had gone on a rampage of destruction."
code enforcement inspectors visited the site after receiving
complaints, but said the work had not violated any county ordinances.
found no violation of our county codes," said Nancy Lingafeldt,
supervisor of code enforcement. "The property owner has
a right to remove shrubs and trees along that area of the creek."
so, say the other agencies, who say Tomich should have contacted
them and gotten permits or agreements before he began. These
are the agencies asserting authority:
state regional Water Quality Control Board found that Tomich
had filled in a secondary channel of Atascadero Creek and several
small wetlands, protected by state law because of their unique
agency has told Tomich to stop all work on the property, hire
an ecologist to prepare a restoration plan and submit a completed
restoration plan by March 31.
will certainly be some restoration and there could be a fine.
He may have to obtain after-the-fact permits to fill wetlands,"
said John Short, a senior engineer with the water quality board.
Fish and Game Department investigators said the excavator went
into and altered a secondary channel of Atascadero Creek, as
well as destroying a forested area that provided valuable wildlife
department may seek criminal prosecution as well as restoration,
said biologist Bill Cox.
was a substantial wildlife area with dense woodland and a riparian
corridor," Cox said. "We've pretty well decided we
will make a referral to the District Attorney's Office."
Army Corps of Engineers said Tomich also violated federal laws
the damage, the agencies credit Tomich for his willingness to
cooperate with them in restoring the area.
been very cooperative and seems willing to work with our agency
and the water quality control board to resolve the issues,"
said Katerina Galacatos, project manager for the Corps of Engineers.
agencies are also taking steps to be sure Tomich's restoration
work doesn't get him into more trouble.
agencies are working together to come up with a plan so he doesn't
try to fix one thing for one agency and then get in trouble
with another agency," Galacatos said.
can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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