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2019: A challenging year for Humboldt County gov’t

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County was faced with both new and lingering challenges in 2019, from intentional power blackouts to a continued shortfall of affordable housing. And it was a pivotal year for an impactful culture change related to the county’s most valuable commodity.

​Reward and punishment for cannabis growers

The county’s legal cannabis industry became more established in 2019 and in February, Planning Director John Ford told the Planning Commission that 947 commercial cannabis permits had been issued on an interim basis and 341 permits had been approved.

He said more than half of Humboldt’s cannabis-producing properties had been absorbed into the regulation process and the county had “allowed people to be able to continue to cultivate and transition into the legal market.”

In March, the new era of cannabis acceptance progressed further when the Board of Supervisors preliminarily approved a three-pronged assistance program known as Project Trellis.

A Local Equity Program aims to compensate for the impacts of pre-legalization law enforcement actions and was approved via an urgency ordinance. A state law, SB 1294, has established a $10 million funding pool for such programs.

​A second county program will offer micro-grants for starting up and assisting cannabis-related businesses, similar to those offered by federal agencies such as the U.S. Small Business Administration – federal programs that are unavailable to cannabis industry participants.

​The third tier of the “Trellis” supporting upward growth is marketing. The county will contract with consultants for marketing and branding Humboldt cannabis, and to provide proof of origin services.

​The programs will be funded through shares of the county’s cannabis excise tax revenue.

​Also of help, supervisors gave go-aheads to adjusting grow areas based on how much is actually being used and incentivizing the use of rain catchment and renewable energy systems.

By late summer, about 500 cannabis cultivation permits had been approved and there was a backlog of 1,800 permit applications, including holders of interim permits seeking final approvals.

A “cannabis permitting crisis” was flagged at the Sept. 10 supervisors meeting as a “flash mob” of cannabis farmers told supervisors that more needs to be done to make transition into legality and regulation less daunting.

There were accusations of Sheriff’s deputies carrying out raids on law-abiding farmers and officers showing up “with guns a’blazin.’”

Later in the meeting, Supervisor Steve Madrone said he’d heard similar complaints, prompting an appearance from Sheriff Billy Honsal.

Honsal told supervisors that the targets of raids and searches are those who are not in the process of gaining state licenses.

And he said there are thousands of growers who “haven’t bothered going to the county, haven’t bothered going to the state.”

In late October, supervisors were updated on the county’s enforcement against illegal cannabis grows.

​Honsal reported that there had been 86 search warrants served, over 200,000 plants “eradicated,” almost 40,000 cannabis buds destroyed, 18 arrests and 87 firearms seized.

​He told supervisors a reduced number of illegal grows is readily observable and he described the enforcement effort as “a win.”

​Housing ‘paradigm shift’

​A state-mandated Humboldt County housing plan considered a new approach to serving lower-income residents – having the county move from merely zoning for housing to subsidizing and maintaining it.

​The question of whether the county should become actively involved in providing for housing is what Planning Director John Ford described as a “high level” decision during a June 6 Planning Commission hearing.

​An imbalance between the need for housing, particularly low income housing, and the amount of it that’s available was a key consideration at the county approached approval of its Housing Element.

The eight-year plan is a required element of the General Plan Update that describes how the county will meet housing need and identifies zoning to accommodate it. And with lower-income categories, the zoning maps haven’t been built out.  

In the last Housing Element cycle, from 2014 to 2018, the projected need for very low and low income housing in unincorporated areas was 212 and 135 units respectively.

But building permits for only 36 units of very low income housing and 61 low income units were issued.

In July, a majority of planning commissioners signed off on a draft version of the element.

Supervisors approved the plan – which Ford said represents a “paradigm shift” and includes “a number of bold new approaches” -- in August.

One of the most adventurous measures is to advance a local ballot initiative to allow the county itself to develop lower-cost housing.  

Tiny house villages and “special occupancy parks” are also proposed in the element as is the introduction of a “safe parking” pilot program that will identify areas where people living in their vehicles can safely stay.

Some of the element’s measures align with new state requirements, such as making supportive housing principally-permitted in commercial areas and other areas where multifamily housing is allowed by right, and updating zoning regulations to accommodate emergency shelters.

The planning is driven by a Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) that projects demand for various housing categories and allots shares. The RHNA for the 2019 to 2027 Housing Element calls for charting a total of 1,416 units in the county unincorporated area.

Of the total, 351 units are in the very low income category and 223 are in the low income category.

The plan’s housing focus is on areas that have urban-scale services and infrastructure, such as McKinleyville and Cutten.

​But in addressing homelessness, the plan recognizes that it exists countywide and alternative means of sheltering are being considered in rural areas.

 Bohn’s joke  

The joke wasn’t very funny but it gained a large audience – to the chagrin of its teller, Supervisor Rex Bohn.

Bohn was accused of racism for a wisecrack he made during an overheard one-on-one conversation at a March 9 fundraiser in Eureka. An auction item was a Mexican meal and when Bohn was informed of its authentic content, he jokingly asked if its consumers would therefore be compelled to hit the streets and “steal hubcaps.”

About a month later, multiple community members condemned the joke and Bohn’s reluctant apology for it. They demanded he set an example by resigning.

Community organizer Renee Saucedo explained the issue: “Language, especially from public officials, becomes part of the local culture, which leads to discriminatory practices and policies,” she said.

Other commenters described Bohn’s jocular allusion to criminal behavior as “extremely divisive,” “appalling” and “hurtful.”

Some speakers related the situation to what they described as Humboldt’s generally racist social environment and the unprosecuted killing of Humboldt State University student Josiah Lawson.

Bohn was chair of the board and as he called for the next agenda item after the public comment session ended, members of the audience called out, disappointed that there would be no response to what they had said.

Charmaine Lawson, Josiah Lawson’s mother, stood up and demanded that Bohn respond to what had been said with a substantial apology.

​He didn’t do it and as other audience members shouted out, Bohn adjourned the meeting for a break.

​Another side of community response was soon made apparent, when numerous First District residents held a “Rex Bohn Appreciation Rally” prior to the May 7 Board of Supervisors meeting.

​They held “We Stand With Rex!” signs and when they spoke during the meeting’s public comment session, they suggested that the controversy was being overplayed.

​Bohn’s supporters described him as an active contributor to community progress who has an engagingly loose-talking style.

​“I really encourage you to continue to be yourself,” one told Bohn

​The degree of the controversy will be tested in the 2020 First District supervisor election, where Bohn is being challenged by Cliff Berkowitz, the co-founder of Lost Coast Communications.

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PG&E’s unpopular shutdowns

In July, Pacific Gas and Electric Company regional representative Alison Talbott advised the Board of Supervisors that fire-preventing power safety shutoffs could affect all of Humboldt County.

Even though most the county isn’t deemed as high fire risk, the transmission lines that power the grid run through severe risk areas. Talbott said they -- and by extension the county --could be affected by shutoffs lasting for several days.

​It seemed incongruous that even Humboldt’s foggy coastline areas could lose power due to dry conditions outside of the county but the reality of it first hit home on October 8.

​So began a process that was rife with errors – when a swath of Northern and Central California shutoffs was announced, Humboldt was not listed among affected counties.

​That apparently changed but when droves of worried power customers tried to check PG&E’s website for updated information, they found that the site was inaccessible.

​A 24-hour shutoff did occur but during a subsequent California Public Utilities Commission hearing, PG&E executives admitted it was unnecessary.

​Another, longer shutoff occurred on October 26 and as power was restored, residents were warned to prepare for another one. But PG&E issued contradictory information on the timing and at one point, the county’s Office of Emergency Services declared that the utility company had given “wrong information” on the impending loss of power.

​Eventually, it was called off due to weather conditions and power wasn’t interrupted after all.

​County residents joined those throughout the state in demanding explanations and state and local officials responded by putting pressure on PG&E to improve its performance on several levels.

Among them were county supervisors. They sent a letter to PG&E in early November demanding “an immediate plan to utilize our local power generation plants to energize the local grid and minimize the impact of future power safety shutoff events.”

And Board Chair Rex Bohn gave an assurance that in 2020, the Humboldt Bay Generating Station would be re-rigged to allow it to continue providing power when transmission lines are turned off.

Bohn repeated the prediction – saying “we will not have these issues next year” – during an annual presentation by Assemblymember Jim Wood in December.

Wood told supervisors that state lawmakers are “shocked by PG&E’s lack of understanding of its own power grid” and are “deep in discussions” with the company.

Bohn reported that PG&E’s brass was in Humboldt that week to meet with the generating station’s engineers. The company’s power production managers are “all but committed” to ensuring use of the local power plant in the future, he said.

​Land use debates continue 

​After working on the county’s General Plan Update for 17 grueling and contentious years, the Board of Supervisors adopted it in 2017. But in 2019, there was plenty of unfinished business afoot.

​As the new General Plan’s zoning maps were presented for implementation, objections emerged from property owners near parcels slated for rezoning.

At the January 15 Board of Supervisors meeting, county planners presented a new strategy for implementing the zoning maps, saying extensive outreach will be done  in various communities where rezoning is controversial.

These include McKinleyville, the Jacoby Creek/Freshwater area, the Fieldbrook/Glendale area, Blue Lake, Willow Creek and county areas that border cities.

By mid-June, the texts that accompany the maps were up for approval but concerns about inadequate protection of agricultural and timber lands postponed action.

​After dissent from supervisors Mike Wilson and Steve Madrone, staff was directed to return later in the summer with alternative proposals.  

​At issue are housing entitlements on agricultural and timber lands.

​Under the pressure of litigation threats, supervisors again took up rezoning at its August 27 meeting and followed a staff recommendation to hold off on the most controversial decisions, including defining the size of developable areas in agricultural and timberland zones and viewshed protection measures.

​A new Timberland-Exclusive zone immersed the board in a long debate but was eventually hammered into something most supervisors could support.

​Supervisors also considered and approved texts for a new Mixed Use (MU) zone whose most significant application will be to McKinleyville’s planned Town Center area.

​The MU zone advances a pedestrian-oriented mix of commercial, office and higher-density residential uses. Supervisors approved a version of it which allows the option of reducing parking requirements to fulfill the pedestrian-geared design goals.

​The next phase of rezoning is approval of the maps themselves. The Planning Commission discussed the process at an early September meeting and was told community outreach was ongoing.

​Parrying over land use will continue through 2020, as the maps move toward approval.

(Note: More major news stories, including the Terra-Gen wind power project,  the county’s climate change planning and a lawsuit settlement affecting  the Dungeness crab fishery will be summarized when part two of the county year in review is published next week. – Ed.) ​






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