Housing Plan OK’d, Developer-Friendly Edits Dumped

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The Board of Supervisors has finished its work on the county’s Housing Element, undoing risky changes made by the Planning Commission.

The commission’s majority of developers and founders of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR) favored changing the focus of the five-year housing plan. Dispersing housing throughout the county, into rural areas, got majority support on the commission level.

But the final outcome has demonstrated that HumCPR’s agenda is logistically and bureaucratically impractical.

Changes made by the commission were reversed by the Board of Supervisors at a May 5 hearing. A series of policies that defined housing density in Housing Opportunity Zones (HOZs), which are areas where water and sewer services can support affordable housing, were under consideration.

The staff-recommended version of the element required developers to maintain potential for meeting the mid-point of housing density ranges. But the commission voted to strike that requirement and allow builders to go down to minimum densities. 

Senior Planner Michael Richardson detailed how the changes would reduce housing capacity in HOZs.

He said the commission’s density adjustments eliminate close to 2,000 housing units from the element’s residential land inventory, including affordable housing units.

“Those are of concern because the county went through a fairly tortured experience in 2011, 2012 to try to supplement the inventory with affordable multi-family properties,” said Richardson. “So this is, in effect, undoing some of that work.”

Losing units in HOZs is risky because the state requires counties to demonstrate that they are zoning enough land for affordable housing.

The element’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) would have also been more vulnerable to lawsuits, as dispersing housing instead of focusing it in urbanized areas would arguably trigger more impacts than analyzed in the EIR.

Richardson said about 250 affordable housing units would be subtracted with the commission’s changes. There would still be enough units for the current cycle, he continued, but there would be a shortfall in the next one and controversial multi-family rezoning would have to be done at that point.

During public comment, Jan Turner of the Housing for All advocacy group – which successfully sued the county in the last element cycle – said the commission’s changes “threaten to invalidate your Housing Element, particularly your EIR.”

She said that if the target density in HOZs is reduced from the mid-point to the minimum, single family homes would be built instead of more affordable housing.

But the county would still be responsible for meeting state requirements and housing development would be “pushed out into the areas that don’t have water and sewer.”

That would compound the element’s impacts, Turner continued.

Supervisors unanimously voted to strike the commission’s changes and preserve the mid-point density requirement in HOZs.

The commission’s version of the element supports secondary housing units as a means of producing affordable housing. The insertion of a new “pilot program” policy that facilitates permitting of second units – including principally permitting them on prime soil farm parcels – also ran into trouble.

Katherine Ziemer of the county’s Farm Bureau said increasing residential allowances on prime ag lands is a bad idea.

“For this item, I just want to tell you to just say no – that’s going to be the easy part on this one,” she said, adding that the status quo method of requiring conditional use permit reviews for second units on prime farm parcels is “the appropriate way.” The notion of launching a potentially temporary pilot program was questioned by Ziemer.  She said that reversing housing entitlements once they are granted is doubtful.

John LaBoyteaux, who represents various farmers markets associations, said all the county’s farm groups oppose the commission’s policy. If enacted, it would sway the value of farmland parcels away from agriculture and toward residential use, he continued.

Turner again warned that approval of the commission’s policy would invalidate the element.

Supervisors unanimously voted to remove the second unit policy.

The votes were non-binding and final approval of the Housing Element is on the agenda of this week’s supervisors meeting.

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