Commission reviews policies on wetlands, oak woodlands, and more

The county planning commission continued its review of the Conservation and Open Space Element of the General Plan Update last week at hearings on Tuesday, Feb. 11 and Thursday, Feb. 13.

The two meetings were part of an accelerated schedule in response to the board of supervisors, who asked the commission to finish its review of this element by March 10. Commissioners considered items from a short list requested by the supervisors. They also reviewed a handful of other provisions.

(See related story in our Feb. 14 issue, "Supes OK open-ended review....")

The commission discussed three provisions in the "standards" portion of the Biological Resources section of the Open Space Element on Tuesday night, approving two unanimously after changing some of the wording previously approved by the planning commission in 2011.

A standard regarding "discretionary" projects within oak woodlands was rewritten from the previous version. The commissioners' version reads: "Discretionary projects which may result in a significant effect on oak woodlands shall evaluate and mitigate any impacts, consistent with the provisions of CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act...." and cites a section from the California Public Resources Code.

The previous version did not refer to CEQA but instead included a definition of oak woodlands, called for the county to analyze projects "for ways to reduce ecological and aesthetic impacts," and specified placement of roads and structures away from oak trees when feasible.

The standard that makes measures to control invasive plant species a principally permitted use (requiring no permit) was also passed unanimously with the removal of the condition that the invasive species to be removed are "non-commercial."

The item describing development standards for wetlands was more extensively revised, removing a long list of "wetlands and other wet areas," referral to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) definition of wetlands, and elimination of specific requirements for streamside buffer and setbacks.

The final version of this standard states: "Development standards for wetlands, including setbacks and buffers, except for wells and spring boxes, shall be consistent with state and federal requirements and developed in consultation with the appropriate referral agency, or by variance, on a project specific basis."

This version passed on a split vote, 5-2, with commissioners Noah Levy and Sue Masten dissenting.

The commission reviewed five of the goals and policies of the Open Space section on Thursday evening, reaching a unanimous vote on only one item, the first goal of this section.

The commission agreed to take a reference to "the enjoyment of residents and visitors" and "maintaining open space" in the words of the goal.

Their final version reads: "Open spaces that distinguish and showcase the county's natural environment, including working resource lands while not impacting the ability to provide livelihoods, profitable economic returns, and ecological values."

The phrase "implement this Element's policies" was replaced with "encourage this Element's policies, and the establishment of a specific Open Space and Conservation Program was eliminated from the next goal reviewed.

The revised goal passed 5-2, with Commissioners Noah Levy and Lee Ulansey dissenting.

A goal calling for "orderly residential development of open space land that protects natural resources and sustains resource production, while allowing compatible uses " was passed 5-2, with Levy and commissioner Kevin McKenny dissenting.

An additional clause calling for development in open space areas that will "minimize exposure to public safety hazards and recovers the costs of providing public services" was deleted.

Eureka contractor Kevin McKenny was attending his first meeting as a commissioner. Supervisor Virginia Bass appointed him to represent the fourth district following the resignation of her previous appointee, Linda Disiere.

A policy titled "Greenbelts" was changed to "Community Separation" but otherwise the language remained the same: "Maintain separation of urbanized communities through appropriate land use designations and zoning density. Avoid merging urban development boundaries of adjacent communities."

This passed 4-1, with commissioner Alan Bongio dissenting.

Finally, a policy encouraging private outdoor recreation was passed with some additional verbiage. The word "compatible" was added to "outdoor recreational services and facilities...."

"... for the landowner" was added to a phase regarding recreation as a "means to generate economic returns...."

Language was added to further define conservation and open space lands available for recreation to specify that the recreational uses "do not reduce the agricultural capability or timber productivity of lands planned and zoned for agriculture or timber."

The commission also passed this by a 4-1 vote, with Ulansey dissenting.

Some questions still remain about the final wording of these provisions, but the commissioners will have one more change to review them to make sure their intentions are clear, as a last step before sending their recommendations to the supervisors in March.

Hearings will continue this week, tonight, Feb. 18 and Thursday, Feb. 20, and are also scheduled for the following Tuesday and Thursday, as well as Tuesday and Thursday of the first week in March.

Provisions in the Mineral Resources, Cultural Resources, and Scenic Resources sections will be taken up in turn at the remaining hearings on the Conservation and Open Space Element.

All planning commission hearings will start at 6 p.m. in the board of supervisors' chambers in the county courthouse in Eureka. The public is welcome to attend, and the commission has agreed to allow some flexibility in taking public comment.

Live streaming video of the meeting is also available to persons with adequate Internet service.