The Humboldt County Planning Commission held the first of a series of meetings last Tuesday, Jan. 28 to re-review the current draft of the Conservation and Open Space Element of the General Plan Update (GPU) at the request of the county board of supervisors.
On Jan. 13 the supervisors voted 3-2 to send the element back to the commission, stating in their letter to the commission: "A motion was made to refer the entire Conservation and Open Space Element to the Planning Commission for review with a timeline of 45 days ..." [See related article, "Supes send Open Space Element back to planning commission" in our Jan. 21 issue.]
Nearly all the discussion last Tuesday night centered on whether the commission should review the whole element, which is 55 pages long and has six separate sections, or whether the review should be limited to specific changes in the Biological Resources section of the element.
The commission originally reviewed the Open Space Element in 2011 and sent their recommendations to the supervisors for final approval as part of the entire GPU package in the summer of 2012.
With commissioner Linda Disiere absent last Tuesday, the commission split evenly 3-3 on several motions about how to proceed.
Recently appointed commissioners Bob Morris, Lee Ulansey, and Alan Bongio supported reviewing the entire element.
"Old" commissioners Ralph Faust, Sue Masten, and Dave Edmonds supported looking only at a short list of provisions that would be affected by recommended changes to make the element's definitions of various types of habitat and species conform with state and federal environmental law.
The board's Jan. 13 motion was not spontaneous, Masten pointed out, but came in response to the commission's letter of Jan. 9. urging the supervisors to "remand the applicable whole elements" if "fundamental changes" had been made to the draft approved by the commission in the summer of 2012.
Masten said she voted in favor of the commission's Jan. 9 request to the board with the understanding that the commissioners would re-open for review only those provisions in the Biological Resources section that would be affected by changes in habitat and species definitions.
The newer commissioners need to see the entire element so that they can understand the context of the changes, Masten explained, but this does not mean that the commissioners should reconsider the entire element.
On the other hand, commissioner Ulansey argued that changing the definitions would affect many provisions within the entire element, not just those in which the definitions are specifically used. Therefore, the short list of provisions referring to habitat and species types, which was prepared by planning department staff in their report to the commission, does not accurately reflect the scope of work required by the supervisors' request.
Commission chair Morris agreed, stating several times that he believes the wording of the supervisors' request to the commission calls for review of the entire Open Space Element.
Furthermore, the supervisors have "substantially rewritten" several elements it has already reviewed, Ulansey said. It is more typical for the planning commission to do extensive detailed revisions, he added. The commission's job is to "give them a work product that will save them time."
Masten said she wanted to be certain that public comment made during the commission's previous review of the Open Space Element in 2011 was considered during current deliberations. Staff agreed to make a package of that comment available either electronically or on paper for each of the commissioners.
Fourteen members of the public spoke during last Tuesday's comment period, with varying opinions on the matter of what should be reviewed.
Realtors and persons involved in building trades supported a complete review of the entire element, whereas representatives of environmental organizations and local tribes asked the commission to limit its review to specific provisions affected by the change in definitions.
Humboldt County Farm Bureau executive director Katherine Ziemer, representing the Resource Lands Working Group, a coalition of agricultural and timber organizations, re-submitted the package of extensive comments and recommendations made by the working group during the previous review and offered to answer any questions as they come up in the process. "We're here to help," Ziemer said.
SoHum resident Tom Grover asked the commission to re-examine a number of provisions dealing with streamside management areas that he found illogical and counterproductive, to provide maps of those areas, and to address potential conflicts with other elements.
"Most people don't understand any part of the process, including the board of supervisors," contractor Kevin McKinney told the commission. "The planning commission is supposed to have more expertise."
He argued that stringent regulation in the GPU will require more resources to ensure compliance that in turn increases costs to both the county and the builders, decreasing the availability of affordable housing and thwarting the dreams of younger people in the community.
The last public speaker was Noah Levy, lands program director of Sanctuary Forest, who said that because of the "hugeness" of a re-review of the entire element and the 45-day deadline, the short list allows the commissioners to focus on the highest priority items.
At that point Faust announced that he is leaving the commission and that 3rd district supervisor Mark Lovelace, who originally appointed Faust in 2009, has named Levy to replace him. [See supervisor Lovelace's press release in this issue.]
Morris then turned the discussion back to the commissioners. Edmonds recommended starting with a look at the shortlist, and Masten and Faust agreed.
Restricting themselves to the short list means the commissioners are not considering the effects of changes to the short list on other parts of the GPU, Ulansey countered, adding that changes to the Guiding Principles made last summer could affect many parts of the plan, although "I think most of it will fly through with little comment," he concluded.
"Every part of the GPU could be contested by somebody... It's prudent for the planning commission to not become a runaway jury" and take over the process, Faust argued.
The commissioners continued their discussion but both sides held fast. Ulansey, who had attended the board's Jan. 13 hearing, said he had the "distinct impression" that the board had not intended to limit the commission's review in any way.
Edmonds moved to consider the short list and definitions, and to ask the staff to make recommendations about consistency within the element, but the vote was tied. Deputy county counsel Davina Smith explained that a tie means the motion loses.
Faust moved that the commission ask the board for further direction and provide an additional budget for the increased staff time.
"If the board wants to give us direction, they will," said Ulansey, and furthermore, it is not within the purview of the commission to deal with budgets.
If the commission wants to re-open whole elements, then the GPU needs to go back to the grassroots, Faust said. During the past process both the commission and the board have heard extensive testimony that the public wants community meetings and a "bottom-up process."
The commissioners bounced this idea around but remained "divided 3-3 on the big question," as Faust put it. Finally Edmonds said that "in the interest of moving the process along," he would move to begin review of sections 10.2 and 10.3, Open Space and Biological Resources, at the next meeting and to ask the board of supervisors for clarification of their directions.
Faust withdrew his previous motion and the board voted unanimous approval of Edmonds' motion.
Several commissioners expressed their appreciation for Faust's contributions to the commission during his five years of service.
Because of the 45-day deadline, staff has scheduled two special meetings per week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., during the month of February.
Special meetings require only a 24-hour notification. The commission asked staff to make the notices as specific as possible as to what topics will be covered.