Supes to Planning Commission: “MYOB”


Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg will draft a letter telling the Planning Commission not to go rogue on agenda topics. - FILE
  • File
  • Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg will draft a letter telling the Planning Commission not to go rogue on agenda topics.
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors took a remarkable step last week: It’s going to tell planning commissioners they have to ask permission to discuss matters that the commission isn’t mandated to take up.

That may sound unremarkable, but it plays into a strange power dynamic in place for years and stands as a rebuke of a planning commission that’s gone, some would say, above and beyond.

On May 24, the board voted 4-1, with 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn dissenting, to have 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg draft a letter spelling out the planning commission’s role. Specifically, the letter is expected to tell the commission it will not be allowed to put items on its agenda except for those required by statute: things like project approvals that are routine functions of the commission.

If the commission wants to discuss something beyond that, it will first need board approval. This is a direct response to a number of recent incidents that were apparently perceived as commission overreach.

Sundberg raised the discussion item, first saying during the meeting that he was simply seeking clarification, and had no intention to “demean” the planning commission. But it soon came out that the action was a response to a series of events that played out at the commission’s May 5 meeting.

The board agenda item spelled it out best: “... Three items were on the [commission] agenda that had not been directed by the board. First, was an Ad Hoc committee report, second was a presentation by Public Works on the Traffic Impact Fees, and third, the consideration of a limit or moratorium on cannabis manufacturing facilities. Because these items did not come from staff as required by statute, there was no written report or any accompanying material. Also, the last two items were voted on by the commission with no mechanism to come to the board of supervisors.”

That agenda item about cannabis manufacturers apparently caused quite a stir (though it should be no surprise in these days that the words “cannabis” and “moratorium” prompt a big turnout in the halls of local government). Planning Commissioner Ben Shepherd, the only commissioner to speak during the supes meeting, said about 30 agitated people showed up to the meeting concerned both about the moratorium and the traffic impact fee. (It should also be pointed out that the traffic impact fee is a public works issue — not a planning department issue.)

But the board of supervisors had not discussed a moratorium on manufacturing; so the planning commission had no reports from staff and couldn’t legally take any action (having not been directed by the board to do so). There was apparently much confusion on the part of the public that showed up for the meeting. How did the community get the idea that the planning commission might do something substantive about a moratorium or traffic impact fee?

Here’s the agenda item from that day’s meeting (emphasis ours):

“8. Presentation from the Department of Public Works regarding the Traffic Impact Fee. Discussion and possible action. 9. Consideration of a limit or moratorium on cannabis manufacturing facilities. Discussion and possible action.”

The commission took no action, choosing at the end of its discussion to continue the item until its next meeting in July.

“So a bunch of people came to see an item [the planning commission] couldn’t make a decision on, first of all, but the item got dropped off,” Sundberg said in the May 24 meeting.

The supervisors also discussed the planning commission’s ad hoc committee, which was formed after an outpouring of frustration from the planning commission’s work on the county’s medical marijuana cultivation ordinance last fall. To recap: The supes asked the commission to review the staff-drafted ordinance, which had an extremely tight deadline. The commission went into full gear, holding special meeting after special meeting to discuss the ordinance and recommend revisions. But most of those recommendations went ignored when the planning staff took its amended ordinance back to the board (which eventually passed it into law); this angered planning commissioners so much that, in January, they threatened a vote of no confidence in planning staff. Despite the best efforts of commission Chair Robert Morris, the confidence vote was derailed — in a bit of irony — by the fact it had not appeared on that meeting’s agenda.

The commission later decided to form an ad-hoc committee to work with planning staff to “facilitate a better working relationship between the staff and the commission moving forward,” we reported in January.

Tensions between the planning staff and planning commission have gone back to well before much of the generally pro-development commission was appointed. And that tension plays into the aforementioned power dynamic between the board and the commission. Lee Ulansey, founder of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights, has played an active role in funding the elections of four of the sitting supervisors: Virginia Bass, Sundberg, Estelle Fennell and Bohn. The latter, the only supervisor to vote against clarifying the commision’s role, benefitted from a Ulansey-co-hosted, $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner held earlier this year.

Since taking office, those supervisors have overseen the appointment of Ulansey, Morris and other planning commissioners that have taken to reworkings of the general plan update and other key, philosophically polarizing issues facing the county.

But even the commission’s ad-hoc attempt to reach across the aisle seems to have muddied things, in part because the planning commission has no staff. As County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck explained at the supervisors meeting, the county staff works at the direction of the board — as does the planning commission. “The planning commission can’t direct staff to do things,” he said.

Which is why the planning commission is basically going blind into non-statutory discussions: they have no staff report, cannot ask the staff to do anything, and can’t make an official recommendation to the board of supervisors. “It’s just a little bit of cart and horse,” Blanck said.

In a conversation after the meeting, Blanck said the Planning Commission does have wide discretion to bring up matters relating to land use, including the GPU and zoning, but it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to agendize other county matters. The traffic impact fee — a public works matter — was not something the commission should have taken up, Blanck said.

Bass, who represents the county's 4th District, said she had reached out to other counties and found that some were concerned about “the risk of [the planning commission] acting as an elected [body], … [with] a policy driven agenda.”

Bohn didn’t seem to have an issue with that. “They’re appointed because of their knowledge and their ideas,” he said.

But the rest of the supervisors voted to approve a motion that will see Sundberg draft a letter spelling out planning commission procedures, limiting them to items required by statute or those requested by the board of supervisors. Anyone, including supervisors, commissioners or members of the public, can suggest possible agenda items. At a supervisor’s request, the board will discuss it, and if three agree they’d like the planning commission to review an item, they’ll direct the commission to do so.

Blanck said the action won’t change any rules — it simply serves as a formal reminder of the laws that already govern planning commission authority.

Shepherd, the sole planning commissioner to speak, said the direction would help both the public and himself to have a clear understanding of the role of the commission.

The board of supervisors is expected to discuss the letter again later this month. 

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