Yielding to massive public pressure, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors backed off from a giant re-zoning effort Jan. 15 and instead adopted a go-slow planning process that could take up to two years to implement.
The previous plan, which involved re-zoning thousands of parcels with minimal notice to the public, had evoked hours of angry public testimony and an implied threat of a lawsuit from the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District.
In contrast, the new strategy involves a series of community planning meetings, with a special emphasis given to the McKinleyville, Blue Lake, Glendale and Willow Creek areas. The Planning and Building Department will be tasked with publicizing these meetings beforehand, which will include the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Council, the Blue Lake Rancheria and several community service districts.
"I want to thank the board for taking the time ... and I want to commend the staff for what they've done here," said Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone. "I think it's been very responsive to the community's concerns. ... There's a lot of people who have come out to these hearings and asked that they be given a chance to engage. I think you've done that."
The Mercer-Fraser Co. gravel mining site in Glendale — a catalyst for much of the controversy over the zoning changes — will remain as ag land for the time being, to the relief of the many who had expressed concerns about the potential for contamination of the water district's Mad River intake wells, which provide the vast majority of the region's drinking water.
The upcoming planning meetings are slated to be interactive, rather than top-down, involving feedback from community leaders and residents alike. If necessary, portions of the updated General Plan could be changed, according to the staff report produced by the Planning and Building Department.
The planning department will also hold public meetings with the city councils of Blue Lake, Arcata, Eureka, Fortuna, Rio Dell and Trinidad, which have expressed concerns about the proposed changes over the last several months, as well as development in areas just outside their limits, legally defined as being within the cities' "spheres of influence."
The planners are also open to meeting with rural residents who already live within the boundaries of existing community area plans — most of which are decades old — but outside of incorporated cities, such as those created for Jacoby Creek, Trinidad/Westhaven and locations near Fortuna.
In addition, other, more generally-themed public hearings will occur. The first — planned for next month — will cover the language of the zoning amendments, explaining what terms such as "Timber Exclusive" and "Q-zone" mean. Another such meeting later in the spring will discuss proposed map changes for parcels outside of the focused community area plans.
The new planning strategy seemed to evoke a collective sigh of relief from both the supervisors and the general public, with the words "applaud," "thank" and "support" being frequently said. A few concerns, however, still existed.
Martha Spencer, a former county planner who is now with Food, Fibers and Flowers, an organization that represents small-market farmers, said she supported "slowing down the process."
"We're concerned about the many 'Unclassified' re-zonings that will occur," she told the supervisors earlier this month. "We want people to understand what's happening and what their rights are with their properties."
Spencer noted that open space policies and protecting ag lands were a particular priority, while also stating that neighbors of properties with zoning changes need to be notified because "it can be a concern."
Along similar lines, a Fieldbrook resident was worried that changes in timberland zoning would bring unwanted development to her neighborhood.
"One of the 100-acre parcels that they're looking at, Green Diamond is interested in making it a 5-acre parcel change, and that's my back yard," she said.
Tina Christiansen, representing the Humboldt Association of Realtors, said she thought that the update process had gone on quite long enough.
"I have spent 15 years on this General Plan," she said. "I hear voices from the future and voices from the past that both understand we went through a very intense process. ... To change that process now, I think that we need to look into this, we need to have a voice in this, and we will."
With a brief motion by Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell, with Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson noting, "I think that just about covers everything," Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
The supervisors then approved three individual re-zoning requests, which were generally regarded as non-controversial, including one for the Redwoods Rural Health Center and another for the Save the Redwoods League.
Supervisors also selected a new at-large member of the Planning Commission to replace David Edmonds, who had resigned. Melanie McCavour, an environmental consultant and lecturer at Humboldt State University, was selected for the job.
She was competing with a long list of other applicants, including current Fifth District Commissioner Ben Shepherd, who expects to be replaced soon. McCavour is currently on the Arcata Planning Commission, but will resign that post to serve the county.
At the end of the day, McKinleyville resident Twyla Sanchez summed up what many other speakers had said about the decision to slow down the zoning process.
"I was very excited to hear that we were heard at the supervisors' meeting, and the planning commission folks heard the community, because so many times you feel like you're not heard," Sanchez said. "You heard us. Thank you."
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.