Building homes around publicly accessible lakes may be the new gold mines in California's Sierra Nevada foothills. The unincorporated community of Copperopolis in western Calaveras County has just such a water feature in Lake Tulloch, and, not surprisingly, the area is experiencing a growth boom.

The county has already approved approximately 5,000 residential parcels that remain unbuilt. In addition, Central California development heavyweight Castle & Cooke is building a new town square and in August submitted paperwork for two new projects totaling 2,100 units. A controversial 300-unit housing and golf course project is pending, as is a different plan for lakefront condominiums. Meanwhile, a community plan that forecasts a nearly ten-fold increase in population to 40,000 remains in limbo.

"With the amount of development that is coming to Copperopolis and just around the lake, we're going to wind up with a city five times the size of Sonora. But there just isn't any infrastructure yet," said Connie Williams, who heads the Lake Tulloch Alliance.

The Lake Tulloch group is one of many that, in recent months, has helped form the Calaveras Planning Coalition. The coalition is urging the county to overhaul its general plan, which was last updated in 1996. But Ward La Valley, a coalition coordinator, said the current general plan is a 1980s-style plan that provides "open season for all the wrong kind of development."

In addition, growth is one of the primary issues in the campaign for the county supervisor's seat representing Copperopolis. But the race is unusual in that the challenger appears to be the more overtly pro-development candidate. First-term incumbent Supervisor Victoria Erickson has rolled out a number of proposals to protect Lake Tulloch and is taking a measured stance on growth. Her opponent, Russ Thomas, is a former Stanislaus County planning commissioner who has headed the Copperopolis Community Plan Update Committee, which did not embrace Lake Tulloch growth restrictions.

Like a number of counties with territory in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Calaveras is seeing an influx of retirees from urban areas, wealthy people buying second homes, and even some long-distance commuters. And because there is only one small incorporated city — Angels Camp — nearly all of the newcomers to the county of 45,000 people are locating in unincorporated areas. Copperopolis, a 19th century gold and copper mining town on Highway 4, is one of the top destinations.

The demographics certainly have the attention of Castle & Cooke. Among the company's projects are a new town square, buildout of the 1,150-unit Saddle Creek subdivision, and the newly proposed 1,500-unit Copper Valley Ranch and 600-unit Sawmill Lake projects.

"We see this as a very critical region in California," said Paul Stein, vice president of land planning for Castle & Cooke Calaveras. "We're close to several million baby boomers in the Bay Area and the Central Valley who will be retiring in the next few years." From Copperopolis, people can make day trips to the foothills wine country, ski slopes at Bear Valley, and even the Bay Area, he said.

Stein, a former county supervisor who served two years as chief deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Game in the Schwarzenegger administration, said Castle & Cooke is taking a long-term, community-building approach. That is why even before there are enough residences nearby to justify it, the town square project is under construction, Stein said. The 27-acre project will feature wide sidewalks, a post office and about 20 buildings with upwards of 200,000 square feet of space for retail shops, professional services and second-floor residential uses.

"We're looking out 10 to 20 years," Stein said. "We want to re-create the old town center concept where people lived in town."

Castle & Cooke as well as other developers are also enticed by 67,000-acre-foot Lake Tulloch, a reservoir operated by two Central Valley irrigation districts. Stretches of the lakeshore are lined with homes, some of which extend over the water. Castle & Cooke and other developers would like to build more lakeshore homes. That concerns the Lake Tulloch Alliance, which fears the waterway could easily get overrun by boaters. Another concern regards the extensive use of septic systems above the lake level. The group would like to see the county designate remaining lakefront land for 20-acre minimum parcel sizes and prohibit large-scale use of septic systems.

Supervisor Erickson conceded that infrastructure is "a huge issue" in Copperopolis. But, she said, the Calaveras County Water District has adopted a good master plan for sewer and water service, and planners are now looking at possible routes for new roads.

"The developers are going to have to realize that a lot of this infrastructure they are going to have to put in themselves," said Erickson, who commended the area's developers as responsible citizens. Erickson also said that preparation of a new general plan is essential.

"The key thing is, as we grow, we need to maintain our rural character. That's going to be the big fight," said Erickson, noting the number of newly created citizen groups. "They are afraid we are going to lose that small-town character."

Stein recommended preparation of a master plan for all potential development in the area, an idea Erickson endorsed.

The draft community plan, though, is something of a touchy subject. The plan envisions an eventual population of 40,000 in the greater Copperopolis Basin, which now has fewer than 5,000 residents. Still, the county general plan would permit upwards of 100,000 people.

The plan committee submitted the draft plan a year ago. County planners and attorneys identified flaws, Erickson said, so the county has commissioned an independent consultant's review, which should become public this month. Hearings will follow. "That community plan is a vital piece of the future of the Copperopolis Basin," she said.

Thomas, however, said the plan received wide public input and that Erickson has delayed it for no good reason. The plan would help retain the look and feel of Copperopolis, he contended.

"I personally think that it's far better for California to grow here than to continue to gobble up peach orchards and grape vineyards in the Central Valley," Thomas said.

Neighboring Tuolumne County, which contains a piece of Lake Tulloch, has avoided the growth battles that are breaking out next door. Tuolumne County's lake frontage is steeper, and the county has zoned the area agricultural, with 37-acre minimum lot sizes. Plus, there is virtually no infrastructure, noted Tuolumne County Community Development Director Bev Shane. Tuolumne did sue Calaveras in 2004 over road impacts from the 2,600-unit Oak Canyon Ranch project. Litigation was settled with an agreement for the developer to fund road improvements in Tuolumne.


Victoria Erickson, Calaveras County supervisor, (209) 304-7374.

Russ Thomas, Copperopolis Community Plan Committee, (209) 785-2020.

Paul Stein, Castle & Cooke, (209) 785-8553.

Ward La Valley, Calaveras Planning Coalition, (209) 754-3317.

Lake Tulloch Alliance:

Calaveras County Planning Department: