Lake level back before county

May 13, 2002 11:00 pm

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Continuing efforts by the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors to obtain a permit to drain Lake Earl when it reaches a depth of five feet is up for public debate today.

The issue has raised the hackles and concerns of at least one county supervisor, some county staff members and many members of the public in the last three weeks.

Causing the furor is a question of whether to continue a quest for state permission to breach the lake when it reaches five feet, even though the county already has permission to drain it at the eight-foot level.

Plus, a two-year ecological study of the area and the effects of different lake levels on surrounding properties and wildlife is scheduled to be available from the Department of Fish and Game June 30. That study reportedly will suggest a lake level that balances the needs of both wildlife and property owners.

"I think we entered into a good faith position with Fish and Game that there will be a management plan ... To be applying for (another) permit seems to sidestep that process for the desires of a few," said supervisor Martha McClure who is against the five-foot permit.

Rancher Helen Ferguson, leading a group of Lake Earl area property owners, got support from Del Norte County in November to pursue the five-foot breach permits, which are ultimately approved by several different state and federal agencies.

Her group, in conjunction with the Pacific Shores California Water District, wants to break through the narrow sandbar that separates Lake Earl from the ocean when necessary to prevent flooding of private property.

The county has already signed on to two of the necessary applications with Ferguson's group, but she now has a request for more signatures for two more auxiliary applications.

"With breaching, there are several permits that have to be applied for," said Ernie Perry, the director of the county's Community Development department.

Saying no to supporting any of those permit applications could kill the chances of the property owners winning the ability to breach.

The supervisors will be deciding whether or not to sign on to those applications today.

Originally, this issue was to be voted on April 23. It was put on the agenda by Clyde Eller, the county supervisor for the Lake Earl area, but abruptly taken off the agenda.

Several members of the public arrived at the meeting to voice their opposition to the permit.

"My house backs up to the lake and when it's at the four-foot level, a dog can run across it and it looks like desert. At the five-foot level, it's not much better," said Walt Morse.

Despite the presence of several others who voiced concerns, the issue was pulled from the agenda by Eller who promised to bring additional information about the permit application to the next available meeting.

The item did not reappear on the next meeting's agenda, however – at least not at first.

According to Supervisor McClure, Eller and county counsel Bob Black didn't feel the issue had to be decided by the board, since the board had voted twice before to sign the applications to support the Pacific Shores Water District's quest.

Instead of taking the vote to the board and making the process public, Eller and Black believed it was fair for Perry to review the documents administratively and then sign them.

McClure disagreed.

"Evidently, Clyde and (Supervisor) David Finigan met with the East Side Property Owners group last Friday and they decided to make the decision for everyone to sign the applications," she said.

McClure said she bumped into the county's Perry in the Flynn Center Friday evening. At that time he expressed concern to her about signing the applications without being directed by the full Board of Supervisors.

"So far I haven't been directed to review those applications or sign them," Perry said yesterday.

Perry said he has other concerns about partnering with the Pacific Shores Water District Board and their Washington state attorneys who are putting the applications together.

He said the applications he has seen so far are incomplete and that partnering with the group could mean a lot of work and time for county staff.

"The application going to Fish and Game is my biggest concern. How much work is needed there is a big unknown," said Perry.

It could also be very expensive, according to Fish and Game biologist Melissa Bukowski, the author of the upcoming Lake Earl Management Plan.

"It can cost a lot. They will have to hire consultants to do environmental reviews and do the work," she said.

Because of the expense and because of a promise made by Eller to make the decision in public, McClure said she was angry to find the decision to sign on to the application inititally was made in private.

"Those kinds of decisions need to be made in a public forum," she said.

"And it was only because I complained to them that it is on the agenda now," she added.

Yesterday Del Norte County counsel Black said the decision was made to handle the applications outside of a public meeting because that is the way it has been done in the past.

The board has voted to approve signing on with Pacific Shores twice, so subsequent applications were assumed to be approved as well, he said.

It was actually the Pacific Shores group who pleaded that argument to Black and Eller who felt compelled to agree, he said.

"What I failed to recall was that he (Eller) also indicated that the matter would be brought back on the agenda before any further action," Black said.

When Eller was called to ask why the matter was pulled from the April 23 agenda, he declined to comment. Spokesperson for the East Side Property Owners, Ferguson, also declined to comment on the issue.

In a letter to the Board of Supervisors for today's public meeting, Black reminded the board of the coming scientific study and lake level recommendations by the Department of Fish and Game.

"In this light, in addition to the obvious alternatives of approving or denying these permits, your board should consider a third alternative, as set forth below ... 3) Continue this item on your agenda until your second meeting in July 2002. Direct staff to report to your board on the status of the Fish and Game plan ... and in the interim take no further action with regard to the five-foot breach application," Black wrote.

Currently the lake level is 4.33 feet and Perry, who monitors the lake level, said it will likely not rise much throughout the summer.

The supervisors meet beginning at 10 a.m. in the Flynn Center at the corner of H and Ninth streets.