At their most recent General Plan Update hearing on Monday, March 10, the county board of supervisors voted unanimously to resume their review of the Conservation and Open Space Element rather than return it to the planning commission for further consideration.
"We should take it back and do the job we were elected to do," said 2nd district supervisor Estelle Fennell after the board heard more than 30 public speakers, most of whom urged the supervisors to resume the process instead of giving the commission more time.
Other members of the board agreed. Fifth district supervisor Ryan Sundberg moved to accept the commission's report on its progress so far, to thank them for the work completed, and to continue the board's review of the Conservation and Open Space Element at their next hearing on March 24.
The commission had 45 days to review a 13-item "short list" as well as any other provision in the element they thought relevant. The review period ended Feb. 28. At their Feb. 27 hearing, the commission voted to send a letter to the board reporting on votes taken so far and asking for further instructions.
The most controversial changes recommended by the commission were removal of a clause calling for a "countywide trail system" from one of the element's goals, changes to the definition of wetlands, and reduction of buffer zones in streamside management areas. [See related story in our March 4 issue, "Commission seeks more time..." and in our Feb. 11 issue, "Commission reviews policies on wetlands...."]
Six Southern Humboldt residents addressed the board on March 10. All of them called for the supervisors to take back the process.
Since the previous planning commission submitted the results of four years of review of the entire GPU to the board in July 2012, the trend has been to remove and weaken the portions that call for environmental safeguards, Bob Froehlich said.
In the past month, the commission has replaced strong language with weak words, changing "shall" to "may" in many provisions, and using the verb "encourage" instead of requiring protection of resources and open space.
Jefferson Parson, identifying himself as a rural landowner from Harris, deplored the commission's apparent "rush toward development." He told about returning to his childhood home in Long Island, New York, and finding that in spite of an increasing population, the area remained open and beautiful because of good planning and protection of agricultural land.
"I'm a rural landowner and I'm here to request strong environmental protections," said Jama Chaplin, particularly because of the "miracle of salmon restoration progress made possible by so many people putting in so many hours of work."
After attending the two most recent planning commission meetings, Chaplin said she was alarmed by the weakening of protective language. She thanked Fennell and 3rd district supervisor Mark Lovelace for voting against the "speed review" when the supervisors initially authorized the commission at the Jan. 14 hearing.
Many speakers from other parts of the county made similar comments. Trail advocates again made the case that a countywide trail system would benefit the county in many ways, including safety, alternative transportation for people without cars, reduction in greenhouse gases, and as an attraction to tourists.
Several people sharply criticized members of the planning commission, especially chair Bob Morris and at-large member Lee Ulansey, both officers of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR).
One speaker characterized the planning commission's review as "a complete waste of time." Others said they were disappointed in both the commission and the board. One woman from Eureka who said she had been involved in the GPU process, said she was "heartbroken."
Scott Greacen of Friends of the Eel River characterized the commission's process with a metaphor that referred back to Ulansey's opposition to a non-motorized trail system that would prevent disabled persons from using all-terrain vehicles on county trails.
The commission "drove a vehicle into a wetland, mired it in the mud, and threw the keys away," Greacen said.
Several speakers felt that members of the current board were overly influenced by supporters who are developers, builders, and real estate professionals.
Some of the criticism was harsh.
Former SoHummer Greg Wellish, now a resident of Trinidad, said he was "floored" when Fennell put Morris and Ulansey, "her boss" (when Fennell was executive director of HumCPR) on the planning commission. "How can you not think that this was a conflict of interest?" Wellish asked.
[Note: Morris is Fennell's district appointee. The board appointed Ulansey as the second at-large commissioner in February, 2013 on a 3-1-1 vote, with Lovelace dissenting and Sundberg abstaining.]
On the other hand, a few speakers praised the commission's work and urged the board to give the commissioners more time. A handful of others addressed specific provisions without recommending one or another course of action.
"You're doing the best you can," Julie Williams of the North Coast Homebuilders Association told the board. "You all respect the balance" between environmental protection and development, she said, adding that she felt "some people's comments are too personal and too heated.... The planning commission did a great job. They flushed out issues that needed to be addressed."
"I'm wearing a red vest today because I'm in real estate and I believe in the protection of property rights," said Tina Christensen. She noted that in other states language referring to "countywide trail systems" have led to the taking of property from landowners by eminent domain.
"The planning commission is doing a good job of listening to the public," said Debbie Provolt. The revised language did not take out trails, she said, but only the goal of a "countywide trail system."
"Most of [the commission's time] was used up by noticing requirements," Provolt said.
Near the end of the public comment period, Jennifer Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper outlined the long process by which the previous commission reviewed the GPU before sending it to the supervisors with their recommendations for final approval.
Kalt argued that the current commission is unprepared to do a comprehensive review of the Open Space Element.
Five of the seven members of the current commission were appointed within the last 14 months. Only two of the commissioners - Sue Masten, appointed by Sundberg to represent the 5th district in 2010, and Dave Edmonds, an at-large commissioner appointed by the entire board in 2011 - served during the previous review.
The commissioners have not had time to review past public comments and deliberations, the staff has not had time to prepare comprehensive reports to guide them, and the commissioners are unsure of the process they need to follow, Kalt said.
During eight meetings in February, the commission voted on 19 items. Only six of these were on the short list the board asked them to make their priority.
Of the additional 13 items, eight had been unanimously approved by the previous planning commission. Three items had been approved with only one dissention by a single commissioner Kalt described as "cranky."
"Even though we may have disagreed [with the previous commission's decisions], we left with an understanding of why the decision had been made," she concluded.
When all the comments had been heard, the board readily agreed to continue the review themselves.
They then moved on to discuss the Tribal Lands land use designation and a number of related provisions from the Land Use Element.
Several of the supervisors, as well as staff, had met with representatives of the Yurok, Hoopa, and Wiyot tribes, as well as representatives of the Blue Lake rancheria and the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville rancheria.
The county must defer to the tribes on land use issues and must work with them as separate sovereign governments. If a tribal group does not have its own land use plan, the county must consult with them and get their approval before developing land use policies on land either owned or held in trust by the tribes.
Some land within tribal or tribal-trust jurisdiction may be owned by non-tribe members "in fee" (i.e., by purchase and deed), but the owners must conform to the rules of the tribe, not the county.
The stickiest issue is what to do about land that has been purchased by a tribe but has not yet been put into trust. It takes about seven years for the federal government to process a trust application. Although it seldom happens, it is possible that the tribe may, during that period, decide to sell the land rather than continue with the trust.
More discussions with tribal representatives will be needed before a decision can be made on these provisions.
Finally the supervisors considered their schedule for the rest of the GPU process. The next four hearings, set for March 24, April 7 and 21, and May 5, will be used to continue review of the Conservation and Open Space Element.
The Water Resources Element will be discussed on June 2. During the rest of June, no GPU hearings are scheduled because the board will be holding hearings on the county budget.
On July 14, the board will review the community plans, as well as maps for the Safety, Circulation, and various resources elements.
The months of August through November will be dedicated to reviewing the land use maps, which assign land use designations to every parcel in the county.
To allow time to hear comments from individual landowners, supervisors will hold hearings in various locations around the county. After a long discussion of the logistics involved, the board decided to divide the county into three general regions rather than going district by district.
The meeting for the south region, which includes the 2nd district and parts of the 1st district, will be held in August at a location to be determined.
In the meantime, individual supervisors can hold town hall meetings in specific locations to receive input from persons unable to attend the regional hearings, which will be attended by the full board following provisions of the Brown Act.
The hearing next Monday, March 24, will cover the Open Space and Biological Resources sections of the Conservation and Open Space Element, which includes language about trails, wetlands, streamside management areas, and related subjects.
The meeting runs from 1:30 to 6 p.m. at the board of supervisors' chambers at the county courthouse in Eureka. Time is made available for agendized and non-agendized public comment.
For more information see, the GPU website, www.planupdate.org, or call the planning department at 445-7541.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
This band of demonstrators aired their views on the General Plan Update outside the county courthouse before the board of supervisors' hearing on Monday, March 10. From left: Jama Chaplin, Barbara Froehlich, Bob Froehlich, Barbara Kennedy (behind sign), Mary Anderson, and Jefferson Parson.