He’s the boss, now: Van Zant a steward of rural quality | SierraSun.com

He’s the boss, now: Van Zant a steward of rural quality

Peter Van Zant knows well the doomsday scenario that some development interests privately forecast for next year, when he will lead a new majority on the Nevada County Board of Supervisors.

It goes something like this: On Jan. 5, after two new supervisors are sworn in and Van Zant assumes the post of chairman, a troubling new era begins; the county becomes hostile to business and new projects, and development is hindered, if not halted altogether.

Van Zant’s response? It’s not so.

The new board will carefully scrutinize land use projects and promote rural quality because that is what the constituents elected members to do, Van Zant said. The idea is to require better planned projects to prevent sprawling, unchecked development, he explained.

“I will not be open to projects that start us down the slippery slope of sprawl,” Van Zant insisted.

Growth will still occur, he said. In the six years since he and others helped form the Rural Quality Coalition, a group focused on controlling development in western Nevada County, 8,000 new residents have moved in.

The RQC, however, has only addressed a handful of the new projects, he said.

In addition to his strong ties to the RQC and other neighborhood groups, Van Zant is quick to highlight his ties to the business community, which includes membership in two local chambers of commerce. He said the county can simultaneously promote the economy and protect the environment.

Van Zant calls himself the “self-appointed Pied Piper of business and the environment.”

As board chairman, a rotating post he will hold for one year, Van Zant hopes to schedule night meetings once a month to allow residents with day jobs to attend. Furthermore, Van Zant said he will try to make meetings more businesslike to avoid micro-management of county staff.

Before becoming a local politico, Van Zant, 59, grew up far away in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and worked in the semiconductor industry for heavy-hitters like IBM, Texas Instruments and National Semiconductor. Now a consultant, he writes books for the industry and colleges, produces videotapes and serves as an expert trial witness.

This shift to consulting allowed him and his wife, Mary DeWitt, to move in 1989 from Silicon Valley to rural Chicago Park, where he found his dream home – a barn-red ranch house on nine acres, where they grow peaches, apples, prunes, walnuts and other commodities.

Aside from his career as a high techie/politician, he played bass in a folk-blues-rock group, the Buffalo Chips, during his Silicon Valley days and sports a tattooed pattern of stars on his wrist, a remnant from that time. He also is interested in photography and describes himself as a “frustrated writer of short stories and poetry.”

Now the bass-playing Van Zant is part of an influx of new residents into the county who are rocking the political establishment. Van Zant believes the county is leading a movement toward rural quality that is spreading through the entire Foothills region.

“People are voting to keep the place they moved to nice,” Van Zant said.

Colleagues speak well of proposed chair

Sam Dardick was at home on San Juan Ridge on Friday, watching the sometimes rancorous House impeachment proceedings on television when he took a break to discuss – of all things – civility.

More specifically, Dardick, chairman of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, was suggesting ways to conduct local government meetings without the partisan discord so evident in the House debate.

Against some background shouting from his TV, Dardick outlined this formula: Make sure everyone at the meetings listens to one another, including supervisors and audience members alike, and hammer out solutions regardless of political differences.

“A lot of times, people get very emotional about a controversy and don’t listen to one another,” Dardick said.

This discussion was no intellectual exercise. Dardick is relinquishing the rotating post of chairman next month. If all goes as expected on the afternoon of Jan. 5, Supervisor Peter Van Zant will be elected chairman.

Under current policy, each supervisor holds the post for one year, chairing the meetings and the agendas and establishing committee assignments for board members. That person also serves as an official spokesperson for the county.

So the question now is, how will Van Zant handle the high-profile job? And what will a Van Zant-led board be like? The new board will have close ties to the Rural Quality Coalition, a group committed to strong growth controls.

Dardick said Van Zant brings a cool head and intelligence to the post. Van Zant also will be a good listener, a critical skill for a person trying to manage the strong, independent-minded people who serve as supervisors, Dardick said.

Supervisor Karen Knecht has clashed with Van Zant on occasion, particularly over growth. In fact, Knecht will be the only supervisor on the new panel with no ties to the RQC. Nonetheless, Knecht is giving the new board and Van Zant, a founding member of the RQC, the benefit of the doubt.

Van Zant and Knecht may disagree, she said, and he is sometimes too impatient during board meetings. Nonetheless, the two respect each other’s opinions, Knecht said. She credited Van Zant for ably serving his philosophy and his constituents. Knecht also cited Van Zant’s ability to craft a compromise during difficult sessions when the need arises, and his enthusiasm for the chairman’s post.

“Peter has big plans … and he is very excited about being chairman,” Knecht said. “In a way, that is refreshing.”

Supervisor Rene Antonson, a former chairman who lost a re-election bid this year, offered few predictions about a Van Zant-led board. However, Antonson said Van Zant will have to listen to his fellow supervisors closely and to those who may not agree with RQC tenets.

“There are other people that don’t have an allegiance to the RQC,” Antonson said.

Outgoing Supervisor Fran Grattan, who also lost her re-election bid, could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.

Meanwhile, the new board also must elect a vice chairman, the post that usually serves as a steppingstone to the chairman’s job. Dardick said that decision will be made on Jan. 5.

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