Shortly after the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors convenes in the New Year, it will face a massive and controversial package of zoning changes that will bring new land use designations to almost 500,000 acres throughout the county, after board discussions on the matter stalled Dec. 11.
That meeting saw more than 50 members of the public speak in opposition to the proposal, discussion of which began at 10:30 a.m. and stretched into the midafternoon, with only a 15-minute break. Much of that time was spent discussing changes to a single set of parcels on the banks of the Mad River close to the intake wells of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District. But other areas of contention arose, as well.
Clearly frustrated with some of the public comment, some of the supervisors said that the proposed land use designation changes had already been made last October when the board approved the county's General Plan Update. The proposed zoning changes are a formality, they said. Judging from their comments, the public wasn't buying it.
By 10 a.m., the supervisors chamber was packed with a long line of people standing in the back and extending out the door. Even four and a half hours into the meeting, the room remained half full.
Proposed changes to the zoning ordinance — which came before the board Dec. 11 and are slated to return Jan. 15 — consist of adding five new principal zones (Mixed Use-Urban; Mixed Use-Rural; Public Resource and Recreation; Timberland Exclusive; and Tribal Land); two new combining zones (Mineral Resources and Railroad), amending an existing combining zone (Special Building Site) and applying Airport Land Use Compatibility Zones around the county's seven airports. Nearly half a million acres of previously "Unclassified" property would receive new zoning designations under the proposal and additionlly, an undisclosed number of properties all over the county would have their zones changed to designations that the planners think corresponded more closely to the new General Plan.
However, the Dec. 11 staff report on the proposal seemed to omit important questions or glance over them peripherally. The total number of parcels that will see zoning changed remains unclear and members of the public also seemed confused as to the difference between land use designations and zoning regulations. Land use designations are broad categories of potential uses under the General Plan, while zoning classifications are highly specific and codified through a county ordinance.
The information presented and discussed Dec. 11 is complex and it seemed many members of the public had a difficult time understanding the ramifications of what was being proposed. Each land use designated through the updated General Plan has multiple principal zones associated with it that could be applied to the properties. This is illustrated in a tightly packed, page-long grid linked to the staff report. In addition, the principal zones can be further changed under the "combining zones." (The color key on the side of the county's online GIS map showed 26 colors, some of which were so similar that it would take an artist's eye to decipher the differences.)
It's also unclear to what extent the county has notified landowners of what's being proposed. The General Plan Update process spanned nearly 20 years. If property owners did receive notification about changes in land use designation, how many years ago did they receive them? Having heard complaints from some landowners who said they weren't notified of potential changes, the Journal asked county Planning Director John Ford how many property owners had received notification letters about proposed new land use designations and proposed changes in the zoning of their properties, as well as when the letters had been sent. As of press time, no answer was received.
Some members of the public seemed hopeful that the General Plan Update could be modified after the fact. While the planners responded that the plan is a living document that can be modified as needed, it's also up to individual landowners to cover the costs of requested changes, which can run thousands of dollars.
It was evident at the meeting that there is a lot of confusion about the process and its potential impacts. How many new homes could potentially be built in Humboldt County as a result of the new zoning regulations? Where will these be located? In forest lands? On prime agricultural lands? Will insurance companies refuse to cover homes they believe are at high risk from wildfires? Who will provide and pay for the infrastructure to service these homes? What effect will it have upon fire safety, groundwater, the health of the rivers? How does this all tie in with the burgeoning cannabis industry?
Amid all the questions, many people complained they were confused about what was going on.
In an apparent effort to streamline and simplify the process, board Chair Ryan Sundberg asked his fellow supervisors to pull out the two items on which he had received the most input — proposed zoning changes for Mercer-Fraser Co.'s property along the Mad River and another to re-zone the golf course in Willow Creek. Sundberg hoped that if discussion on those two items could occur first, the board could devote most of its time to the remaining items. However, these items were precisely what interested the majority of the public in attendance.
Several times during the meeting, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson requested that his district be excluded from the re-zoning process until its residents had time to hold community meetings and provide their input into the planning process. His colleagues on the board did not respond to the requests. Residents of Sundberg's Fifth District, including Supervisor-elect Steve Madrone, also requested that their district be excluded from the re-zoning process, citing the same reason.
There was a near universal sentiment among public speakers that they wanted to see community plans developed before wholesale zoning changes are made.
The board discussed the proposed re-zoning of the Bigfoot Golf and Country Club in Willow Creek. Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass recused herself from the discussion because of a conflict of interest. Willow Creek residents expressed concern that, if re-zoned, the land might be used for cannabis cultivation or cannabis tourism, and also that a low-income mobile home park presently existing on the property would be removed.
Eventually, the board voted to leave the zoning for the golf course unchanged 3-1, with Wilson dissenting, saying that all communities should have a chance to discuss the proposed changes in more depth before the board takes action.
The much-discussed Mercer-Fraser property on the Mad River was next on the list and it soon became clear it was what brought a majority of the audience to the meeting. The property has a vested right to do gravel mining but it has also at various times hosted a mobile asphalt plant and the question arose as to whether that use was also vested.
"Just because there has been a previous use doesn't mean it is good planning for the future," said Wilson. "We shouldn't vest things because unpermitted uses have occurred in the past."
Mercer-Fraser was also pursuing a cannabis manufacturing permit for the property but, in a surprise move, withdrew the permit application during the board's Dec. 5 meeting in the face of widespread public opposition.
For nearly three hours on Dec. 11, members of the public pointed out that the Mercer-Fraser property could not be treated separately from other riverside properties, which were also slated for heavy industrial zoning. Four directors of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District spoke along with the district's civil engineer and attorney Leslie Walker from Thomas Law Group.
All pointed out that the stated mission of the water district was to protect the health of the 88,000 users who drank its water and that this mission was endangered by the proposed zoning change. Walker also alleged that, due to an error in public notification, any zoning change to the property that day would violate state law.
Justin Lee of the National Marine Fisheries Service said that his agency was concerned about the effect of the re-zoning upon federally listed endangered salmonid species that use the river.
Fisheries biologist Ross Taylor pointed out that case law had found counties and states liable if bad zoning and permitting decisions resulted in the deaths of endangered species. He also pointed out that the zoning contradicted provisions of a flood ordinance previously passed by the board.
The discussion about the Mad River, its floodplain and its proposed industrial zoning went on for hours with the board ultimately leaving the proposed Mercer-Fraser change undecided. Other members of the public became impatient, noting that all aspects of the zoning changes were supposed to have been discussed at 10 a.m. Even Ford worried that the legally required public noticing for the meeting was no longer accurate because of this lapse in scheduling.
Several community members complained that existing community plans — one for McKinleyville, another for Fieldbrook — and a visioning statement for Glendale had been ignored in creating the General Plan Update.
Patrick O'Brien of Willow Creek summed up the feelings of many of the audience members. If the meaning of terms such as Q-zones and Agricultural Exclusive were not crystal clear, there had not been enough outreach to the public, he said. The board has two years to create an ordinance to implement its general plan, he said, so what was the rush?
After the last member of the public had spoken — by now well after 2 p.m., the supervisors tried to figure out what to do next. After much discussion, Wilson and Bass created a motion. (Technically, Wilson created a long, complicated motion, Bass seconded it and then simplified it and re-stated it).
Planning staff is to bring back a strategy encompassing all that the board had talked about that day and to see how the ordinance can move forward. The matter was to be continued to Jan. 15.
The motion carried unanimously.
Elaine Weinreb is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.