Disputed Principles

County supervisors clash yet again on visions for the region's future



When it comes to the much-debated guiding principles in Humboldt County's General Plan Update process, it looks like the spirit of compromise was just a one-evening anomaly. Two weeks ago on Sept. 23 the Board of Supervisors held a rare evening session to tinker yet again with the language of the guiding principles, a list of goals that are supposed to express a broad community vision for land use planning in the county's unincorporated areas. And for the duration of that meeting, at least, it looked like the board was striving to find middle ground between the original principles, developed through a years-long public process, and a new set put forth in June by 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell.

But when the board reconvened Monday afternoon to finish tinkering with the principles, the ideological chasm opened wide yet again. Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace argued passionately for language defending resource lands, while the rest of the board pushed through principles with more generalized wording.

The impetus for this dramatic change in tenor appeared — on the surface, anyway — to be a letter recently sent to the board by the city of Arcata that implicitly praised the Sept. 23 version of principle No. 4. Signed by Arcata Mayor Shane Brinton, the letter suggests that a proposed new policy on lands zoned for timber production conflicts with the principle. The timber policy would allow up to two residential units to be built on each tract of land zoned for timber production. Currently only one house is allowed, and only if it's incidental to the land's principal purpose — producing timber.

Arcata's letter urges the board to reconsider, arguing that the more houses get built on timberland, the harder it becomes to manage that land and the worse it is for the environment. The letter concludes with a reference to principle No. 4, which was revised unanimously in September to include language "discouraging conversion of resource lands and open spaces to other uses."

The Sept. 23 change evidently didn't sit well with homebuilders and private property rights advocates. During the public comment period at Monday's meeting, Sally MacDonald, the executive director of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (a job once held by Supervisor Fennell), urged the board to go back to principle No. 4 yet again and "have it be incredibly less restrictive." Julie Williams, speaking on behalf of the Northern California Association of Homebuilders, called principle No. 4 "more dangerous than a cannon."

Other speakers, including Gordon Leppig, an environmental scientist speaking on behalf of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, urged the board to maintain resource protections in the six principles yet to be addressed. Instead, when it came time for the board to act, 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass suggested going back to principle No. 4 and striking out the call to focus development "in areas with existing infrastructure and [discourage] conversion of resource lands to other uses."

Confusingly, Bass used Arcata's letter as justification. She'd heard from many people after the last meeting, she said, and thought that "some clarifying language ... would take care of this issue brought up by the city of Arcata." She and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg had taken a stab at rewriting the principle and had run it by the county's director of planning and building, Kevin Hamblin. Rather than calling for focused development around existing services, Bass and Sundberg's version of principle No. 4 says simply that development should be "consistent with Land Use maps contained in the General Plan."

Fennell was on board. "I like the idea of making the guiding principles a little more general," she said.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn liked it too. "I don't think it's our place to discourage anybody [from doing] what they do with their personal property rights," he said.

Lovelace was the sole board member disturbed by the change. He argued that carving resource lands into smaller parcels has helped facilitate illegal marijuana grows, and in a surprise slideshow presentation he cited years of feedback in support of resource land protections.

"Discouraging conversion of resource lands is a message we've heard so solidly, so clear year after year — including just recently from our agricultural producers," Lovelace said. "I don't know why we'd want to take out that language."

But his fellow board members insisted that the new version provided more clarity, and the board voted 4-1, with Lovelace dissenting, to adopt Bass and Sundberg's wording.

As the board moved through the rest of the guiding principles, the pattern remained largely the same. Discussing principle No. 6, for example, Lovelace argued for language calling for "increased restrictions on resource land subdivisions" while the rest of the board wanted to strike that out and replace it with a call to "encourage, incentivize and support" agriculture and timber production.

The board began voting on No. 6 before Lovelace was ready. He suggested a compromise on the language, which seemed to annoy Sundberg. "That's not—. We should probably straw vote this one," Sundberg said.

Lovelace responded, "Last time we went through the guiding principles we were able to take a series of 4-1 votes and move them back towards greater consensus, which I think was good not just for us as a board but for the community. And I'm getting the sense that that's lost."

The board proceeded to vote 4-1, with Lovelace as the dissenting vote, on principles six, seven and eight. Rather than calling for protection of open space and fisheries habitat, principle No. 7 now calls for honoring individuals' rights to live where they want to. And the original version of principle No. 8 — "Include actionable plans for infrastructure financing and construction" — was simply eliminated. (See the a full set of before-and-after comparisons here.)

When word of what happened Monday reached the City of Arcata, officials were confused. Mayor Brinton said he was "baffled" and "reeling a bit" by the votes and by the role the city's letter played in the proceedings. The letter, he said, was drafted with input from staff and various committees, including the politically moderate forest management committee, and was supported unanimously by the Arcata City Council. The letter's intent, Brinton said, was to encourage the county to protect timberland.

"Somehow either the Board of Supervisors didn't understand, or it took action contrary to the express desires of the city council," he said. As for the letter's reference to guiding principle No. 4, Brinton said, "We were trying to acknowledge the good work done by the Board of Supervisors by quoting part of their guiding principles. Somehow that resulted in a change to those very guiding principles."

With these new principles in place, the Board of Supervisors will soon move forward on crafting the specific land use designations, where the county's guiding vision will shape its plans for the future.

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