Supes put off GPU decisions until 2013

Ad hoc group seeks new transportation plan

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors took no action on the General Plan Update at their last hearing of 2012 on Monday, Dec. 17, choosing to continue discussion of the Circulation Element to Jan. 14, 2013 to give an ad hoc working group more time to complete its review.

At the previous hearing the working group announced that it hoped to finish reviewing the Circulation Element by Dec. 17, but the difficulty of bringing together nearly 20 members made the work slower than they had expected.

The group presented county planning staff with recommendations and comments on approximately half the provisions in the element, including responses to staff comments on previously submitted recommendations.

The working group, which has no official name, is comprised of representatives of other organizations with a wide range of viewpoints regarding the GPU, including several that have previously taken opposing positions.

The new group is intended to help the supervisors by clarifying points of agreement and disagreement, modifying provisions of the plan when possible to reach consensus among themselves.

Hezekiah Allen, who has been facilitating the meetings, said that members of the group found that working together has been "meaningful and educational... a worthwhile process."

Again he reminded the supervisors that many of the group's comments "simplify and clarify" provisions in the element so that a better understanding can lead to agreement. The only "significant and substantial" change from the planning commission's approved draft, which was presented to the board for final approval last summer, is the call for a county-wide transportation plan (CWTP), Allen explained.

He reiterated that the group's work is not a substitute for public comment.

Emily Sinkhorn of the Complete Streets Working Group and Ben Shepherd, a member of the McKinleyville citizens' advisory committee, then summarized the ad hoc group's work so far.

They defended the CWTP concept, which should lead to comprehensive planning of roads and transportation systems consistent with the distinctive "community character" of urban, suburban, rural hamlets, and remote rural areas.

Second District Supervisor Clif Clendenen asked who would plan the CWTP, how long it would take, and what it would cost. He called on Bob Bronkall from the county department of public works, who said the biggest issue is determining the "framework" of the planning process.

The working group proposed that each community would have meetings to develop the transportation plan that will work best in their area. Bronkall was skeptical, noting that community planning meetings usually attract "small numbers of people who have an intense interest" rather than a truly representative cross-section of the community.

"It's not until development is knocking on the back door that you see the true community interest," Bronkall observed. "For example, when development is about to occur on Azalea Avenue [in the unincorporated Eureka area], everybody gets involved. That's not convenient for the developer," he added, emphasizing that it often takes an actual and imminent project to motivate large numbers of the public to attend a meeting.

Clendenen asked if the public works department could devise "templates" for transportation plans for each type of urban, suburban, rural hamlet, and remote rural communities, which then could be presented to various communities for comment.

Different areas within communities have different conditions and needs, Bronkall said, citing many different areas within McKinleyville -- theoretically an "urban" area -- but that the public works department might create a "shell" for the categories cited.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said that projects have been proposed for every community, and therefore public works should know what each community wants.

Later in the meeting when the board was discussing its schedule, 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace noted that if planning decisions are put off pending a CWTP, the supervisors will become more and more dependent on "something that doesn't exist."

He pointed out that the current Framework Plan (completed in 1984) calls for a review of the General Plan every five years to meet changing conditions. Lovelace suggested that a CWTP could be targeted for approval at the next five-year review. In the interim, as staff recommended, the supervisors could decide the policy based on the current draft.

Another discussion centered around whether and how public rights-of-way should be designated as public facilities (PF). Several people had expressed concern that this would interfere with the rights of property owners who had given easements to the railroad for use of their property as a rail line right of way.

Senior Planner Michael Richardson, who wrote the original Circulation Element, said that this provision was intended to apply only to those properties on a public right of way that are currently undesignated. Planning Director Kevin Hamblin added that this designation would apply only to rights of way for public roads or railroads, not easements giving access from one private citizen's property to another's, such as an easement for a driveway or pipeline.

Clendenen, who has represented the county on the North Coast Railroad Authority and was NCRA chairman this past year, noted that railroad rights-of-way are governed by the federal Surface Transportation Board and are not subject to local regulations. "They were established when land values were low, and now land values are high," he said, referring to an increase in controversy over this issue.

As the discussion progressed into the more detailed, less general provisions of the Circulation Element, differences among members of the ad hoc committee became more apparent. Where the group was unable to come to consensus, it offered the board two options.

In some cases, one option called for deletion of a provision while the other called for even stronger language than the current language in the planning commission-approved draft.

But when supervisors asked those who wanted to see a provision deleted to come to the microphone to explain their reasoning, working group members quickly put their heads together.

Speaking for the group after this brief conference, Shepherd said they would prefer to meet together to prepare an explanation rather than make individual statements of position.

As discussion on items reviewed by the ad hoc group wound up, the board agreed to put off further deliberation and straw votes until the next hearing on Monday, Jan. 14.

Staff had given the supervisors a revised hearing schedule for 2013 that was based on the "short list" of provisions in each element on which there was significant disagreement at the planning commission. In some cases, such as the Economic Development Element, there would be only a few provisions to discuss under this scenario.

With this schedule, the board was slated to approve the GPU by spring. But considering the slow pace of progress thus far, Lovelace said, "I would be greatly surprised if we're not still here at the end of next year."

Bohn responded that he believed it's more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly. Members of the ad hoc group have been involved in the GPU for many years, he said, so "the next six or eight months won't make or break it."

Lovelace said he just wanted to be sure everyone understood the commitment.

Representing the ad hoc group, Dan Ehresman of Healthy Humboldt said they did not know which other elements the group would tackle. "We agreed not to decide until we're completely done with Circulation," he said.

This prompted 1st District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg to say that since continued deliberation depends on the ad hoc group's decision, the board really can't schedule future meetings.

County Administrative Officer Phil Smith-Hanes, whose office manages the supervisors' schedule, said he could bring the board a list of dates that are feasible for future hearings for their consideration at their first board meeting on Jan. 8, 2013.

At that meeting newly elected 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell will take her seat on the board.

All the documents relating to the GPU deliberations, including the recommendations of the ad hoc working group, are available on the GPU website, For more information, call senior planner Martha Spencer at 268-3704.

The Redwood Times will publish the hearing schedule once it is announced.