The Humboldt County board of supervisors completed another section of the General Plan Update last Monday, Feb. 11. This time the board reviewed the relatively short and uncontroversial Noise Element, straw-voting tentative approval unanimously on all but three provisions.
Two items were returned to staff for revisions. Four of the supervisors agreed to remove the words “and managed” from a goal calling for “land uses arranged and managed to reduce annoyance and complaints and minimize the exposure of community residents to excessive noise.” Third district supervisor Mark Lovelace wanted to retain the original language.
All the supervisors reported receiving many complaints about noise from their constituents. Noise sources run the gamut from highway traffic to mining and logging operations to refrigerator trucks that run compressors all night near residential neighborhoods to “short-term” noise such as leaf blowers and boom boxes.
Some Noise Element provisions refer to protecting quality of life values like health and relaxation. While acknowledging that noise affects health, particularly when it disturbs sleep, 5th district supervisor Ryan Sundberg said he was concerned about the “subjectivity” of such language and wanted more objective standards.
For planning purposes, noise is expressed as Community Noise Equivalent Levels (CNEL), which is calculated by measuring noise in decibels at a specific point at intervals, such as an hour or five minutes, over a 24-hour period, with some adjustments for noise at particularly sensitive times of day.
The CNEL scale is used as a guide to overall acceptable or unacceptable noise levels in areas with different uses. Manufacturing, agriculture, and commercial uses such as restaurants and theaters can tolerate higher CNELs than residential areas, hospitals, or concert halls.
Humboldt County's existing Framework Plan sets 75 CNEL and above as unacceptable in residential areas, while agricultural areas can tolerate noise at 85 CNEL or higher.
During the public comment period, Southern Humboldt landowner Tom Grover said that changing his land use designation from timber to Rural Residential (RR) as has been proposed, would restrict his use of his land because of potential noise. He felt that the remedy was to retain a timber or agricultural designation on his land.
Another speaker suggested that problems like this could be resolved by requiring disclosure to potential buyers of rural land that existing uses may generate more noise than is usually acceptable in “residential” areas.
County planning staff noted that the county's Right to Farm ordinance requires this disclosure when potential buyers consider purchasing non-agricultural property near existing agricultural uses.
Staff also has recommended creating a “combining zone” that would overlay existing zoning on lands where high-noise activities take place. Disclosure notices to potential buyers would specify existing noise-generating activities.
Humboldt follows the “airport rule,” said planning director Kevin Hamblin, citing the example of an airport built “in the middle of nowhere,” and then residences are built close to the airport. The new residents, disturbed by the noise, want to move the airport elsewhere, but the airport prevails because it existed before the residential development.
Mitigation measures such as sound-barrier walls must be provided by the project moving in, not the existing users.
The disclosure required in the noise-combining zone would provide potential buyers with an informed choice before they buy. In the case of subdivisions, the developer would be responsible for providing mitigations, but otherwise the notice is sufficient.
Later in the meeting, 2nd district supervisor Estelle Fennell returned to the issue of acceptable noise levels on lands designated as RR versus lands with agricultural designations. Many rural SoHum properties currently designated as Agricultural Rural or Agricultural Land are slated to be re-designated as RR in the GPU.
Supervising planner Tom Hofweber, who wrote much of the Land Use Element, explained that Grover's land is currently zoned “Forest Recreation,” which allows a higher noise level.
Land use designations are the most general classifications. Each designation allows a variety of zones, which identify allowable uses in much more detail. Even if Grover's property is designated RR, it will still be zoned as “Forest Recreation” and will keep all its current allowable uses, said Hofweber.
The county is also considering changing the RR designation in remote rural areas to “Rural Land,” which might resolve some of the “perceived problems,” Hofweber added.
Fennell asked how noise restrictions affect alternative owner-builder (AOB) homes. Hamblin said that since AOB is not subject to Title 24, the Uniform Building Code, there are no structural requirements for mitigation of noise.
”We wouldn't want to exclude AOB from [Noise Element standards],” said Hofweber, “but it shouldn't be a problem because of the low densities,” referring to the restrictions on the number of homes that can be built per acre.
AOB standards require only that a home meet the basic health and safety standards without specifying how the house is to be built to meet those standards, he explained.
”[AOB] eliminates the cookbook,” Lovelace noted.
In addition to reviewing the Noise Element, the supervisors considered some revisions to the Circulation Element that it requested from staff at the previous hearing on Jan. 28.
Without much discussion, the board approved provisions calling for the county to adopt and maintain “a clear plan for development and improvement of multi-modal transportation infrastructure consistent with land use planning, intended community character, and community priorities.”
”Multi-modal transportation” refers to non-motorized transportation such as walking and bicycling, access for handicapped persons, and public transit.
The revisions reflect recommendations from the ad hoc working group, a coalition of numerous groups representing diverse viewpoints, to make sure that transportation planning takes into account differences between types of communities - urban, suburban, rural, remote, and hamlets.
Ad hoc group members Debbie Provolt and Emily Sinkhorn asked the board to put further discussion of Circulation Element implementation measures and standards “back on the table” because the group felt the supervisors' discussion had not been thorough enough.
Sinkhorn noted that the ad hoc group would have further comments regarding their request for creation of a countywide transportation plan when the Circulation Element comes to the board for final approval.
The next GPU hearing, scheduled for Monday, Feb. 25, is intended to take up the Infrastructure Element. The ad hoc working group, with a somewhat different membership to address a new set of topics, is working to prepare its recommendations but is uncertain whether it will be ready to make a presentation on Feb. 25.
The supervisors agreed to keep the hearing scheduled, but it may be canceled if the ad hoc group is not ready. As board chair Sundberg put it, “Infrastructure or bust!”
GPU hearings begin at 1:30 p.m. and may run as late as 6 p.m. They are held in the supervisors' chambers at the county courthouse in Eureka. Hearing time is made available for public comment, and written comments of any length can be submitted to Kathy Hayes, Clerk of the Board, 825 Fifth Street, Eureka 95501, or emailed to email@example.com.