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Small lake creates big controversy

Stockton Record

Small lake creates big controversy




Record Staff Writer


December 25, 2006 6:00 AM


COPPEROPOLIS - At 1,260 surface acres, Lake Tulloch is small for a major California reservoir. Unlike its neighbor to the east, 12,500-acre New Melones Reservoir, it does not make the top 10 or even the top 20.


But Lake Tulloch is No. 1 when it comes to generating controversy in Calaveras County . In the past year, county officials have had to field controversies on everything from the use of land below Tulloch's surface to justify building extra homes above the water, to docks and a boat ramp built without permits, to how many oaks should be preserved as the pastures around the reservoir are replaced by homes and golf courses.


Both residents and developers expect the debate over where to build and what to preserve to rage for years or decades more. They say buyers from Stockton, Modesto and the Bay Area remain eager to snap up mansions and private docks built along the water.


"Basically, the Copperopolis Basin has a great degree of potential because of its proximity to Yosemite, to the Bay Area, to the Valley," said Paul Stein, vice president of land planning for Castle & Cooke Calaveras Inc., the largest developer in the Copperopolis area. One Castle & Cooke project, Copper Valley Ranch, would erect homes on 4,000 acres on the reservoir's northwestern shore.


"It is a very small lake," said Stein, a former Calaveras County supervisor. "It is one of those very rare lakes in California where people own land right down to the water and under the water. That has created tensions in the past."


And still does.


Marina Villas, a proposal to build 20 town houses on piers over the reservoir not far from the

O'Byrnes Ferry Road
bridge, is alarming to members of Lake Tulloch Alliance, a group of residents pushing to preserve the beauty of the shore and to reduce ski-boat crowding on busy weekends.


"It's surface area," said Don Wells, a slalom water skier and lakefront homeowner who is part of Lake Tulloch Alliance. "You've got a very small lake that is going to get smaller," Wells said of the proposed project.


Merle Holman, the developer proposing Marina Villas, insists his 10-acre lot - 8.5 acres of which is below water - always was intended to make use of the underwater portion.


"My property as well as where the (nearby) hotel is, as well as two other properties right there, were created with the knowledge that they had to be built more dense," Holman said.


Still, county planners balked. Planning staff asked the Board of Supervisors to clarify whether underwater land counts for calculating how many homes can be built. Supervisors first said yes, underwater land counts under current rules. Then, a few weeks later, they said they would amend the county's General Plan to ban the practice, a process that will take some months.


Holman, meanwhile, is allowed to proceed under the existing rules.


Wells, a former semiconductor industry engineer who now is in the real estate business, said Calaveras County in general and Copperopolis in particular has a reputation in the industry for lax regulation of development.


Still, both Wells and developers in the area say they believe the county administration is trying to clean house and enforce development rules more consistently. Stein, for example, said the Copper Canyon development will be planned to avoid eye-jarring rows of homes right on the water.


And developments such as Copper Canyon and the neighboring 1,000-acre Tuscany Hills are doing full environmental reviews, unlike Tulloch developments started in decades past.


Wells says he would like more. He thinks Lake Tulloch would benefit from a powerful special commission like the one that limits lakefront development around Lake Tahoe .


Refereeing such demands can be a politically dangerous task. Victoria Erickson, the supervisor who represented the area for one term, lost her seat in November despite efforts to address the concerns of Lake Tulloch Alliance and others concerned about the lake.


Her replacement, Russ Thomas of Copperopolis, admits he probably cannot make everyone happy either.


"Frankly, it is a gross understatement to say there are complex issues here, not the least of which is property rights and a General Plan that says you can currently do more than the LTA is willing to accept," Thomas said.


Thomas rejects the notion of a Lake Tahoe-style commission but says he would support policies like those in the not-yet-adopted Copperopolis Community Plan whose creation he led to strike a balance between limiting shoreline density and preserving property rights. Rules in the proposed plan, for example, limit the ability of property owners to subdivide lots in ways that crowd houses along the lake.


Thomas also advocates an annual user fee for boats on Lake Tulloch and creation of a road to the much larger New Melones Reservoir to encourage boaters to go there instead. Erickson also proposed this publicly during the campaign. But even as simple a proposal as a user fee is complicated on Lake Tulloch by the fact that a county line runs right down the middle of the lake, and the Tri-Dam Authority, an arm of the South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts, operates the reservoir.


"It has to be a multijurisdictional solution," Thomas said.


Contact reporter Dana M. Nichols at (209) 754-9534 or dnichols@recordnet.com .


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