Housing Element Overhaul Could Trigger Lawsuits, Deadline Failure

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – After a controversial and slow-going review of the General Plan Update’s Open Space Element, the county’s Planning Commission is now making changes to the Housing Element that have created what Planning Director Kevin Hamblin has described as a “potential perfect storm” for overwhelmed staff.

The likelihood of failing to meet a state deadline for approval of the Housing Element was discussed at the end of a March 24 Board of Supervisors General Plan Update hearing. The commission’s work on the element is challenging for planning staffers who are concurrently working with supervisors on the update review.

And the Housing Element workload could be ratcheted up. Hamblin sent supervisors a memo warning that there is a “significant possibility” that the five-year housing plan’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will have to be re-circulated due to the Planning Commission’s changes to the element’s policies.

Aside from significantly increasing staff work, it would extend the process beyond a July 1 deadline for state approval of the element.

At last week’s hearing, Hamblin was asked if he could request an extension of the deadline and he said he could inquire about it. But County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes reminded supervisors about recent history and the consequences of failing to complete the housing plan in time.

“I would think there would be some risk associated with asking for an extension on the Housing Element,” he said. “The last time we had a Housing Element that was late or found not to be in compliance, we had two lawsuits that were filed against the county.”

Due to political circumstances, the commission’s membership has changed and a majority of its members support what Planning Commission Chairman Bob Morris has described as “rural dispersal” of housing development. That diverges from the element’s focus on an urban in-fill approach, and planning staff has made it clear that rural housing expansion will trigger new impacts.

Hamblin suggested that supervisors consider either taking a “hiatus” from working on the update or reducing the frequency of its every-other-week hearings.

Some supervisors did not greet that warmly. “I’m a bit concerned about this to tell you the truth,” said Supervisor Estelle Fennell. “I understand the impact on the Planning Department but I have real concerns about stopping our work to allow for the Planning Commission to do their work.”

Supervisor Mark Lovelace suggested that the commission’s prolonged process is due to an overhaul of the element rather than making it compliant with state law. “It’s not that they’re finding inconsistencies or that they’re making it a better document – they’re making it more inconsistent with the document that has been prepared by staff; correct?” he asked Hamblin.

“Obviously, that involves opinion but I would lean toward that so far as staff has indicated to them that some of the proposed changes may make it incompatible with the existing (EIR),” Hamblin responded.

Not meeting the state’s deadline can result in loss of affordable housing grants and lawsuit exposure.

The commission had six special meetings scheduled for the element, with the last held March 27. Hamblin said several more meetings are probably needed and that creates an untenable workload for planning staff due to the Board of Supervisors’ simultaneous hearings on the update.

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