MONO LAKE, California — For two decades, California’s Mono Lake has been a symbol of victory for environmental activists — the place where they won a hard-fought battle to restore a hauntingly beautiful lake and protect the fragile ecosystem of the basin just east of Yosemite National Park.
In 1984, Congress established the 118,303-acre Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area — which includes Mono Lake with its eerie tufa towers and the feeder streams that flow out of the Sierra Nevada — as part of the effort to halt the destruction of the lake by massive water diversions to Los Angeles (HCN, 12/8/97: A court deems a lake worthy of water). It was the first national scenic area in the country.
But now, Bill Cunningham, who owns 120 acres on the lake’s west shore, wants to build 30 resort homes there. The land, which lies within the scenic area, has been in Cunningham’s family for several generations and includes a small house. Cunningham, a Santa Cruz oral surgeon, has been involved in several small-scale developments in Santa Cruz. He recently formed a management partnership with New Cities Land Company, which has developed high-end subdivisions in Santa Cruz, Monterey and the San Francisco area.
Cunningham submitted a subdivision application to Mono County last November, says Scott Burns, the county’s planning director, but the county can’t process the application until it receives several missing parts.
The development threatens to not only scar the austere Mono landscape, but also set a dangerous precedent for federal scenic areas throughout the nation. Geoff McQuilkin, co-executive director of the Mono Lake Committee, which has worked since 1978 to restore the Mono Basin, says, "If Congress can’t enact a plan and have it survive 20 years, there is no protection anywhere."
The permit chase
For four years, Forest Service officials have been trying to add Cunningham’s property to the Inyo National Forest. But their efforts to exchange his Mono acreage for land that could be developed near Mammoth Lakes have stalled over the question of the Mono property’s value.
The Forest Service appraisal is two to three times less than the $5 million that Cunningham feels his land is worth, says Jeff Bailey, supervisor of the Inyo National Forest. (Neither Cunningham nor Lee Newell, his representative with New Cities Land Company, returned numerous telephone calls requesting comment.)
Bailey recently proposed acquiring the land through "friendly eminent domain," in which a federal judge would set a value for the sale that would be binding on the Forest Service and the developer.
The developers, however, are "not overly excited" about the process, Bailey says.
Their pursuit of development permits through the county takes advantage of a gap between regulations for federal scenic areas and local zoning laws, which impose fewer constraints. For years, Mono County officials assumed they were bound by the scenic area’s private property guidelines, which prohibit subdivisions and restrict development to minimize disturbance to the basin. But a 1996 county counsel opinion concluded that the county does have land-use authority and must process development applications that are consistent with the county general plan, says planning director Burns.
Once county officials receive a complete development proposal from Cunningham, they will start the yearlong procedure that involves an environmental review and public hearings before a final decision by the Mono County Board of Supervisors.
McQuilkin predicts a long and difficult approval process, the most controversial application Mono County has ever faced. "People are coming to Mono County to see this lake, the scenic views and the abundant wildlife, not a developed shoreline," he says.
The potential development represents "a huge step backwards" in the protection and recovery of Mono Lake, says Bailey. But far more is at stake than one 30-unit subdivision. Other developers in California are waiting to see if Mono County accepts this development in a federal scenic area, he says.
Although Bailey hopes for a response this month to his proposal to enter friendly eminent domain proceedings, he says that his offer will remain on the table throughout the process. If it fails, he will propose formal condemnation, a procedure unlikely to succeed with a federal administration partial to private property rights.
"It’s disheartening," says McQuilkin. "The lesson is we have to be ever vigilant."
The author writes from Plumas County, California.
This report was made possible with support from the EMA Foundation.
Mono Lake Committee 760-647-6595, www.monolake.org
Inyo National Forest 760-873-2427, email@example.com, www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/
Lee Newell New Cities Land Company, 831-655-5000