Melanie McCavour, a planning commissioner in Arcata with years of experience in agricultural science, will now serve on the Humboldt County Planning Commission, having been selected for the job on Tuesday.
The county Board of Supervisors unanimously picked McCavour from a pool of 16 applicants for the at-large position, which means she needed a majority vote from the board to get the job. A Canada native, McCavour has worked in multiple countries and previously lectured on forestry and wildland resources at Humboldt State University.
“I’m passionate about early planning,” McCavour told the Times-Standard on Wednesday. “I want to get involved at the zoning stage and make sure public participation and transparency takes place early on.”
For those looking to jump into the county’s fledgling legal cannabis economy, the Planning Commission holds the keys. It reviews applications from locals who want permits to use the land on which they own property for things like cannabis cultivation or other business purposes.
More recently, the commission has been a major player in a controversial process to reclassify the county’s various land zones.
McCavour echoed the opinion of most major county officials that cannabis is an “important” part of the economy, though its regulations, along with the costs involved, could use some ironing out, she said.
Smaller agricultural operations need to be encouraged over the major players, she added, not just because they pose fewer environmental consequences but because the small, diverse patches produce greater yield than “monoculture” grows.
“The big question is what the maximum size level of a site should be,” she said. “It’s not that corporations themselves are bad, it’s that large hemp (grows) have been done in a way that hasn’t been the most helpful.”
Controversy has surrounded the Planning Commission for the past year. Hostility arose in the fall when the commissioners voted to rezone a land parcel in the Glendale area, opening the doors to a potential cannabis manufacturing facility.
Much of the discontent centered around the notion that the commission hadn’t been forthcoming with the public up until approving the rezoning.
“The main problem with that situation was that there wasn’t a lot done for public outreach at the earlier stages,” McCavour said. “It’s a good example of how important it is to do your planning early on.”
As a member of the commission, McCavour says she will be able to bring a “moderate view” to present to both sides of an issue in a “reasonable” way. Using science to guide decisions that could have environmental impacts, she said, eliminates the binary debate that either all available land should be developed or none at all.
It’s also on the community to keep its ears to the ground, she added. Nothing in the rezoning process was done in secret, she said, and it’s at least partly up to the community to get involved when these issues are discussed.
In the past year, planning commissioners have been publicly accused by other public officials of having conflicts of interest — namely, by owning properties on land they’ve voted to rezone.
Former 4th District Planning Commissioner Kevin McKenny, meanwhile, resigned from his post in May 2018 after being cited by the state for violations of state and federal environmental laws.
In making their decision Tuesday, the supervisors discussed the prospect of breaking the commission’s all-male makeup by selecting McCavour. Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson pointed to a need for diversity of ideas as a reason to bring a woman into the commission’s ranks.
“Perspectives increase from a higher number of identities,” McCavour agreed. “By this point, business knows that yield, profits and such go up when you have different people with diverse ideas.”
McCavour leaves behind planning directly in Arcata, where housing shortages have been a widely-covered and often noticeable concern. Attempts to curb the problem have dominated many of the town’s civic meetings, but McCavour says it’s really a problem all over the state — and one with complexities.
More densely populated areas are often an environmental boon, she said, since they prevent longer commutes and higher greenhouse gas emissions. It also does more to leave natural forestland alone. But of course, that comes with a consequence of less available housing, she said.
“The people of Arcata are wonderfully involved in the community,” she said. “Even if they’re coming out against a project, at least they’re getting participated in the planning and (environmental) process.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.