Local Elections

Growth issues paramount in El Dorado County races

The four candidates for two open seats on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors speak in near-spiritual tones of being drawn to oak-studded hills, cascading rivers and a sapphire blue lake rimmed by mountain peaks.

When it comes to campaign arguments on how to protect it all, things get more intense.

The candidates in supervisorial districts 4 and 5, together stretching from Lake Tahoe to El Dorado Hills, are debating about managing roads and freeway traffic, protecting water resources and providing housing and jobs. They are also trying to convince a wary electorate that they won’t stand for anything that could alter the county’s rustic character, from big-box stores to major new subdivisions.

“I feel that I am fighting for something that is precious to me,” said Howard Penn, one of two contenders for the District 4 seat. “And I understand how precious it is for everyone else.”

Penn, 48, a business development consultant formerly located in the Bay Area, first came to the El Dorado County for skiing, rock climbing and whitewater rafting. He eventually bought a rafting business and later took over a Coloma hotel and restaurant, the Sierra Nevada House.

Now Penn is running for District 4 supervisor in western El Dorado County and championing a strict anti-growth initiative, declaring that it will protect swaths of “our rural landscape” from development.

The initiative, Measure M, would ban approval of new residential subdivisions if the California Department of Transportation determines that any county stretch of Highway 50 west of Placerville is gridlocked or forecast to reach peak congestion.

Penn’s opponent, Michael Ranalli, 56, a 22-year Intel Corp. technology and marketing executive, moved from the company’s Santa Clara headquarters to its Folsom campus in the 1980s. He was drawn to El Dorado County by stories from other engineers “who bragged about rafting and the quality of life.”

Ranalli eventually built a home on 5 acres in Rescue and later retired to grow wine grapes in Lotus. While his journey was similar to Penn’s, Ranalli has drawn different conclusions about what is needed for the county’s future.

Ranalli, who said he voted for another traffic control initiative, Measure Y, in 1998, said Measure M and two other growth-related ballot measures on the November ballot are bad ideas. He said Measure Y resulted in excessive fees to offset traffic impacts of new developments, stifling economic growth in the county.

“I really support citizens’ right to petition their government,” Ranalli said. “But the history of land-use planning through the ballot box in El Dorado County has been devastating.”

Ranalli serves as vice chairman of the county’s economic advisory committee and is backed by the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce. He says he is running to roll back anti-business regulations that have made it difficult for farmers and ranchers to make a living in the county and have stifled growth at business parks in El Dorado Hills, Diamond Springs and Shingle Springs.

Ranalli says he supports county general plan goals of “managed growth, open roads and quality neighborhoods.” He says the region needs enhanced agricultural tourism and more affordable housing but not vast new subdivisions. However, he said, the county will continue “fostering a bedroom community” with little local tax base unless supervisors enact policies to encourage job growth.

Penn also touts his ability to attract job-producing companies and encourage development, including rustic lodging and “infrastructure for destination tourism” such as Apple Hill orchards, wineries and other attractions. Unlike Ranalli, Penn says the ballot box is indeed a remedy to protect the character of El Dorado County communities.

“Measure M is more important than I am,” said Penn, a co-sponsor of the initiative. “It sets into motion land-use planning from the perspective and desires of voters in the county. Once that is in place, I feel my job as supervisor is to execute that.”

In the race for supervisor in District 5, the debate centers more on protecting community character in the face of anticipated commercial development in Meyers, where Highway 50 drops into the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Candidate Sue Novasel, 59, is a three-term board member and past president of the Lake Tahoe Unified School District. Election rival Kenny Curtzwiler, 58, is the owner of a roofing and tree trimming company and a former major in the Nevada Army National Guard.

Novasel, who moved to the Tahoe region in the 1970s “because of my passion for skiing and the outdoors,” went on to work as a ski instructor at Heavenly Resort before opening a wedding and event planning business.

Curtzwiler, drawn to the Tahoe slopes during the same era, is a past president of the Heavenly Ski and Snowboard Foundation and author of a local newspaper column, Skibum, in which he weighs in on local issues.

Curtzwiler developed a small housing and retail building in Meyers and once proposed opening a local medical marijuana dispensary there but dropped the idea after county planners reacted coolly to it.

He said he is running because he is tired of seeing the Tahoe basin being the neglected “red-headed stepchild” in county politics. Curtzwiler also says he wants to play a leading role as the county’s representative on the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. He says the regional governing board has become too obtrusive in regulating new construction while losing sight of its mission to protect the deep blue hues of Lake Tahoe.

“We need to move TRPA out of the construction industry and back into the environment and keeping the lake clear,” Curtzwiler said. “Now, TRPA has gotten into every aspect of building in this community and they can tell you what colors to have on your roof and what color to paint your house.”

Novasel said her challenge as supervisor would be to develop and diversify the economy of a “tourist town” while protecting lake-area communities, where residents have long worried “we would lose our feeling of being rural.”

Novasel was one of the original authors of a 1989 Meyers community plan that sought to refashion a district she said was beginning to resemble a run-down “strip mall.” The plan called for protected greenbelts separating hotel and retail developments and small office centers. Novasel said the plan needs updating to encourage environmentally sensitive development while streamlining the permitting process for such construction.

“It’s a really slow process when a homeowner or business wants to do something up here,” Novasel said. “It’s really frustrating when you have a project that takes years and years and years. The county can speed that up.”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916)326-5539.

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