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County’s Fee Policy Stifles Participation, Conservationist Says

Times Staff Writer

A prominent community activist complained Wednesday that increases in county fees have stifled public participation in major land-use decisions by making it too expensive to challenge development decisions.

Sherry Meddick, head of the environmental group known as the Rural Canyons Conservation Fund, told the Board of Supervisors that she cannot afford to pay the $1,700 fee required to appeal a Planning Commission decision allowing a developer to destroy hundreds of large oak trees in the south county backcountry.

Meddick said the fee is almost three times what it would have been before last summer’s decision by the supervisors to increase fees to recover processing costs.

“What the county is saying is that it is no longer interested in having the public involved in the process,” Meddick told the board. “We believe the fee is an impediment to due public process . . . and an unfair financial burden.”

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Meddick said the fee in San Diego County for the kind of appeal she wanted to file is $300. In Los Angeles County, she said, it is $250. Ernie Schneider, director of the Environmental Management Agency, said those figures are probably correct but explained that his department’s only criterion in establishing the new fee was how much an appeal would cost the county.

Wednesday was the deadline for Meddick to have filed her appeal. After the supervisors meeting at which she spoke, she submitted an appeal without including the fee, but it was rejected by the Environmental Management Agency.

Orange County has begun to stress cost-cutting because of budget difficulties in recent years. As part of the belt tightening, all county departments have been asked to establish new fees to cover the costs of services. The new fees cover services that include background checks for various licenses, building permits, inspections and public appeals to the supervisors.

The supervisors also heard testimony Wednesday from several masseurs and masseuses who were upset over their license fees being raised from $366 to $939 to recover the costs of Sheriff’s Department background checks. The supervisors postponed action on that increase while the county staff determines whether the fee might be waived for massage specialists with certain recognized credentials.

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But the issue of increased fees looms as a major controversy for the supervisors. In Meddick’s case, it raises the question of whether taxpayers’ money should be used to subsidize an individual’s protest of a government decision.

Meddick has been battling Hon Development Co. plans to destroy about 1,800 trees and move about 600 more in the Foothill Ranch area, just east of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The company says there are about 5,000 trees at the site, about half of which are on a 262-acre tract that is scheduled to be preserved as open space.

Meddick said that there has not been a study to determine exactly how many trees are on the site and, therefore, the county cannot properly determine whether, as state law requires, the developer is adequately mitigating the impact of the construction.

“We don’t know how many . . . trees there are, and we will never know until after they are destroyed,” she said.

Meddick asked Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, whose district includes the development, to submit the appeal to the board for her. But Vasquez said he supports the new fee and the policy of cost recovery.

“When you deviate from a full cost-recovery policy, that means the rest of the taxpayers in Orange County are subsidizing someone else,” he said. “Therein lies an inequity that affects the taxpayers in Orange County at large.”


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