Commission seeks more time on Open Space review, hears strong words from critics

At the last in a series of special hearings, the county planning commission voted on Thurs., Feb. 27, to submit the results so far of its review of the Conservation and Open Space Element of the General Plan Update to the board of supervisors.

The commission also voted to ask the supervisors for more time to complete the review.

On Jan. 13, the supervisors gave the commission 45 days to review the six sections of the 55-page element. The commission scheduled special meetings twice weekly beginning Jan. 28, the earliest the hearings could start because of noticing requirements under the California Open Meeting Act (Brown Act).

The 45-day period ended Friday, Feb. 28.

When they returned the element to the commissioners, the supervisors asked them to review and vote on a "short list" of 13 items. The previous planning commission had been unable to reach a clear consensus on these items.

But the supervisors also authorized the commission to review other items as they felt necessary. Commissioners disagreed about how much of the element they should revisit, and discussion of this uncertainty occupied much of their time during the twice-weekly meetings.

Nearly 30 members of the public addressed the commission last Thursday. Most of the speakers were critical of the commission's review process as well as what speakers characterized as the weakening of the environmental protections in the document.

Southern Humboldt resident Bob Froehlich asked the commission to limit their review to the short-listed items. He said that revisiting other items disrespected work done by the previous commission and hundreds of members of the public who participated in 10 years of discussion culminating in the draft GPU sent to the supervisors in July, 2012.

Froehlich, as well as many other speakers, also objected to spending money on additional hearings, money that could be better spent to improve the efficiency of the planning department's service to the public.

The current commission's replacement of the words "shall" with "may" has weakened environmental protections in many key provisions, Froehlich continued, as has the reduction or elimination of buffer zones in riparian areas.

"I am appalled by this dog and pony show.... [The changes] are creating a free-for-all for developers and loggers," Froehlich said.

His comments were echoed and amplified by many other speakers, some expressing critical opinions of the commission and of individual commissioners in strong language.

Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River (FOER), said the commission's review was "a travesty of public process."

Greacen questioned the motives of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR), currently involved in litigation against the county regarding land use issues. Two of the commissioners, chair Bob Morris and at-large member Lee Ulansey, are officers of HumCPR.

Greacen described the changes to the Open Space and Biological Resources sections of the element as "taking habitat hostage."

"I'm sorry [the GPU process] has come to this," said realtor Tina Christensen. "No matter who you are, you are attacked.... Everyone has a right to speak, everyone....As a realtor, my mission is to protect property rights."

Everyone wants to protect the environment, Christensen said, but the realtors and others in support of less restriction on development were not listened to by the previous commission, she added.

"Good government fundamentally depends on public participation," noted Hezekiah Allen, former executive director of the Mattole Restoration Council. He thanked the commissioners for their service and admitted that the entire GPU process has been flawed "so far."

Allen pointed out that the public needs advance notice, clear agendas, an understanding of the process, and meetings timed so that everyone, commissioners and public, have adequate time to read and study staff reports and other meeting materials.

Although he praised commissioners for their dedication, Allen also criticized the current commission for making "massive changes" without taking into account the previous 10 years of public input.

During public comment specific to the request for a time extension, seven speakers were opposed and three speakers supported it.

The commission already has six special meetings scheduled for March, at least three of which are set aside for review of the draft 2014 Housing Element. An approved draft of the Housing Element, which must be updated every five years, must be submitted to the California Department of Housing and Urban Development by July 1.

The Housing Element is complicated and the last Housing Element review was extremely contentious, so the commissioners should plan to devote all six of the March special meetings to it, not the Open Space Element, Jennifer Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper suggested.

The commissioners discussed a potential time extension at length, trying to reach consensus. Commissioner Sue Masten again requested that the commission focus its review on the short list. When it became apparent she could not get support for a motion to that effect, she changed her motion to ask for the supervisors to review the commission's work so far and instruct it on how to proceed.

Ulansey said he would not support this motion unless the commissioners could come up with an estimated time frame.

Ultimately the commissioners agreed to send the results of the hearings so far to the board, request a time extension, and let the supervisors decide what instructions to give the commission.

They then moved on to an agenda item calling for "Review and [approval of] straw votes by confirming final action."

At their first special meeting on Jan. 28, the commission agreed to take only straw votes and then finalize them after a complete review of the element, or at least of each section.

At the Feb. 4 meeting, county counsel informed the commission that they should take action votes, not straw votes, since the board of supervisors makes the ultimate decision.

Last Thursday's motion was intended simply to change the straw votes to action votes, but it was complicated because not all the commissioners had been present when the straw votes were taken.

This sparked a long discussion as to whether the commissioners who had not been present to hear public comment, staff advice, and the opinions of other commissioners, could make a decision on an action vote.

Ulansey suggested that any commissioner who had watched the video of the meetings had enough background to be able to vote.

Commissioners Noah Levy and Sue Masten, who had taken minority positions on several of the straw votes, asked that the items be considered one by one instead of as a package.

During public comment for this item, many speakers argued for returning to stronger environmental protections that had been deleted or changed in the straw votes, particularly regarding riparian buffers.

On Jan. 30 the commission straw-voted for approval a new version of standard BR-S5, "Streamside Management Areas Defined," that reduces the limits of riparian buffer zones on fish-bearing and non fish-bearing streams, as well as deleting clauses referring to Forest Practice Rules and other specific restrictions.

This was a unanimous decision, but was made with a bare quorum of only four commissioners. Commissioners Masten and Dave Edmonds were absent. Levy's appointment to the commission had been questioned by Eureka attorney Bill Bertain, so the seated commissioners, with Levy's agreement, decided to let Levy join the discussion but refrain from voting.

A dozen speakers addressed this issue. Kalt pointed out that in shrinking the buffers, the commission went against the recommendations of public agencies, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The resulting impacts to fish populations would lead to listing fish species now considered "threatened" to "endangered," resulting in further state and federal regulation, and making the county vulnerable to lawsuits, added Gordon Leppig, a scientist for CDFW.

The changes return the standard to the current Framework Plan, completed in 1984. "The 1984 buffers failed to protect our fish," Greacen of FOER noted, adding that buffers also protect other wildlife and contribute to groundwater recharging.

"If the straw vote is not corrected I will cite it in my petition to list coho as an endangered species," Greacen concluded.

On the other hand, several speakers were concerned about the standard leading to excesses of local regulation. Karen Brooks of Bayside talked about the young son of one of her neighbors who built a treehouse in a riparian zone that the county claimed violated the riparian buffer zone.

"I want to be known as the planning commissioner who allows kids to build treehouses in riparian zones," Levy responded. "We need to talk about a more nuanced approach [to restrictions on development] but we do need to listen to scientists."

Both Levy and Masten observed that BR-S5 only defines buffer zones, but does not say what can or cannot be developed within them. Specific restrictions on development are defined by ordinances, which are written after the GPU is approved, and which will come back to the commission and the board of supervisors for further discussion before approved for implementation.

When the final votes were taken on each of the items previously straw voted, the general pattern was that commissioners Morris, Ulansey, Edmonds, and Allan Bongio voted to make them action items; Levy and Masten voted no, and McKenny abstained on most of the items.

McKenny was appointed in mid-month and then was absent due to a prior commitment on Feb. 20 and 25.

On BR-S5, however, Edmonds voted no along with Levy and Masten, tying the vote at 3-3-1.

Ulansey suggested that because McKenny was present as a member of the public when this item was discussed and straw votes were taken on Jan. 30, he should be eligible to vote.

Nevertheless McKenny maintained his abstention, and the motion failed.

This means that the standard remains as approved by the previous commission in 2012, including larger buffers and more specific protective language. It will be up to the supervisors to decide whether to allow further discussion at the commission or whether they will make the decision themselves.

The next step is for staff to present the planning commission action to the board of supervisors, who can then decide whether to grant their request for more time to review the element.

"The target date is March 10, but that may change to later in the month depending on... notice and staff report production deadlines," senior planner Michael Richardson said in an email to the Redwood Times last Friday.

For more information about the GPU and to view staff reports and written public comment, go to www.planupdate.org, or contact the planning department at 445-7541.

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