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Groupthink

Everyone’s applauding the new general plan alliance, but what’s being lost?

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Over the past few months, Humboldt County's on-and-on-and-ongoing general plan update process has taken on a tenor that's practically unprecedented in its 13-year history: harmony. This is a community with passionate disagreements over zoning and land use, with one faction advocating private property rights and laissez-faire regulation while the other promotes smart growth and sustainability. And so updating the general plan -- the document that will guide land use decisions in the unincorporated parts of the county for the next two decades -- has at times resembled trench warfare.

But that's all changed thanks to an alliance so unlikely that a couple months back we half-jokingly called it a sign of the apocalypse. Known simply as the General Plan Update Ad Hoc Working Group, the informal committee has brought homebuilders, realtors and developers together with staunch environmentalists and trail advocates. With a membership of about 15 (it fluctuates), the group has been gathering privately since November to pore over the minutia of the planning commission's draft of the general plan, and it has presented the county board of supervisors with its own policy recommendations. (Wherever the group couldn't reach a consensus it presented two options.)

So far the ad hoc group has worked its way through just one of the general plan's 11 elements: circulation, which addresses transportation facilities such as roads, rails, trails and airports. Supervisors and staff have shown the group a remarkable amount of gratitude -- and deference. At the last few supervisors' meetings on the general plan update, the ad hoc group's recommendations have been presented side-by-side with the planning commission's draft language. And in straw vote after straw vote the supervisors have unanimously chosen to adopt the ad hoc group's wording.

This is a tremendous amount of influence over public policy for a group whose members are not elected, appointed or even vetted by the board of supervisors, and whose meetings are held in private.

In a recent phone interview, ad hoc group member Bob Higgons, who also represents the Humboldt Association of Realtors, would talk about the group's activities only in the most general terms. He explained (somewhat apologetically) that with such a combustible mix of ideologies, the group dynamic is delicate. Discretion is necessary, he said, "in order to preserve the collaborative nature of the group." He wouldn't even say where their meetings take place.

At the board's request the group has agreed to continue in its advisory capacity for other, more contentious elements of the general plan update, such as water resources and land use. Is the secrecy and lack of accountability cause for concern?

"I don't have a problem with it," said Board Chair Ryan Sundberg. He argued that the group is merely refining the planning commission's draft, which incorporated input from more than 1,000 people and hundreds of public meetings. And he feels that the newfound spirit of collaboration between opposing groups deserves respect. Members include Lee Ulansey, chairman of the developer-friendly Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights, along with Jen Kalt and Dan Ehresman, who represent the environment-friendly Healthy Humboldt Coalition. Both groups were formed specifically to influence the general plan update, from opposite ends of the spectrum. Now their leaders are working together.

"People have said it over and over that probably 85-90 percent of the comments we've gotten [on the general plan update] have come from the people who are involved in this group," Sundberg said. "So it holds a lot of weight."

Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said that he appreciates the group's work, too, though he pointed out that it hasn't really changed much. Not yet, anyway. "They're putting the same thing in different words." To Lovelace this suggests that the original process -- the one that resulted in the planning commission's draft plan -- was fundamentally good.

But he worries that as the process continues down this detour, people might lose sight of the guiding principles. These include focusing development mostly (though not exclusively) in urban areas served by existing infrastructure. "It's getting harder to figure out what the vision is behind the general plan," he said.

The ad hoc group has taken pains to avoid being seen as a shady special interest. In a series of press statements, as well as in comments to the board, representatives have made assurances. "We want to clarify that the only intent of the working group is to coalesce and streamline input on the general plan update to the board of supervisors from key stakeholder groups," the group declared in a recent statement.

Of course, that was also the intent of the planning commission. Last year the board of supervisors was scheduled to review the planning commission's draft and adopt a final plan before the year was out. But the draft plan proved controversial among developers and property rights advocates, who argued that their voices hadn't been heard.

In the fall, Sundberg and fellow supervisors Rex Bohn and Virginia Bass put the brakes on the process. They expressed reservations about the draft plan's complexity, size and content and called for yet more community input.

"I thought we were going to be done in September," Senior Planner Martha Spencer said last week. "And having this ad hoc group complicates it because we had a fairly tight schedule and now that's kind of blown. That's out the window. "

Ehresman, who was recently named executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, said that while the group is diverse it does not claim to represent the entirety of public opinion. "I would very much encourage other folks ... to weigh in with their perspective," he said. What the group has done is defuse tension by getting people "to have a mindful discussion rather than lobbing grenades," Ehresman added.

In some cases, fights have been avoided by sidestepping hot-button language. For example, at the Jan. 14 meeting the group recommendations included changing the name of one policy item from "Orderly Development" to "Circulation System" and crossing out a reference to "an orderly pattern of land use." This sparked some head-scratching and a brief debate among supervisors, with Lovelace saying "orderly development" is the whole point of planning while Bohn argued that development should be "market-driven." (Ultimately, all five supes agreed that removing the words in this particular item didn't change its meaning, so they approved the changes and moved on.)

The group's input may be peaceful, but it's not fast. It took more than two months to work through the circulation element, and while staff and supervisors have repeatedly thanked its members for their efforts, some are worried that their ideas could further muddle and prolong the already unwieldy update process.

The group's latest and most enthusiastic proposal was for a countywide transportation plan, a new document that would clarify development guidelines for roads and streets. "To date, it is the group's biggest priority," it declared in a statement. But is a new document necessary, or even helpful?

Staff was diplomatic but concerned. "We are very enthusiastically supporting this. We think it's a good idea," enthused Spencer at the Jan. 28 meeting. But at the same time, she said, the plan might duplicate work that rightfully belongs in the circulation element. It might also be putting the cart before the horse since you can't properly plan transportation routes until you know what population densities are planned, and that's something that will be spelled out in the general plan. Isn't that what staff should be spending its time on?

Kevin Hamblin, the county's new director of planning and building, agreed. "Even if things went well [the ad hoc group's transportation plan] would probably hold us back at least until September 2014," he said.

Group member Jen Rice, who works as director of community strategies for the Humboldt Area Foundation, stepped up to the lectern and said that the group envisioned a consultant team developing the transportation plan, rather than county staff. But there's currently no such team and no funding to hire one.

Lovelace said that with the current pace of the general plan update, "I don't see any reason to expect that we won't still be working on it a year from now. I seriously hope that I'm wrong."

The group recently announced that it plans to hire a facilitator to help streamline its work. The next element it plans to make suggestions on is infrastructure, but it asked the board to skip ahead to the noise element at the next general plan meeting, on Feb. 11, because it needs more time.

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