Bay Ball in Board's Court

Planning director opts to bypass planning commission, take bay zoning issue to supervisors



There's a showdown looming for the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, which will be asked by planning staff to temporarily expand the allowable uses of 118 properties around Humboldt Bay zoned as coastal dependent.

The staff recommendation recently came before the Planning Commission, which expressed a variety of concerns before declining, with a 5-1 vote, to back staff's recommendation to the board. That left Interim Planning Director Rob Wall with the choice of either bringing the matter back before the Planning Commission so that its members could try to reach a compromise measure they could support or taking the matter directly to the board without the commission's support. He chose the latter.

While the April 21 Planning Commission discussion was ostensibly limited to whether the commission would adopt a resolution supporting staff's recommendation to the board of supervisors, it was clear the agenda item struck to the ideological core of some commissioners' views of the bay and the county's economic future.

"Our ultimate responsibility is to the citizens of the county, and if we aren't careful here we're going to set in motion a chain of events which could very well lead to Humboldt Bay being a big, large kayak pond, as compared to being anything that could be of eventual benefit to the county 20 or 30 years down the road," said Commission Chair Bob Morris. "That's my concern with this, is that this is a very short-sighted proposal."

The question was whether to ease restrictions on the almost 1,200 acres of land around Humboldt Bay zoned coastal dependent industrial. It would allow property owners to apply for short-term permits allowing different uses — including light industrial, retail and research — on properties that have historically been restricted to industries dependent on coastal access, things like shipping, aquaculture and fish processing. County staff and other proponents of the measure feel it would help increase the economic vitality of bay front properties, noting that many property owners have complained for decades about not being able to find businesses to lease their coastal dependent properties.

County Planner Lisa Shikany, who worked for the city of Eureka and recently came out of retirement to work on this issue for the county, estimated in a staff report that just 5 percent of Humboldt's coastal dependent industrial properties are being used in that capacity. This means many are simply sitting vacant and deteriorating. Allowing for temporary uses outside the traditional scope of their zoning would allow property owners to create jobs, bring in revenue and better maintain the properties until a coastal dependent use comes along.

The staff recommendation puts a variety of protections in place, and would require the planning commission, on a project-by-project basis, to make findings that an interim use wouldn't detract from a property's long-term coastal dependent viability or conflict with current coastal dependent uses. And, even once approved, the alternate use permits would only be good for a maximum of seven years and could even be rescinded if a coastal dependent use came along for the property.

Commissioner Lee Ulansey said the requirements seem so cumbersome that he had a hard time imagining any business owner would agree to them and locate a business on one of these properties without any long-term guarantees.

As was made clear at the April 21 meeting, when three Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation commissioners spoke during public comment, the Harbor District has a special interest in this conversation. Through its much-publicized takeover of the old Samoa Pulp Mill property, the district became one of the larger holders of coastal dependent industrial land on the bay.

In a letter to the Planning Commission, Commissioner Pat Higgins explained that the district went into some debt to take over the mill site and clean up the property, which housed millions of gallons of caustic pulping liquors in failing tanks. And, Higgins said, the district recently went into further debt in order to access some $3 million in capitol to revitalize the old 72-acre mill site so it can accommodate new businesses. But now the district is struggling to meet its debt obligations and find tenants for the property that meet the coastal dependent industrial zoning restrictions.

"We need the zoning change so we can accept clients and meet our financial obligations," Higgins wrote. Higgins and others also pointed out that some existing uses on the bay — including Fox Farm Soil and Fertilizer Co. on Security National's property in Fairhaven and the historic Samoa Cookhouse — were out of compliance with the coastal dependent zoning. Creating interim uses, they said, would level the playing field and give property owners a path to compliance.

But the district is far from the only landowner struggling under the coastal dependent industrial zoning designation. In fact, it was the California Coastal Commission that ponied up $10,000 for the county to study a proposal to make better use of the coastal properties. In total, Shikany said the almost 1,200 acres is divvied up between 27 private land owners and four public agencies.

At the planning commission meeting, it quickly became apparent the issue touched a nerve in the ongoing debate over Humboldt Bay's future between those who believe big shipping is the bay's future and those who believe it's relegated to the past. Several public commenters opined that allowing alternate uses, even in the short term, was a slippery slope and one that would make the bay less attractive to the kind of big maritime industry that could bring jobs and economic vitality to the area.

When the matter came back to the commission for discussion, some commissioners, like Morris, shared this concern and expressed fear that intermediate uses might either become permanent or dissuade true coastal dependent industrial development on the bay.

Ulansey said he sees a shortage of industrially zoned properties in Eureka and thinks opening up some coastal land to light industrial uses would be positive. But he seemed to defer to the balance of the board, and asked if, in the interest of compromise, it would be possible to keep some coastal dependent zoned properties under that designation while loosening restrictions on others. The commission discussed this option for a bit, inquiring about whether it would be possible to exempt properties with docks — including the old pulp mill site — from the change, while allowing interim uses elsewhere.

Staff responded that it would be possible, but it couldn't be arbitrary — staff would have to come up with some data-driven reason for exempting certain properties but not others. In an interesting twist, Commission Noah Levy then — in the "interest of time and testing the waters" — moved staff's recommendation to pursue a vote. It failed decisively, 1-5, with only Levy in favor and Commissioner Ben Shepherd absent.

The commission then looked to vote on a modified motion more in line with the compromise some had suggested, but county counsel advised the agenda item had already been voted on and it couldn't now be modified and voted on again. With that, Ulansey asked that staff come back at a future meeting with some of the compromise options the commission had discussed.

But before the commission moved on, Commissioner Dave Edmonds asked for a point of clarification. This agenda item was seeking a recommendation from the commission, he pointed out, and couldn't staff just opt to bypass the commission and go to the board of supervisors, the ultimate authority on the issue?

That put the ball in the planning director's hands. He's made his move, and in the coming weeks, he'll pass it off to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.


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