Editor’s note: A follow-up story on eco-friendly Sunshine Paradise Ranch coming in our December 19 issue.
A group of foothills residents plans to take the county’s Resource Management Authority (RMA) to court to shut down a pair of guest ranches they say pose a threat to both the environment and neighbors’ peaceful country life.
Already in operation are the 190-acre Redwood Ranch, located some eight miles from Highway 198 up the winding, narrow South Fork Drive, and the four-acre Sunshine Paradise Ranch, which sits 9.5 miles up South Fork Drive from the 198 on a rocky, unpaved portion of the road leading to the southern entrance to Sequoia National Park. Both guest ranches have received special use permits (SUP) from the Tulare County Planning Commission allowing them to rent the properties to vacationers.
Additionally, Redwood Ranch’s owners have been granted permission to host events such as weddings and corporate retreats. The owners of Sunshine Paradise have also applied for county permits that would allow large gatherings.
Citizens Group Plans Legal Action
Mathias Herriges, spokesman for the citizens group the Kaweah Coalition, says they plan to sue the county to stop the developments, which the group maintains violate the intent of the county’s growth plans, create dangerous traffic conditions and fire safety threats, present the potential for ecological damage to the watershed, and are destroying the quality of life in a sparsely populated and isolated area of the foothills.
“The big thing is the precedent being set outside our boundaries,” Herriges said. “It’s been kind of shocking to see how the RMA and the county has shifted its policies.”
Herriges described the county’s change of heart as both a violation of its own policies and as an attempt to push development into areas unsuited for it.
“The RMA was looking for a way to get development up into the upper watershed,” he said. “The general plan is pretty clear about restricting these kinds of developments.”
County Says it Follows the Law
RMA staff maintains the guest ranch developments are in line with current regulations and have recommended the Planning Commission grant the SUPs to allow both ranches to host large events.
“The county staff follows the rules and laws and the General Plan of Tulare County…,” said Aaron Bock, interim assistant director of planning for the RMA. “We always remain objective and use those laws as our guidelines.”
Herriges, however, says the RMA has moved beyond objectivity by assisting property owners with their applications for SUPs. They’ve also “downplayed” the scope of development at the Redwood Ranch in its environmental impact report (EIR).
Public Hearings Delayed
The county has placed a hold on enforcement on any action regarding the Redwood Ranch until it has been addressed by the Planning Commission, however, public hearings on the matter have so far been repeatedly delayed.
“Now that they see the opposition to it, they keep delaying,” Herriges said. “I think they don’t want to offend the (owners), maybe get sued by them.”
The next meeting of the Planning Commission is scheduled for 9am on Tuesday, December 11 in the Board of Supervisors Chambers, 2800 W. Burrel Avenue in Visalia. While the agenda for that meeting has yet to be announced, Bock said the Commission will consider granting an SUP for group gatherings at Sunshine Paradise Ranch.
The Kaweah Coalition has already filed an appeal with the Tulare County Board of Supervisors regarding the Planning Commission’s decision to allow the Sunshine Paradise Ranch to operate. The Commission’s decision to allow the second guest ranch saw repeated 3-3 deadlocked votes before it was finally approved in November. The Board of Supervisors will consider the appeal at its December 17 meeting.
Should the Board of Supervisors affirm the Planning Commission’s decision, the Kaweah Coalition intends to challenge it in court. Herriges, however, remains hopeful.
“I think we have a good chance of getting this denied with the Sunshine Paradise Ranch,” he said.
One of the main problems residents in the area have experienced is a marked increase in traffic on a road that at points is 10 feet wide or less. The EIR for the Redwood Ranch claims only two extra vehicles per day due to its activities, however, Herriges says up to 150 trips per day have been recorded by cameras installed by members of the Kaweah Coalition.
“We can tell when there’s a big wedding coming by social media and online,” he said. “The shuttles are running until three in the morning.”
Herriges maintains the RMA reported a lower traffic figure to avoid casting the project in a bad light.
“Basically, the county says they don’t have to do a traffic impact study unless there are 100 trips a day,” he said.
Opponents of the ranches say South Fork Drive is simply inadequate for these traffic conditions. The Tulare County Fire Department is on record as saying their vehicles require roads at least 18 feet wide in order to provide emergency services, a figure nearly double the width of the South Fork Drive.
Harsh Environmental Impact
Redwood Ranch has been operating under a variance for three years, and hosts events from March through December.
“Some of these weddings have 300 people,” Herriges said. “It’s usually about three days a week. It’s picked up and they’ve been going solid.”
That, Herriges says, has led to unprecedented noise pollution.
“We surrounded by BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land and reserves, so it’s really loud for us up here,” he said.
The area is also a high-risk fire zone, and both the developments front on the South Fork of the Kaweah River. That, says Herriges, presents a possible water pollution problem due to the rocky soils in steep conditions that are unsuited to large volume septic systems and could lead to nitrate contamination.
“Our watershed is very vulnerable,” he said. “It pretty much sucks for everyone down river.”
While the permits issued by the county contain measures intended to mitigate impacts the developments create, making sure the property owners are in compliance is often difficult.
“The problem with mitigation is, where they do put them in place, they’re hard to enforce,” Herriges said. “Every time we’ve called about these issues, it takes an hour to four hours for them (law enforcement officers) to show up. Then, they don’t even know what they’re supposed to enforce.”
Herriges is hopeful the decision to allow Sunshine Paradise Ranch to operate can be reversed, pointing to similar situations in other parts of the state.
“It’s been pretty common in rural areas where people have lived for years,” he said. “They’re trying to preserve things, and these super-loud weddings show up. They’ve been shut down routinely.”
County Ignoring Own Guidelines
While members of the Kaweah Coalition do not oppose development out of hand, they believe the county has overstepped its own rules by approving the guest ranches.
“It’s not necessarily that we want to go after everything, but the county isn’t complying with its plan,” Herriges said. “I’ve got property rights issues myself.”
He also believes the owners of the Redwood Ranch will fight to keep their business running.
“I know they’re going to take it to court,” he said. “They’ve made half a million dollars a year last year.”
Should the county give its go-ahead and allow the Redwood Ranch to continue operating as it has, members of the Kaweah Coalition intend to fight it in court.
“We’re planning on a win-lose situation,” Herriges said. “As soon as they (the county) make an exception, we will take the Redwood Ranch to court.”