County grapples with ‘monumental’ sea rise issues

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Words like “huge” and “monumental” were used by county staff as the Planning Commission was briefed on the potential effects of sea level rise and the challenges of responding to it. 

Policy options for avoiding and dealing with the impacts were outlined as the commission held a fourth sea level rise planning workshop at its Jan. 24 meeting. 

Focusing on the Humboldt Bay area, Long Range Planner Lisa Shikany described various strategies to adapt to what is predicted to be three feet of sea level rise by 2070. That benchmark may be conservative and king tides could trigger that level of elevation by 2050.  

Key to the policymaking is defining a Sea Level Rise Zone (SLRZ) where impacts are expected to occur. The county will pick adaptation strategies to apply within the zone and some of them will be controversial. 

Policy options presented to the commission include restricting or prohibiting land uses and development that would require protection and limiting improvements to existing development to repair and maintenance. 

Shikany clarified that if restrictions are adopted, they wouldn’t necessarily be applied to all areas of the SLRZ. But there have already been public comments to the commission and to planning staff expressing concern. 

“We are aware that this is a controversial area,” Shikany said.  

Establishing a SLRZ itself could trigger economic impacts. “So if you find yourself in one of these zones, you’re probably not going to get insurance on anything that you build and you’re probably not going to get a loan,” said Commissioner Peggy O’Neill. “You’re going to be restricted on any new development just by the mere fact that you’re in a hazard zone.” 

“It depends on what restrictions or allowances that is in the zone,” Shikany said, adding that policy options are varied. 

She said development within a SLRZ could be based on a sea level rise hazard analysis that considers shoreline conditions and other criteria. 

A challenging aspect is the timing of policy implementation. In previous workshops, commissioners were doubtful about applying restrictions based on forecasts. 

“We would not anticipate identifying a threshold based on a year,” Shikany said. “We would anticipate identifying a threshold based on a sea level elevation.” 

The county “will learn more as we move forward and as sea level rise elevations change,” she continued. “They may slow down, they may speed up, and so we will do our best to adapt with our zoning and requirements.” 

If projections bear out, retreat from the shoreline may be necessary and if relocation of residences is directed, locations for siting diverted housing and infrastructure have to be identified. 

Assets that may have to be relocated will be identified in a “resiliency plan.” A key piece of infrastructure that’s vulnerable to sea level rise is U.S. Highway 101. 

The costs of response depend on which options are followed. Planning Director John Ford said the cost scenarios of retreating will be very different from those involved with protection. 

“Those are huge policy implications as we start to get into this,” he continued.  

Shikany described relocation of assets as “a pretty monumental challenge” that would effect a dramatic transformation. 

“I mean, we’re looking at thousands of feet of water line, sewer line, roads and entire communities, potentially,” she said. “This could actually significantly reshape our community and in some cases pose insurmountable hurdles.” 

Policy options based on the strategy of retreat may have “implications that are unacceptable to the community,” Shikany added. 

Public outreach has already been initiated and will ramp up further. The county has held workshops in the communities around Humboldt Bay and will hold another in the bay area next month. 

The commission’s workshopping is still in an early phase and will progress toward decision-making on policy options. 

Sidewalk stays

Also at the meeting, a final map subdivision for McKinleyville’s Airport Business Park was re-approved and extended – with a new sidewalk requirement intact. 

Sidewalks were an issue because the applicant, Moser Properties, requested that an added requirement to construct sidewalks on both sides of one of the subdivision’s access roads, Boeing Avenue, be waived and be limited to only one side of the road. 

Commissioner Brian Mitchell didn’t support the request. “McKinleyville’s really gotten short-changed when it comes to public improvements such as sidewalks,” he said. “The development has been so piecemeal, there’s really a health and safety component of this.” 

The request was based on the site’s use as a business park, which is less pedestrian-oriented than a residential neighborhood. But Mitchell said that “overall, I think we need to do a better job planning for multi-modal transportation.” 

Commissioners approved the new requirement with the map extension, which divides a remainder parcel from an original subdivision into 12 commercial lots. 




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