After representatives of rural services and fire protection districts explained the importance of a General Plan that supports their efforts, the Humboldt County board of supervisors made progress on the General Plan Update at their hearing last Monday, Oct. 15.
The nagging question of whether the GPU should include a separate Infrastructure Element or fold provisions into the other elements of the draft plan, a discussion that occupied most of the previous hearing, was put on a back burner while the board considered individual goals and policies. (See related story in our Oct. 9 issue.)
The ultimate fate of the Infrastructure Element will be addressed at the next hearing on Nov. 5. Because of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, the board decided to hold both an afternoon and an evening hearing on Nov. 5, as well as a third hearing on Thursday, Nov. 8.
Public comment will be taken at all three hearings. Topics for the hearings were not finalized by press time, but will most likely include the Circulation Element, which deals with transportation and roads, and the Economic Development Element.
At last Monday’s hearing, several members of service district boards and staff urged the supervisors to keep the Infrastructure Element separate with strong policies, standards, and implementation measures to support small rural districts.
Their testimony countered testimony from representatives of real estate and builder organizations at the Oct. 1 hearing. Those groups asked the board to ease infrastructure requirements for development and to divvy up the remaining provisions among other elements.
Steve Payne, general manager of Willow Creek Community Services District, led off with by thanking county planning staff for their help with Willow Creek projects, including assisting his district in getting millions of dollars in grants for water treatment and storm drainage improvements.
County planning is a key link to small districts that often have only part-time office staff, Payne said, adding that the GPU will open the door to financing needed improvements. Without strong infrastructure provisions in the GPU to support coordination with the county, the districts will "fall back," resulting in public health problems.
Payne said he understood the supervisors may be feeling political pressure to slow down the GPU or minimize the Infrastructure Element, but he called on them to follow staff recommendations for the sake of districts like Willow Creek.
Weott CSD board member Barbara Kennedy said she echoed Payne. She also thanked the planners, including senior planner John Miller, the department’s infrastructure specialist, for their help.
Weott CSD is “hanging by a thread,” Kennedy said, plagued by deteriorating infrastructure, legacy debts, and the lack of an operator.
The Infrastructure Element should remain intact to highlight the needs of small districts that are "doing what we can with very few resources," she concluded.
Lou Iglesias, who is also a Weott CSD board member as well as chief of the Weott Volunteer Fire Department, told the supervisors that the Infrastructure Element is a "great package."
He noted that while lack of funding is the most critical issue for his VFD, recruitment and retaining of certified firefighters is particularly difficult for small rural districts.
Items in the Infrastructure Element are the gateway to solving these problems, Iglesias said.
Mary Whitmore, office manager for the Myers Flat Mutual Water System, a non-government agency owned and managed by the property owners connected to the system, announced that they are close to receiving a large grant for a new well for the town.
While she was concerned that Myers Flat has been designated as Open Space in the draft GPU rather than being "recognized as a community," Whitmore said she was happy to see the county becoming more involved in Southern Humboldt.
Small district representatives were joined by Carol Rische, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Mutual Water District, which provides water to communities around Humboldt Bay, including the cities of Arcata, Eureka, and Blue Lake, as well as nearby unincorporated areas.
Rische explained that she was not advocating for or against a separate Infrastructure Element, but rather she was emphasizing the importance of infrastructure to communities and for sustainable growth.
Throughout the United States the state of community infrastructure, particularly water and wastewater services, is "bordering on crisis," she said. Most systems are 50 years old or older and are suffering from an investment-funding gap, particularly as property tax revenue shortfalls and public resistance to new taxes squeeze traditional state and federal funding sources.
Rische reminded the supervisors that maintaining essential public services to avoid catastrophic failure requires a "planning horizon" of 50 to 100 years.
Lon Winbum, chief of the all-volunteer Fortuna Fire Protection District, which serves unincorporated areas around Fortuna as well as within the city, said that the GPU will give FPDs a "roadmap we didn’t have before."
In particular Winbum felt that the assistance available from county staff can help resolve the problem of providing service to areas outside FPD boundaries. "We do it willingly," he said, "but it’s difficult to ask our community to pay for it."
The answer lies in annexation of surrounding areas into existing FPDs or in creating FPDs with the power to raise funds through special tax assessments in unserved areas or areas served by volunteer fire departments that rely only on donations.
This led Miller to explain how staff guided two Southern Humboldt volunteer fire departments, Briceland and Bridgeville, to successfully become FPDs, including an election to pass the tax assessment.
Interim planning director Martha Spencer pointed out that the current Framework Plan (completed 1984) actually directs the county to do this, so including provisions that support county assistance in the formation of FPDs will implement the previously established policy.
Bob Higgons, representing the Humboldt Association of Realtors, said HAR was "not initiating a movement" to eliminate a separate Infrastructure Element but that if the supervisors decide to do it, HAR will support them.
He went on to urge the board to choose those parts of the draft plan least detrimental to affordable housing development.
Higgons also warned against the imposition of impact fees on developers to provide funding for the additional need for public infrastructure. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the median home price is around $500,000, the cost of a single family home can increase by as much as $70,000 in combined impact fees.
But Third District supervisor Mark Lovelace objected that costs in Humboldt would be much lower than in the Bay Area, and he asked Higgons what level of fees HAR could live with.
Between $4,000 and $20,000, Higgons replied, noting that $20,000 is around 10 percent of the median home price in Humboldt County. He added that some school districts in Eureka and McKinleyville charge impact fees to new development.
After some discussion the supervisors decided to go forward with a review of each provision - goals, policies, standards, and implementation measures - from beginning to end before deciding whether to retain a separate Infrastructure Element.
As the review progressed, issues involving funding, particularly those that could lead to impact fees, caused the most discussion.
Board chair and Fourth District supervisor Virginia Bass noted that apparently nothing can be done without fees of some sort, and she suggested that the board consider the impact to the homebuyer rather than the developer.
The board of supervisors recently directed the county Department of Public Works to study the need for impact fees for road and drainage improvements in the unincorporated areas around Eureka. But since the Request for Proposal has just been issued, it may be many months before the study is completed.
Spencer reminded the board that so far they are only taking straw votes, not making the final decision.
The supervisors disagreed on including a provision that would set "levels of service" for districts. While funding often depends on establishing levels of service, Fifth District supervisor Ryan Sundberg and First District supervisor Rex Bohn felt districts could set these without county direction. This item was one of several that the board passed by a 3-2 vote, and agreed to discuss it further before the final vote.
One provision called for impact fees on "discretionary development," meaning a project that calls for either subdivision of an existing parcel or a use permit. Such projects require at least notification of neighbors and a hearing at the planning commission, and the largest or most complex may require a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The board asked staff to change the wording of the policy to make it clear that an impact fee would be charged only to those projects that might require an EIR and only to "major subdivisions;" that is, breaking one parcel into four or more new ones.
The supervisors unanimously agreed to leave in a policy calling for the county to "proactively" identify whether infrastructure and services improvements are needed to approve a project or to meet planning goals.
Sundberg was concerned that this would require fees, but Third District supervisor Mark Lovelace said, "If we don’t proactively do it, history shows that groups will make us do it" - possibly a reference to the lawsuit filed by the McKinleyville Community Services District against the county for requiring re-zoning of parts of McKinleyville to higher densities for affordable housing.
The board agreed to eliminate a handful of policies already covered in other sections of the plan. They also changed the word "shall" to "may" in some policies to allow flexibility to jurisdictions facing funding problems.
The supervisors worked through 22 of the 31 policy items before them. When the policies are completed they must review the standards and implementation measures, which are more specific and therefore may be more difficult to resolve.
The next hearing will be a double-header on Monday, Nov. 5. The afternoon session begins at 1:30 p.m., and there will be a dinner break around 5 p.m. followed by the evening session at a time to be announced. An additional hearing is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, Nov. 8, beginning at 1:30 p.m.
Agendas for the hearings, including the topics to be discussed, will be announced and posted at least three days prior to the hearings.
For more information, go to the General Plan Update website at www.planupdate.org. By clicking on a box on the left of the home page, you can make a comment or sign up to be put on the GPU mailing list to receive hearing announcements by email.
Those without Internet can call the Humboldt County Planning Division at 445-7541.
Written comment of any length should be addressed to Kathy Hayes, Clerk of the Board, 825 Fifth Street, Eureka, CA 95501. Comments may also be emailed to email@example.com.