Despite an agreement between county and state staff, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors could not reach consensus on how to set and define development setbacks for streamside management areas during its Monday review of the General Plan's Biological Resources section.
Streamside management areas are defined as "a natural resource area along both sides of streams containing the channel and adjacent land," according to the county Planning and Building Department. Since the board began its discussion of the plan's Biological Resources section — which describes the protection and conservation standards related to the county's biological resources such as wildlife, fisheries and habitats — in June, development setbacks on these areas have been the marquee topic, but hadn't been discussed until Monday.
In a 2-3 straw vote — with 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace and 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell casting the approving votes — the remaining board members disagreed with county staff's recommendations, which had been drafted from discussions at previous meetings.
"There are not pieces of property in Humboldt County that are the same," Lovelace said to a dissenting 1st District Supervisor and board Chairman Rex Bohn.
"There are no two property inspectors that are the same either," Bohn said in reply to Lovelace.
While state and federal agencies have their own setbacks on the books, the supervisors have authority over how they are defined within the county. The main issues of concern were how the setbacks would be defined and categorized. Planning and Building Department staff explained to the board that it has the option to differentiate the setback lengths for perennial — meaning a continuous flow year-round — and intermittent streams by whether the waterways are fish-bearing or non fish-bearing.
In 2012, the county planning commission recommended that the board set the setback lengths at 150 feet for perennial fish-bearing streams and 50 feet for fish-bearing intermittent streams. For non fish-bearing streams, the commission recommended a 75-foot setback for perennial streams and 25 feet for intermittent streams. At Monday's meeting, Planning and Building Department staff recommended that the board do away with defining the setbacks based on their fish-bearing categorization and rely only on whether they are perennial, as well as to keep the setback lengths at 100 feet for perennial and 50 feet for intermittent streams.
For new additions, staff recommended that the setback lines begin either at the top of the stream bank or outer edge of the riparian dripline — which staff defines as "the outer edge of a tree crown or canopy" — using whichever option has the farthest distance from the stream.
Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said due to the varying makeup of streams and the riparian vegetation that rely on them, some developers would be pushed back a large distance even though the structures they intend to build would have no negative impacts on the stream.
"I don't know how fish would be protected any more to set a larger distance," Sundberg said after casting his dissenting vote. "I think there will be a lot of people caught in between there."
Lovelace said that riparian vegetation is a biological resource that the standard is trying to protect.
"We're talking about the riparian area that protects the stream," Lovelace said. "A healthy riparian buffer protects a stream better than anything we can do."
California Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist Mike van Hattem agreed.
"The stream is only as important as the riparian around it," he said.
With staff also recommending that the county use U.S. Geological Survey maps when determining whether a stream is intermittent or perennial, several people — including board members — voiced concerns about the accuracy of the maps. Planning and Building Department Director Kevin Hamblin said the maps would play an advisory role when determining whether a development project could have negative impacts on biological resources.
"If we check the map and there is concern, that is when we are going to go out and look and see where the sensitive habitat really is," he said. "In that case, the maps are advisory and to make sure there are no particular concerns for a particular parcels."
Blue Lake resident Kent Sawatzky said he was concerned about when maps are updated and later show an existing property is out of compliance .
"What is a matter of notification offered?" he asked. "When you go ahead and change the map, are you gonna go ahead and send me a letter?"
One staff recommendation that the board agreed upon — though not in the straw vote — was making the process quicker for developers who wish to obtain exceptions to the new setback rules, if approved.
"We recognize, as a result of this change, more people are going to probably need reduced setbacks, and so that's why we're angling toward this ministerial permitting process where there is not as much of a wait in terms of these permits," county Senior Planner Michael Richardson said.
Richardson said that with the ministerial permitting process, developers wishing to gain an exception would work directly with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the county Planning and Building Department rather than having to gain approval through the county planning commission.
"We think by focusing this change, it's not only going to improve things for the applicant, it will also relieve them of a special permit requirement," Richardson said. "We're actually able to do a better job of protecting the streams."
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.