Wondering why the county's general plan update has taken 13 years and counting? Watch a meeting


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Dennis Mayo set his burly forearms on the bar and ordered a drink. "Yeah, I'll take one of those raspberry beers," he said. "Just a glass." The place was noisy -- 10 minutes before last call -- but Mayo has one of those voices that carries. He'd just come from the latest meeting of the Humboldt County Planning Commission, to which he was appointed Fifth District representative in November. He and Denver Nelson, appointed in May, are the newest members of the seven-person commission, which has been working to update of the county's general plan for the last 13 years, far longer than anyone anticipated. In an effort to speed things along, the county Board of Supervisors recently approved an accelerated time-line for the process, with a target completion date in November. That's an ambitious goal considering that updating the Land Use Element -- just one of 15 chapters -- has occupied the commission for more than a year.

Mayo's not intimidated by the time crunch. "Hell," he said after a sip of beer, "it's all accelerated for Denver and me." But he refuses to compromise his beliefs for the sake of expedience. An advocate for personal property rights and public access, Mayo said he feels passionate, even spiritual about the duty before him. This general plan will provide a philosophy and a framework for the county's growth and resource management over the next 20 years or (likely) more. The process is time intensive, Mayo explained, because it's not just an update; it's more like a re-write.

That approach is precisely wrong, according to Supervisor Mark Lovelace. At a May board meeting, when fellow supervisor Jill Duffy and Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard expressed skepticism about the accelerated time-line, Lovelace suggested that the planning commission simply needs to focus. "[Their] goal is to make a recommendation to the board, not write the general plan on the fly," he argued. The board offered the planning commission a few suggestions to speed things up: Commissioners should create a "short list" of key elements -- those they see as discussion-worthy -- prior to each hearing; public comments should be taken on multiple elements at a time; and commissioners should use templates to identify and explain their positions for easy digestion by the board.

However well intentioned, these recommendations -- which were reworked by planning staff into, as it turned out, a 12-step program -- were greeted as confusing and unwelcome distractions when introduced Thursday evening. Commissioners listened dutifully as Girard explained the steps, then proceeded to run the meeting exactly as they have been, offering ample evidence along the way for why things are taking so long.

Among the culprits on display:

* Public comments: By this point in the process, not only has the commission grown accustomed to its own painstaking methods, the public has too. Concerned citizens, who long ago split into advocacy groups like HumCPR (the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights), HELP (the Humboldt Economic and Land Plan) and Healthy Humboldt, have fought tooth and nail to make the general plan resemble their respective blueprints for the perfect Humboldt County. Some of them argue that the accelerated time-line may be politically motivated (an attempt to finish the update before new supervisors are elected in November) and will unfairly limit public input. Senior Planner Martha Spencer disagrees. "There have probably been more opportunities for public comment on this general plan than on any other [in the state]," she said last week.

* Tangents: The path through the general plan may appear linear on paper, but at meetings forward progress repeatedly stalls to allow exploration of side streets, some meaningful, others less so. At Thursday's meeting, for example, real estate professionals explained that whenever the word "rural" appears in land use classifications it can inadvertently foul the underwriting process on home loans by appearing to conflict with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines -- a valuable observation. Perhaps less productive: Several attendees, suspicious of the phrase "healthy ecosystem," called for a thorough examination of the term's meaning and implications. Girard, clearly baffled, said "ecosystem" is just a word -- like, say, "economy" -- whose definition should be self-evident.

* Diligence, sometimes excessive: If there's an overarching culprit, this is probably the one. On the one hand, it speaks well of both the public and the commissioners (who volunteer their time) that after more than a dozen years they show no signs of losing interest or getting sloppy. That reflects a profound interest in the future of our county. Yet, on the other hand, this attention to detail can reach absurd levels, often causing confusion and redundancy. For example, Commission Chair Jeff Smith had written the words "subordinate residential" in his notes at an earlier meeting, but on Thursday he couldn't remember why. Similarly, the Humboldt County Resource Lands Working Group, a coalition of farmers, cattlemen and timberland owners, couldn't recall why they'd asked for timber production to be allowed on lands zoned Industrial General. "I don't know that we had [that request] in there," said a confused representative when questioned on the matter. "I guarantee you you did," Smith responded dryly.

The goal of Thursday's hearing was to finally complete the Land Use Element and begin reviewing chapters five through nine. Predictably, they didn't make it that far. Before adjourning, Commissioner Mary Gearheart said she was "panicked" by supervisor's new expectations. Commissioner Bruce Emad, seething with resentment, explained: "Mary, I think what the board has done, and we all need to understand, is that we used to sit here Thursday nights and discuss these things ... deliberate and make a decision. Now they've shifted that to your private time at home. ... This is the brilliance of supervisors."

The commission's next public hearing on the general plan update is scheduled for Thursday, July 22, though occasionally meetings get canceled.


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