If the Fifth Supervisorial District, profiled in last week's issue, is the most rural and expansive part of the county, then the Fourth District is the most urban and compact. The district takes in part of the Samoa Peninsula (Samoa and Fairhaven) but the great bulk of its population lives in and around the city of Eureka -- the capital of the region, and a city in political and economic flux.
Bonnie Neely, the six-term incumbent, will face two challengers on the June 8 ballot -- Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass and Eureka City Councilmember Jeff Leonard. (If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in June, there will be a runoff election between the two top vote-getters in November.) It will likely be the hardest-fought race in the current election cycle, not only because Eureka is what it is but because there is arguably more at stake in this contest than any other.
In California, the single greatest power given to local jurisdictions is the ability to regulate the use of land: zoning. The state's 58 counties are charged with carrying out all sorts of state-mandated programs -- providing a police force, social services and a public health office, for example -- but the counties aren't given a whole lot of latitude in undertaking these chores. On the other hand, they have extraordinary power to map out what broad types of economic activity may occur on any given square inch of land within their borders. (Except on land within the limits of an incorporated city, in which case that power is maintained by that city council.)
In Humboldt County, this power extends to somewhere around 4,000 square miles of immensely various and valuable landscapes -- old-growth redwood forests, prime agricultural land, suburban tract housing and strip malls, prime seafront housing and more. So the position of Humboldt County Supervisor -- one member of a board of five that usually gets the final regulatory call on what owners of these properties may do with them -- is a powerful one. But the next Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will, in this regard, be much more powerful than the average board. That's because the next Board of Supervisors will decide and pass the next Humboldt County General Plan, which will serve as the blueprint for all land use decisions within the next 20 years or so. General plans -- often described as a "Constitution" for land use decisions -- may bestow rights upon land owners, or may sometimes take them away. The current revision of the Humboldt County General Plan has been in draft form for a decade, in part because Humboldt County has been deeply divided over the preservation of agricultural and timber land, suburban development, sprawl and a host of other issues.
The county's land use powers are not absolute, of course. Land owners themselves maintain some constitutional rights to their land (though often not as many as they would like), and a host of state and federal agencies may also weigh in on proposed development. Among the most powerful of these is the California Coastal Commission, which Neely chairs (after being appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger). The commission has the ability to veto development projects near the coast. Late last year it agreed to hear an appeal on the Marina Center -- the Home Depot-anchored development that local businessman Rob Arkley has applied to build next to Old Town. The Eureka City Council began permitting work on the project last year; Neely's Coastal Commission has since placed it in limbo.
These are the main reasons that the county's political classes have taken such a deep interest in the Fourth District Supervisor race. In addition to her insufficient zeal for the Marina Center, Neely is seen as perhaps the board's most capable advocate of a "smart growth" focus for the general plan, which would emphasize that new development in the county take place around already existing communities. Broadly speaking, developers, Marina Center proponents and advocates of property rights have mostly lined up behind one of Neely's opponents, Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass, while environmentalists, Marina Center opponents and other left-leaning community leaders are supporting Neely. Meanwhile, Leonard is running a grassroots campaign that hopes to bypass or transcend this political divide.
Land use, of course, is not the only discretionary power held by a county Board of Supervisors. But Humboldt County is unusual in that it maintains a $22 million fund aimed at promoting economic development in the region -- the so-called "Headwaters Fund," given to the county by the state of California and the federal government when those two entities bought and preserved the Headwaters Forest, which up until 1999 was the largest stand of old-growth redwood still in private hands. The Headwaters Fund was intended to offset the economic hit to the county that would result in the removal of the forest from active timber production. The county has since spent the money on a variety of local projects, their decisions guided by the so-called "Prosperity" economic development strategy. (See "Spending Headwaters," Jan. 15, 2009, for an overview of the fund and its first decade of work.)
The Journal spoke with each of the candidates for Fourth District Supervisor last week. Because the Board of Supervisors has real, definable and consequential powers concerning land use and economic development, most of what we asked had to do with those two topics.
As she did in her successful run for the mayorship of Eureka four years ago, Virginia Bass, 48, pitches herself as someone who can bring people together. In an interview at Ramone's in Old Town last Wednesday, she presented an almost philosophical case for her candidacy: The voters' number one concern these days is for jobs, she said, and if we want to see movement in that direction we're going to have to change our attitude.
"I think that what needs to be changed is how we look at where we're going for our economic future," she said. "I think we have to bring an open mind, bring diverse viewpoints together and find what works for this community."
Bass said she is concerned that Humboldt County has developed a poor reputation among the business community, particularly among outside investors. When asked for specific examples, she cited the city's 2003-2004 talks with the energy company Calpine to build a liquefied natural gas plant on Humboldt Bay; negotiations around the plant disintegrated after a town hall meeting on the proposal, at which many residents expressed strong criticism or condemnation of the project. (Calpine itself went bankrupt shortly afterward.) Bass also mentioned another proposal from roughly the same period, in which a private firm proposed to transport water from the Mad River to Southern California in massive bags pulled by tugboat.
Those episodes, she said, left a bad taste in the mouths of both outside investors and locals concerned about jobs. One of her principal goals as supervisor would be to work to change that impression. "Say a business wants to come here," she said. "I truly believe we need to give them a full, fair hearing before sending them off." Neither Calpine nor the water bag may have been right for the county, ultimately, but Bass says that neither got a fair shake. She said that she would like the county to develop, in cooperation with other local entities, something she called a "rapid response" team to field inquiries from outside investors who might be considering doing business in the county.
Bass had no specific criticism of the Headwaters Fund or the "Prosperity!" economic development strategy, which emphasizes fostering the development of local industry rather than attracting outside investors. But she did say that growth from inside was not everything: Prosperity "needs to be part of a bigger picture," she said. "When you talk about the economic engine that runs this community, we're in a real downturn. I think timber is making a resurgence, to some extent ... fishing is having some challenges. But we haven't been able to bring anything in."
This aspirational approach informs Bass' ideas about the general plan as well. In a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Healthy Humboldt Coalition a couple of weeks ago, Bass said that she supported the idea of preserving working agricultural and timber lands. When asked about this position in the interview, though, she expressed qualms about the standard way to go about that, a subject that has been at the heart of much friction in early drafts of the new general plan -- tighter regulatory limits on the subdivision of ag and timber parcels.
"I haven't really thought in detail about that," she said. "I'll be honest with you. But I think it's bad news when you change the rules on people in the middle of the game. In that respect -- and though I think there's part of each sketch plan that makes sense -- when it comes to property rights, I don't like changing the rules in the middle of the game." Instead, she said that she would prefer to protect working lands by doing everything in government's power to assure that there is still a market for products produced on those lands.
Likewise, Bass said that she does not like the idea of "inclusionary zoning" -- a clause recently written into the general plan that would require developers of subdivisions to build a certain percentage of homes affordable to people of lower incomes. Such a policy, she said, amounted to an "unfunded mandate."
Finally, Bass said that she felt that Neely has not adequately represented the interests of the city of Eureka. She cited the Coastal Commission's decision to hear the Marina Center appeal as an example. "It's very frustrating for the city to go through the process we did, and the meetings we did, and the public hearings we did, and make a decision that we felt was reasonable, and then go back to this point where we have it taken out of our hands," she said. She said that it was a shame that the first phase of the project -- an environmental cleanup of the site -- was now in limbo, when getting going on the project now would put union people to work.
In some ways, Jeff Leonard's campaign is running perpendicular to those of his opponents. Unlike Bass, he emphasizes the practical rather than the philosophical; unlike Neely, he is relatively uninterested in the general plan and the fate of the county's unincorporated areas. (In other words, the areas over which the county technically has jurisdiction.) One of his slogans is that he would "put Eureka back on the Board of Supervisors," and he charges that in recent years Neely has become more interested in policy issues at the county or state level than the problems facing her constituents, the bulk of whom live in the Eureka city limits or its immediate environs.
"I feel like if you were doing a good job of being Eureka's supervisor, you'd be at more neighborhood meetings," said Leonard, a 45-year-old who has served eight years on the Eureka City Council. "You'd be at more City Council meetings. You would develop relationships with everyone on the Council. You're the full-time person, so try to help them address some of the problems they face."
The fact that members of the Board of Supervisors are paid a full-time salary, while members of the Eureka City Council are only part-timers, is a key refrain of Leonard's campaign. And since the Fourth District is made up overwhelmingly of residents of the city of Eureka, he says, the supervisor representing that district should be focusing most of its efforts on problems facing Eureka, despite the fact that the county has direct, statutory powers only in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Perhaps as a direct consequence of this position, Leonard said he was not overly concerned with the general plan, except for the fact that it has taken far too much time to develop. "Policy makers need to be focused first on implementation -- let's get it done," he said. "I hate to see policy makers get too tangled up in the world of planning, because then we spend all our time talking about 'Oh, wouldn't that be a great plan.' But then there's no change." He said that the board should pass the draft general plan quickly -- he prefers the middle-of-the-road "Option B" sketch of the general plan, which focuses most development in existing towns but still allows for some latitude while building in the hinterlands -- but charges that the great debate around the plan doesn't really mean that much to average citizens of urban Eureka. As such, he charged, it should not be a priority for the supervisor from the Fourth District.
Like Bass, Leonard said that the preservation of agricultural land has to have a solid foundation in the marketplace. "The Farmers' Markets all over the county -- that's done more to preserve agriculture than almost anything," he said, adding that he would like the Eureka Farmer's Market to expand to match the size of Arcata's.
Leonard said that he is a strong supporter of Prosperity, but he agrees with Bass that the county could do more to reach out to outside investors. As an example, he cited Pacific Gas & Electric's WaveConnect program, which seeks to produce electricity through the movement of the tides. PG&E has picked the Humboldt County coastline as a location for its pilot project, and if the program proves successful the county would likely remain the home base for similar projects up and down the coast. His only critique of the Headwaters Fund was that he would like to see the county develop a better system of tracking the effectiveness of public dollars spent on specific economic development projects.
But most of Leonard's economic platform involves getting the ball rolling. He is a strong supporter of both trail development and the Marina Center project -- which, if nothing else, underlines his estrangement from any sort of established political base in the county. The two things may have little in common, except when you look at them through Leonard's lenses: They are both projects that have languished too long, in his view.
Like Bass, he is upset that the Coastal Commission agreed to hear the appeal on the Marina Center site -- in this case, because it delayed the environmental cleanup of the site, and the economic boost that it would bring. "I still believe we really had it set up in a great spot," he said, speaking of the City Council's work to approve the Marina Center project in stages. "The total cleanup -- the environmental planning and testing and regulatory work -- you're talking about a $10 million chunk of work. We were in a position to get a majority of that done without ever issuing a building permit."
When Bonnie Neely met with the Journal at World Cup cafe Friday, she demonstrated again why she has held her position on the board for 24 years -- she has a great relish for the bureaucratic details of the job, and an easy familiarity with the minutiae of county policy. Her opponents might fault her decisions on the Board of Supervisors or at the Coastal Commission, but few doubt her mastery of government and the political process. These days there's something like a cottage industry of people working against the general plan, or for the Marina Center, and Neely is the number one target of their efforts.
She is aware of this fact, but she is quick to downplay it. "It's the same people with different names -- whether it's the HELP group that fights the policies in the general plan, or HumboldtCPR, which does some of the same things," she said. "They've never really been on my team. I don't think they'll be looking at Options A or B in the general plan. They'll probably be looking for anything-goes, or the status quo, and I think most people in Humboldt County want a plan that will serve us for the next 20 or 30 years."
Neely mentioned a few different reasons that she supports a strong element of smart growth, or "infill development," in the general plan. For one, she said, planning for new growth in or adjacent to existing developed areas assures that services like water, sewage and emergency response will be available to those new residents. For another, she said that she was a strong supporter of the timber industry, and that loss of timber lands to development would eat away at a cornerstone of the local economy. "Land use decisions determine what your jobs will be," she said. "If you convert all your lands for one purpose -- for retail development, say -- then you're going to have retail jobs, and retail jobs aren't the best paying jobs."
As this would indicate, Neely believes that government plays -- and should play -- a more direct role in economic development than her opponents might feel comfortable with. She touts not only her role in establishing the Headwaters Fund -- she testified before Congress to argue for the federal monies that paid for half of the original fund -- but for subsequent applications for funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the so-called "stimulus funds") for job training in the county. The Prosperity strategy, she said, has been absolutely the correct one, mentioning recent county-funded job creation and retention programs like the promotion of Humboldt's grass-fed beef industry.
"That's how Prosperity works for us," she said. "We take what's here -- people are used to the issues here, they've chosen this place to live, and they make productive businesses. Grass-fed beef, Sun Valley Floral Farms -- those are the types of industries that employ a lot of people here."
The current hold-up with the Marina Center, Neely said, was that another state agency -- the State Lands Commission -- is currently asserting that it maintains some ownership rights to the site. When Neely voted along with the majority of the Coastal Commission board to hear the appeal, she asked staff members to schedule a hearing at the earliest opportunity; but the process has been delayed by the fact that the applicant has not cleared this outstanding issue with the Lands Commission. (Both the Coastal Commission and the Lands Commission raised these objections with the City of Eureka before the city gave the go-ahead to the project.) "If the city of Eureka was interested in supporting a project on the site, they also could have cleared title with the State Lands Commission," Neely said. "Those were steps local government could have taken to get the site ready for whoever." In fact, Neely said, the county offered $50,000 of Headwaters Fund money to help fund such regulatory work; the city applied for and accepted the money, then promptly sent it back two weeks later when it was discovered that Arkley had taken title to the site. (See "Blown Off Course," Nov. 4, 2004, for more on this episode.)
Neely took strong issue with Leonard's position that she has not adequately represented the city of Eureka on the Board of Supervisors. She pointed to her work as founder of the Redwood Coast Jazz Festival and board member for other local arts organizations, including the North Coast Repertory Theatre, as proof of her dedication to the city's economic well-being. She mentioned her work advocating for the construction of the Eureka main branch library. Neely also stood up for her cooperative work with Eureka city government, saying that she attends meetings of the county's Eureka Roundtable Committee, which meets four to six times a year to talk about all sorts of issues facing the city.
For more information on the candidates -- including their positions and their lists of supporters -- see their Web sites:
Bonnie Neely: www.bonnieneely.com
Jeff Leonard: www.jeffleonardforsupervisor.org
Virginia Bass: www.bass4supervisor.org