Angry residents surged into a series of heated Humboldt County Planning Commission hearings. The crowd was starting to resemble a mob. Fourth-generation locals had joined forces with "back-to-the-land" idealists over a common enemy: the county planning director. He and his government accomplices, they said, were trying to stifle their freedom by restricting what they could do on their own goddamned land. It was time to fight back.
"Two thousand people shouted in unison to fire the planning director," Fortuna-area logger Timothy Carter recalled later. There was so much interest, so many people furious with the guy, that the hearings had to be held at Eureka High School and Redwood Acres Fairground.
The planning director himself remembers the sense of danger in the air. "A deputy sheriff came up and told me, 'If they charge the stage, we think we can get you and the Planning Commission out the back door.'"
That scene took place back in 1988. The planning director at the time, Tom Conlon, had pissed people off by starting a code enforcement program that allowed his staff to inspect buildings that had been built without permits ("Trouble on H St.," May, 1997).
Fast-forward 23 years to a Board of Supervisors meeting last month. Although the crowd was smaller, the mood was torches and pitchforks. A small group urged the board to fire the current planning director, Kirk Girard, who sat near the back of the chamber looking uncomfortable. His performance evaluation was on the board's agenda, and rumor had it that the board might take away his planning responsibilities. Girard's job duties had expanded dramatically over the previous decade, giving him oversight of economic development, the redevelopment agency, the Headwaters Fund and about a dozen other programs, plus a new title: Community Development Services Director.
"What community would want a vindictive, lying and thieving community services director?" asked Hilary Mosher, a McKinleyville resident who has fought Girard and the county planning division over permits for a day care center ("Zoned for Kids," Feb. 14, 2008). She stood at the podium, a letter shaking in her hands as she addressed the board. "You are the only people who can stop this profligate individual."
Patrick Shannon of Willow Creek accused Girard and his staff of abusing their authority. Eureka attorney Ken Bareilles said Girard was guilty of "either callous disregard for the truth or malicious lying." (For more on Bareilles, see "Titlow Hill Blues," Feb. 18, 2010.)
Three of the 10 speakers that morning came to Girard's defense. They argued that it would be folly to terminate the man who has been leading the laborious and complicated (not to mention overdue) update of the county's general plan -- especially now, when that plan is finally nearing completion.
Girard survived the meeting with his job intact, though the board instructed him to work with staff on a plan to improve a few things in his department, especially the permitting process and public communication.
But the public's anger survived the meeting, too. Certain people just don't like Kirk Girard. Some say he's incompetent. Others say he's arrogant. Still others say he's an extremist, or maybe a pushover who's been duped by extremists.
Resentment comes with the territory of being a county planning director. As the enforcer of zoning regulations, the director's job is to tell private property owners what they can and cannot do on their own land. If you want to build a shopping mall, for example, but your property is zoned residential, Girard's the guy who will say, "No way." If you're angry that a goat farm wants to move in across the street, Girard can say, "Tough luck: That land is zoned for agricultural production."
During a general plan update, the stakes rise dramatically. The final document will guide development decisions in the county's unincorporated areas for 20 years or more. (The current version has been in place since 1984.) And while the updating process is designed to move from the ground up -- informed by public input, shaped by staff and the Planning Commission and given final approval by the Board of Supervisors -- things inevitably get ugly, especially in areas like Humboldt County, where public policy is forged between ideological extremes. On one end there are the environmentalists, determined to protect our region's natural resources from sprawl and industrial pollution. On the other, developers and private property rights advocates, who resent government regulations that squelch economic opportunities and hamper civil liberties.
"Fundamentally we have a struggle between private property rights and the public interest," said Mark Lovelace, chair of the county Board of Supervisors and the only supervisor willing to speak about Girard's performance. And Girard has to negotiate a middle ground. "Someone who's involved in that process is gonna find themselves in the line of fire occasionally," Lovelace said.
That "fire" sometimes comes in the form of lawsuits. In the past few months the county has been sued by Housing for All (an affordable housing advocacy group) and the McKinleyville Community Services District over its multifamily rezoning plan, and by Eureka resident Keith Carter over the public input methods used in the general plan update. The Humboldt County Grand Jury this year faulted the Planning Division for its handling of the planned Forster-Gill development in Cutten. Meanwhile, critics regularly voice their opinions of Girard in mass-produced newsletters, the Times-Standard editorial pages and snarky blogs.
"I think he's crazier than a loon for even taking this job," Redway resident Tom Grover said in a phone interview last month. "If you try to do the impossible you're gonna fail, and then they're gonna blame it on you." Grover has plenty of complaints about Girard's department and its sprawling array of responsibilities. "We, Humboldt County, have created a monster by putting all this stuff on one department," Grover said. He still resents the code enforcement program, and he feels Southern Humboldt gets ignored. But he doesn't blame any of that on Girard, whom he called "very bright." The position, he said, is simply impossible.
"Do you want that job?" Grover asked. And then he broke out laughing.
Last month, just a few days after surviving his performance review, Girard sat down for a long interview in his office. Located near Eureka's Henderson Center, the Community Development Services building is part of a peeling, butter-colored complex that also houses the county psychiatric hospital, elections division and coroner's office. Girard's office has a window that looks north across Eureka's residential streets and, off in the distance, Humboldt Bay.
Girard, 52, hardly resembles the evil, egotistical caricature painted by his enemies. He is lanky and dapper, with short brown hair and intelligent eyes that look small through the lenses in his wire-rim glasses. Moving around in his wheeled office chair, he speaks with the calm, deliberate cadence of a college professor, laughing periodically and using his hands to articulate points.
Girard was hired as county planning director in 1997, replacing the contentious Conlon, who helped usher in a new model of planning, one informed by the era's landmark environmental laws. For generations, county developers had been able to get their projects approved with little more than a conversation and a handshake. Conlon's more rigorous permitting requirements were not appreciated. Still, he managed to hold on through the explosive community uprising of the late 1980s until the 1996 election, which brought a power shift to the Board of Supervisors. Conlon was forced out.
Somehow Girard missed all this dramatic foreshadowing. "I had no idea of the political divisiveness in county planning," he said. "You could honestly say I was stone-cold naive."
His only previous planning experience had been the 10 years he'd served as a planning commissioner in Arcata, a town whose residents more or less share a community vision. Squaring the visions of, say, Arcata, Fortuna and Southern Humboldt? Far less simple.
Before coming to Humboldt County in 1979 for college, Girard, whose dad was in the Navy, never lived anywhere longer than 2½ years. After earning his bachelor's degree in environmental resource engineering, he went to work in the private sector. Humboldt County, he decided, was the perfect place for him and his wife to raise their two kids.
Girard's early career revolved around garbage. He started a solid waste branch for SHN Consulting Engineers, handled the environmental compliance of four leaking landfills for NorCal Waste Systems, and served as the environmental safety representative for Louisiana Pacific until the company sold its California holdings. When Girard applied for the planning director job, his private sector resume was considered a plus.
It didn't take long for Girard to recognize the challenge he'd signed on for. In his first few months on the job he talked to many of the county's movers and shakers, and he soon recognized that there are "deep divisions in our community over some of the most basic things."
Much of the criticism aimed at Girard lately has come from the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR), an activist group formed by Kneeland resident Lee Ulansey in an attempt to counterbalance the influence of environmental groups on the general plan update. Specifically, Ulansey feels that Supervisor Lovelace and his cadre of "very active, very capable extremists" have manipulated the process.
"Mark's a bright guy, and he understood the monumental impact he and like-minded people could have if they got involved early and aggressively, " Ulansey said in a recent phone interview. "They were able to skew the general plan's direction with their activism."
Ulansey believes Girard is in league with the "extremists." He said the planning division is characterized by "a pervasive attitude of arrogance and a mindset that we [the public] should just capitulate to their superior intellect."
HumCPR has proved effective at political organization, distributing its messages online and through advertising-supported newsletters (which have been tucked into some issues of this newspaper). Girard said HumCPR's members have valid perspectives and a right to be heard in the general plan update process, but he sees cold calculation in their methods: a three-pronged assault aimed at the general plan policies, the updating process and him personally.
"People will use the dark arts of propaganda for political persecution if it looks like a profitable way to protect their interests," he said. "And there's a lot at stake in the general plan. ... Does it hurt sometimes that they choose to hedge their bets through personal persecution and discrediting the process? Oh, it does hurt. But you don't see a modern-day general plan being updated without those tactics."
Indeed, other California counties have had an even rougher go than Humboldt in updating their general plans. Take Monterey, for example. In 1999, the county's chief administrative officer took the lead, assembling a general plan update team that brought a draft plan forward five years later. But the draft didn't have community buy-in.
"Land use is a very contentious matter, no matter where you are," said Carl Holm, the deputy director of Monterey County's resource management agency and the planning director. His county's 2004 draft plan was rejected, and the general plan team was disbanded amid threats of lawsuits. The Board of Supervisors tried to start over by inviting the disparate stakeholders to come together in a single group. "That group fell apart because they couldn't even agree on how to define 'consensus,'" Holm said with a bitter laugh.
Following a lawsuit, conflicting ballot initiatives and years of debating, Monterey County finally completed its general plan update last October -- 11 years after it started. That plan is now the subject of four separate lawsuits.
Humboldt County's general plan update is not the only battlefront for Girard. A major bone of contention, especially among rural residents (and their de facto lobbyists at HumCPR), has been the so-called "shaded parcels" scattered all over the county. The term "shaded parcel" refers to properties of unknown legal status -- unknown to the Community Development Services Department, anyway.
Many people incorrectly assume that Girard's department must have thorough grasp on the boundaries and legality of every parcel in the county. In truth, the systems for taxing, dividing and selling land have changed countless times over the years, and they're riddled with information gaps.
Here's why: The two main ways that county government gets involved with private property -- namely collecting taxes and approving splits, aka "subdivisions" -- operate on completely separate tracks: The tax collector doesn't really care whether a parcel is legal or not, so long as someone is paying taxes on it. Likewise, the planning director doesn't really care if a property owner is paying taxes on an illegal subdivision.
The Community Development Services Department (nee Planning Department) periodically gets updated maps from the tax assessor's office. Sometimes the new map shows assessor parcel numbers that didn't exist on the old one. Planning staff didn't know whether those new properties were subdivided legally -- say, by a family that split 160 acres into four separate parcels -- or if they were split illegally.
Rather than investigate the new parcel upon discovery, staffers would just shade them in as a visual tool marking their uncertain legal status. This shading, which dates back to at least the 1970s, long before Girard was hired, has no immediate legal fallout, but it makes some property owners nervous. Many likely have legal parcels that just need to be recorded. Others are innocent victims who unknowingly bought land that was split illegally -- many years ago, in some cases. And then there are those who deliberately sold off land without going through the proper legal channels.
Other rural California counties have used similar systems for years without triggering the drumbeat of fury that has resounded in Humboldt.
Lee Ulansey and other critics think the county should never have shaded in parcels without notifying the property owners. "I think [Girard] believes that he's doing the right thing," Ulansey said. "He's really, really wrong."
Debbie Provolt, vice president of Humboldt Land Title Company, agrees. Last month she sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors citing a section of state government code that requires local agencies to notify property owners as soon as they (the agencies) learn that land was split illegally.
"What I would like to know is why this practice [shading parcels] got started in the first place," Provolt said in a recent phone interview. "It may have been innocent in the beginning, but I know for a fact that Kirk Girard has been aware of this code section for several years now."
Girard is aware of the law; he just reads it differently. Technically the code requires notice only when the local agency "has knowledge" that property was split illegally. Neither he nor his staff know for sure whether the shaded parcels are legal. Shading is just a method used to flag parcels so staff doesn't issue a permit or certificate of compliance without investigating first.
Critics have suggested that Girard and his staff shirked a serious responsibility by allowing shaded parcels to go uninvestigated, but planning directors from several other rural counties said they deal with the issue in much the same fashion.
"Mono County ... shares similar problems, and deals with the question of a parcel's legal status in the same manner Kirk does," said Scott Burns, that county's community development director. Nevada County Planning Director Steven DeCamp and Trinity County Planning Director Frank Lynch said they don't have any idea how many illegal parcels exist in their counties. Carl Holm, in Monterey, said some parcels there have legal records that go so far back, the original documents were handwritten and describe property boundaries with landmarks. His county's system was so mixed up, he said, officials hired a law firm to sort it out.
Humboldt County is working to close the information gap. This year the department hired two new planners including one, Cliff Johnson, specifically tasked with un-shading the mysterious parcels. In September, Johnson sent letters concerning more than 2,600 parcels of uncertain status, informing the owners and giving them instructions on how to proceed.
Girard hopes that tying up these loose ends will eliminate at least one source of displeasure with him and his department -- the innocent property owners who come in to apply for a building permit only to discover that their property was created illegally. "You talk about hearts falling and jaws dropping and people calling me," Girard said. "We have a tremendous amount of pain at that point."
Girard and his staffers don't respond to the critiques of anonymous bloggers, HumCPR and the like, though some in the department think they should -- "word for word, toe-to-toe," Girard said. It's often tempting, he admitted, but not the best use of their limited resources.
We asked him to respond to some of the most common complaints:
People say permits take too long.
"Y-e-e-e-e-s," Girard agreed, drawing the word out for emphasis. He blamed short staffing. The best-performing planning departments in the state assign each planner between 15 and 20 projects at a time, he said. "We routinely run 40 to 80, depending on the budget situation."
People say they weren't warned about pitfalls that delayed or derailed their projects.
Girard admitted that he and his colleagues should brace people for the worst-case scenario. "And sometimes we don't do that, and sometimes we've hurt people because of it."
People say they're not regularly updated on the status of their projects.
Girard said his department recently implemented an "on-track" program that will allow people to check their project's status online.
People say they were given misinformation or lied to.
"When we find somebody we've done harm to, we bend over backwards to try to eliminate the harm," Girard said. "We do screw up. And when we find where, we try to fix that particular case and make sure it never happens again."
And people say Girard's job has simply gotten too big.
"I agree with them," he said.
In Girard's second year as planning director -- the 1999-2000 fiscal year, when the general plan update began -- his department had 38 employees and a budget of $1.5 million. Today there are 46 employees and a budget of $22.5 million, but the portion of that budget coming from the general fund -- currently $1.8 million -- has barely risen. That's because Girard has brought in more than $90 million in grant funding during his tenure (see chart). That grant money pays for a wide array of new department responsibilities, from regulating surface mining to running the fire safe council, staffing the code enforcement unit and establishing a community advisory committee for the Williamson Act.
Girard argued that the perception of his department -- at least the one advertised by his most vocal critics -- is far worse than the reality. A customer satisfaction survey for the building and planning divisions shows significant improvement since 2005. The staff scored nearly 4.5 out of five on professionalism and better than 3.5 in every category except "time reasonable." There was a small drop in the ratings between 2007 and the most recent results in 2009. Girard explained that funding cuts in 2008 forced his department to leave vacant three planning positions and four permanent specialist positions.
Supportive voices tend to be drowned out by haters, and Girard does have fans, even among the developer community. Dan Johnson, president and CEO of the Danco Group, said his company has probably developed more projects over the last 10 years than the rest of the region's developers combined. Johnson has worked with 30 different planning directors in 26 jurisdictions. "I would say, in my mind, [Girard] is at the top of that pyramid."
Johnson said he's not sure if it's a case of the grass always looking greener elsewhere or just that developers need someone to blame for the bad economy, but he thinks their ire is misplaced. "Sometimes I read and hear what all the critics are saying, and I just don't get it. I don't see it," he said. "[Girard] has done everything he's ever said he was gonna do for our projects."
One other theory about Girard's detractors: They simply don't like rules. "There are times when we've been frustrated with the answer we got [from Girard]," Johnson said. "But when I tell my kid he has to be home at 10 and he wants to go out 'til midnight, he's frustrated with that answer, too -- you know what I mean?"
"Personally, I've just never seen his downside," said former county supervisor and third-generation local Julie Fulkerson. She worked with Girard on a number of projects over the years. "He's always been open and available and interested in what's best in this community. Why would he do that job if he wasn't?"
Even before the Board of Supervisors' recent instructions to work on improvements, Girard had begun a strategic plan, compiling strengths and weaknesses and setting out some initiatives, including stronger communications, better managing of customer expectations and more technological advances.
Though the residents of Humboldt County have strong and often conflicting opinions about what they want the region to look like 20 years from now, Girard believes things will settle down soon. The Planning Commission is aiming to be done with its draft of the general plan update before the year is out. Then it will move on to the Board of Supervisors. If all goes as planned, the new general plan will be implemented by next summer, and a degree of community unity will return.
"The controversy over the general plan will make it appear that we're more divided -- up to the point when the final decisions are made," Girard said. "From that point forward, it will look like we're more united."