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Straw-vote Gang of Four



Forget it, Humboldt County. Since Estelle Fennell and Rex Bohn were seated on the Board of Supervisors last year, joining Virginia Bass and Ryan Sundberg — all elected with the help of the same deep pockets of money — the direction of good planning and land use in this county has gone from first-gear forward to reverse. And there's almost nothing you can do about it.

Week by painful week, through the now relatively fast-moving General Plan Update, this super majority has been marching to the orders of real estate developers, homebuilders, and specifically a private corporation called Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR) — a group with a secret membership list.

In my June 13 publisher's column, I chastised this Gang of Four for dramatically altering the General Plan's guiding principles — last adopted in 2004 after a lengthy public hearing process. This year, led by Supervisor Fennell, the board revised the guiding principles more to the liking of her former employer, HumCPR, over a weekend. A vote was held and passed that Monday with little public input. When the county supervisors received angry pushback from you, the public, they took a step back and scheduled a second, future meeting for the end of summer. They also reassured the public that it was "just a straw vote" anyway — you know, one where your fingers are crossed behind your back and you can always change your mind.

Since then, they've revised Fennell's revisions a bit, and revised them again. (Since when are guiding principles so fluid, so changeable? It's like going to a church that keeps changing its beliefs.) Right along with these revisions of the guiding principles this summer have been other straw votes on the actual, concrete General Plan policies — the rules that will be applied to land use and planning. The General Plan policies and the guiding principles are being revised at the same time? Am I the only one who finds that strange?

I had a sliver of hope after a rare evening meeting on Sept. 23. I had hoped that the Gang of Four actually listened to the public regarding those guiding principles — the ones most of us supported in 2004 and still believe today: that development should take place where we already have infrastructure; that we want an orderly pattern of land use and to discourage conversion of resource lands to other uses; that we should provide for sufficient developable land for affordable housing and have actionable plans for infrastructure; that we should protect scenic beauty; and that we should protect agriculture and timberland from increased subdivision.

But what happened after that Sept. 23 meeting? The Gang of Four slipped back into a familiar pattern of listening more carefully to HumCPR's advice, and less carefully to individuals and groups like the Resource Land Working Group.

So what exactly is this Resource Land Working Group? Some lefties from Arcata? Well, no, not exactly. They are our timber companies, the Farm Bureau, the Buckeye Conservancy and others — those who are trying to hold onto and preserve agricultural and timberland for the future. Twice, during recent months, the Board of Supervisors had a room full of farmers asking that agricultural-exclusive lands be kept at 60-acre minimum while the Humboldt Association of Realtors and the Northern California Association of Home Builders lobbied hard for them to be reduced down to 20-acre minimum. In the end, the board agreed to 60 acres — but the Gang of Four clearly couldn't understand why those farmers wouldn't want smaller parcels. Never mind that unless you're a dope grower, the ability to farm profitably starts with the ability to acquire farmland at prices that can be financed based on the agricultural potential of the land. Not speculative real estate or subdivisions. The same goes for timberland.

And, for the record, most of us in Humboldt sincerely believe that new developers should pay their fair share for infrastructure and services to these parcels being created. Why did these four supervisors strip that specific language out of these General Plan policies? To appease their "supporters" whose money they will need to get re-elected?

My hopes were dashed for good at an Oct. 7 GPU meeting. As reported in the Journal ("Disputed Principles," Oct. 10), Sally MacDonald, the executive director of the HumCPR, urged the board to go back yet again to guiding principle No. 4. Please, she said, "have it be incredibly less restrictive!" And Julie Williams, speaking on behalf of the Northern California Association of Home Builders, called principle No. 4 "more dangerous than a cannon!"

Supervisor Bass happily obliged. She made the motion to strike out words which would focus development where we already have services and to discourage conversion of resource lands to other uses.

This fluid value system of the current board of supervisors will ultimately manifest itself in the adoption of all these straw votes at once when they adopt the new General Plan. The straw votes will become real in one fell swoop because this board has its collective mind made up by the ones who brought them to the prom.

Is there anything we can do at this point? Let's set a clock for June 3, 2014 — the date of the next primary election. Bass and Sundberg are up for re-election. We need candidates in each of those districts who better understand our collective value system, what we all value about living in Humboldt County and what we want to protect — not just the values and interests of the secret members of a certain property rights group.

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