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General Babel


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Tensions surrounding the county's General Plan Update have been simmering for, well, years now. Almost too many to count, but let's do it anyway: The planning department began updating the plan, which serves as the "constitution" governing future developments in the county, in January of 2000. That means it has now taken almost 11 years longer to update the county constitution than it took the Founding Fathers to draft the U.S. Constitution. And the end point is still too far off to pinpoint.

Recently the simmering tensions have boiled over, but not for the reasons you might suspect -- not for the seemingly interminable process or the crippled-sloth pace at which it has proceeded. No, the county has been flooded with letters, emails and phone calls -- from city councils, community service districts, chambers of commerce and citizens -- all asking that the process be stopped. Brought to a halt. Frozen in time. The City of Eureka's letter did an especially fine job of crystallizing the apparent absurdity of this request: "The GPU has outlived seven supervisors and nine planning commissioners. Our county would be better served if this [process] were put on hold pending a public review... ."

Say what? This head-scratcher of a non sequitur was subsequently copied and pasted into a number of other missives, including a template letter distributed by the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR), one of several community activist groups attempting to influence the plan.

The primary argument put forward, with remarkable consistency, in these communiqu├ęs goes as follows: In the General Plan Update process, county staff has failed to enlist the help of Community Advisory Committees, as mandated by Section 1500 of the current General Plan ("current" meaning the 1984 plan, the one that remains in effect 27 years later). By ignoring this requirement, the various letter writers claim, the county has unjustly -- perhaps even illegally -- limited public input.

On Tuesday, at a packed Board of Supervisors meeting, Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard and Senior Planner Martha Spencer responded to these accusations. After some assurances about the value of public input, Girard painstakingly led the Supes (and the overflowing crowd, likely his intended audience) through Section 1500, the chapter that suddenly has so many people up in arms.

It has been misinterpreted, he argued. The recommendation -- not mandate -- to create Community Advisory Committees applies to individual communities, not the county at large, Girard said. And the GPU process has employed just such measures, he insisted, by incorporating community plans developed years ago into the Draft General Plan.

Spencer then proceeded to recount the GPU timeline, reminding everyone exactly how much public input there has been to date: more than 300 meetings and workshops with stakeholder groups, including all the city councils and service districts; 70-plus public hearings at which 877 comments have been recorded into the record; a public survey that generated more than 350 comments; plus 538 letters submitted via snail mail or the Internet. The county regularly updates its dedicated GPU website and has more than 800 people on its GPU email list.

After chronicling these extensive outreach efforts, Spencer arrived at an unexpected conclusion: In the past year, as the draft plan has been under consideration by the Planning Commission, that torrent of communication has dried up. "We recognize that we have not gone out and spent time with our neighbors, which we believe is something that is lacking," she said.

That's giving more ground than Board Chairman Mark Lovelace was willing to concede in a phone conversation last week. "There has been just an exhaustive amount of community input that has gone into this -- really every form of public input imaginable," he said. If it seems like there's not much public involvement now it's simply because we're nearing the end of the process, he said. We've entered a more formal phase that was built upon a foundation of public perspectives.

Nonetheless, at Tuesday's meeting staff recommended a new round of outreach. Over the next few months they'll request to be heard at city council meetings and community service district hearings; they'll arrange town-hall meetings for supervisors to hear concerns directly from their constituents -- "a fresh round of community input," Girard said. "That's fundamentally the solution that we're proposing."

The meeting was then opened up to public comment, and here the true nature of this community discord was revealed. Despite explicit direction from Lovelace to limit comments to the GPU process, most speakers couldn't resist addressing the content of the draft plan. Among those who did remark on the process, a pattern emerged: Those on one side of the GPU battle -- the "smart growth" advocates, the environmental group reps, Healthy Humboldt, etc. -- were more or less happy with it. They felt their voices had been heard. The other side -- the property rights advocates, the home-builders, HumCPR, etc. -- said they'd been ignored.

As the Journal deadline approached Tuesday evening, the parade of speakers showed no sign of letting up. Still, two conclusions could be drawn from the meeting. One, the notion that a better-designed process might have alleviated the controversy surrounding the GPU -- a theory advanced by critics of the process -- is a pipe dream. This community has fundamental differences of opinion about what our future development should look like. No amount of public inclusion will bridge that gap. And two, while there are certainly valid reasons to criticize the GPU process, those crowing loudest about not being heard are motivated not by civic indignation but by ideology.


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