Virginia Graziani

Redwood Times

The Humboldt County board of supervisors completed review of the Circulation Element of the General Plan Update (GPU) at its hearing last Monday, Jan. 28.

Following extensive discussion and revision, the supervisors unanimously approved 31 of the 33 provisions remaining in the element. One item passed with a 4-1 split vote and another was sent back to staff to be rewritten.

These decisions are tentative "straw votes," however; the board will not finalize the element until the entire GPU has been reviewed. Upon final approval, the document will become the law governing land use in Humboldt County, superseding the current Framework General Plan, which was approved in 1984.

Many of the revisions under consideration were suggested by the GPU ad hoc working group, which describes itself as "a diverse collective of stakeholder organizations that have been participating ‘at odds' with each other... and which are now finding and clarifying areas of policy agreement."

The ad hoc group's comments were in turn reviewed by county planning staff, who recommended some further changes.

Group members are in "strong agreement and place very high priority on the earliest possible completion of a county-wide transportation plan (CWTP) to provide a clear plan for development and improvement of transportation infrastructure consistent with land use plans, intended community character and community priorities in unincorporated Humboldt County," according to the proposal presented by the group to the supervisors.

Staff "enthusiastically supports" creation of a CWTP, said supervising planner Martha Spencer, but they are concerned that it will take staff away from the GPU, possibly delaying completion until the fall of 2014.

Furthermore, it's difficult to plan circulation routes until land use designations are finalized and housing density levels are determined, Spencer pointed out.

The CWTP will have a "higher level of specificity" than the GPU, planning director Kevin Hamblin added, so the GPU needs to be finished first.

The ad hoc group's proposal calls for a detailed plan that includes maps showing road design for different types of communities, standards for road and trails for each type of community (urban, suburban, rural, remote, and hamlet/village, per California law), planned road improvements, project prioritization, incentives and mitigations, and much more.

Jen Rice of Humboldt Area Foundation, one of the coordinators of the ad hoc group, said the group considered the impact on county staff, and suggested that outside consultants be hired for the CWTP. The proposal also included a list of potential funding sources for planning grants.

"This is a gigantic piece of work - great visioning," said 2nd district supervisor Estelle Fennell, but she agreed that the board needs to move forward with the GPU.

All the board members supported development of a CWTP but concurred that their first priority is completion of the GPU. "Place-holding" standards and implementation measures can be included in the Circulation Element and revised when the new transportation plan is finalized.

During deliberations on Circulation Element standards, the board decided to drop the reference to the county Health Impact Assessment (HIA) in a standard for "traffic thresholds of significance."

Standard CS-3, as approved by the planning commission by a 4-3 vote, includes the HIA as one of the "objective measures... to make determinations on the significance of traffic impacts for CEQA [environmental review] purposes."

The HIA, written by the county public health officer and partners in 2008, has been a sore spot in the rural community. Local resident Tom Grover has been particularly outspoken on this subject, claiming that the HIA inaccurately portrays rural dwellers as physically and mentally unhealthy.

During the public comment period, Grover again stated that the HIA is "biased against rural people" and that conclusions calling for concentrating development to reduce vehicle miles and encourage walking and cycling are being used as "a weapon against rural people."

Fennell requested a discussion of this reference when CS-3 came up for discussion. She said the HIA was "a big bone of contention in rural areas" and noted that consideration of it had "dropped out of the planning commission process ... during all the back and forth."

Humboldt's HIA was drafted specifically for the GPU, Spencer replied, noting that documentation for many projects include a health impact assessment. Although the planning commission dropped most references to the controversial document, its status is similar to other data-based studies that accompany projects, such as geological studies.

"I'm concerned that we're studying this to death," said 1st

district supervisor Rex Bohn, adding he thought the HIA was "idiotic."

"Some decisions are made by the [property] buyer," Bohn continued. He felt that real estate ads claiming that a property is "close to schools" or "close to shopping" create an adequate filter for those who want to drive less.

But 3rd district supervisor Mark Lovelace defended the HIA. It was "strongly based on data" but not clearly explained to the communities, he said. "Criticism of rural residents is a misinterpretation of the HIA.... Health impacts that are important to planning have been simplified into condemnation of the rural lifestyle.

"Rural living is good, solid living, no question about that," Lovelace said. The problem is that some people have gone from agrarian lifestyles to suburban lifestyles in some locations. Poor land use planning can enable people to live in a rural area without living a rural lifestyle.

Fennell responded that statements were made in the HIA that "insulted people to a certain degree.... The work being done on the Circulation Element shows we're looking out for public health.... The HIA was going to bring in another level of bureaucracy."

She said that she would be all right with using "health impact assessment" as a generic term but not as a reference to the public health department's 2008 HIA.

The board voted 4-1, with Lovelace dissenting, to delete any reference to any health impact assessment in the standard, and also to remove a reference to "multi-modal" transportation, which would require consideration of non-motorized levels of service in that standard.

References to multi-modal transportation, specifically to pedestrians and bicyclists, appear in many other provisions of the Circulation Element, however. The board was generally supportive of these, although public works director Tom Mattson was concerned about funding and prioritization.

During discussion of a policy about investment in different types of transportation, Mattson said that public works needs all the funds it can get for road maintenance.

To a question about deferred maintenance, Mattson said, "Right now all our maintenance is deferred maintenance."

Likewise, regarding a policy about spending some funds for "congestion relief," Mattson said, "Safety and maintenance must be above all else. Taking money away from safety and maintenance leads to further deterioration and loss of life."

The only item to be turned back to staff for revision was a policy calling for public road and railroad rights-of-way to be designated as "Public Facilities" (PF).

Supervisors were concerned about the rights of property owners who granted easements to the railroad if the railroad operations abandon the line. Fennell asked for staff to "make a case" for the necessity of the policy, because she knows landowners who are concerned that if their railroad easements are designated PF their property will be "exposed to more public use" than it has been as a rail line.

Planning director Hamblin explained that the zoning will not be changed by a change in land use designation. This means that while the PF designation guarantees that the area within the easement will be left available for the railroad, other public uses such as camping and recreation will not be allowed if they are not also allowed by current zoning.

With this assurance the board unanimously approved the policy. Near the end of the meeting, however, both Fennell and 1st district supervisor Ryan Sundberg said they had received phone calls from constituents during the break, asking the board to reconsider the policy.

Hamblin again pointed out that an agreement between a landowner and the railroad for exclusive rail use of the property could not be changed by the county even if the railroad abandoned the line. The landowner would have to apply for a re-zone to change allowable use.

Supervising planner Tom Hofweber added that it might be helpful for the supervisors to change the definition of the "PF" designation to allow "passive uses" like cattle grazing that would help landowners and not damage potential railroad use.

Bohn suggested that the "PF" designation should apply only to the right-of-way of the proposed east-west rail line between Eureka and Redding, since in his opinion it is unlikely that the North Coast Rail Authority will ever reinstate the Northwest Pacific railroad through the Eel River canyon north of Willits.

Since many conflicting concerns were introduced in the discussion, the board finally sent this back to staff for research and possible revisions, otherwise this round of deliberations on the Circulation Element was complete.

"We're ready to discuss the Land Use Element," quipped Sundberg, who chairs the board. The Land Use Element, which establishes criteria, allowable uses, and housing density for each designation, is generally seen as the most difficult and controversial of all the elements.

In reality, the board would like to continue deliberation of the Infrastructure Element next, which they began last summer and then suspended when the ad hoc working group came forward.

The ad hoc group has agreed to work on the Infrastructure Element, but this will require more time to bring the 20-plus members together. Membership of the ad hoc group may change as topics change, as well.

A spokesperson for the ad hoc group told the supervisors that the group has agreed it will definitely not work on the Noise Element, so he suggested that the board tackle that one next.

By general consensus, the supervisors agreed to address the Noise Element at their next hearing on Monday, Feb. 11, and to take up Infrastructure again when Noise is completed.

The Feb. 11 hearing will be held between 1:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the board of supervisors' chambers in the county courthouse in Eureka. Oral public comment will be taken at the hearing.

Written comment should be sent to Kathy Hayes, Clerk of the Board, 825 Fifth Street, Eureka 95501, or emailed to khayes@co.humboldt.ca.us.

All the documents relating to the GPU deliberations, including the recommendations of the ad hoc working group, are available on the GPU website, www.planupdate.org, or by calling supervising planner Martha Spencer at 268-3704.