Kelley Garrett: McKinleyville Town Center planning being steamrolled by the county

With regard to the McKinleyville Town Center, I found last week’s headline “Town Center Limits Loosened” to be a bit misleading. As the subsequent tagline states — wetland regulations were altered, not the Town Center planning limits. I bring this up because while the county is readily willing to undertake the process of amending the McKinleyville Community Plan to deregulate wetlands, they appear unwilling to amend the plan to expand or loosen the Town Center limits. 

Town centerAt the Jan. 8, 2019, Town Center Masterplan meeting, wetland regulations were loosened on the unique forested Sitka spruce/alder wetland pasture behind Safeway. This loosening of resource protections was done to facilitate a county proposal to construct 200 units of low-income housing on the western half of the parcel. It was also stated at the meeting that if wetlands on the remainder parcel were moved, other amenities that the community desired could be accommodated. This proposal to deregulate for development was presented to the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee (McKMAC) by the county, as a do-or-die predicament. As such, a failure to loosen regulations at the location would result in no Town Center for McKinleyville. Faced with such a predicament, the McKMAC hastily (but not unanimously) chose to direct the county to amend the McKinleyville Community Plan’s resource protections at this location. The action taken precluded any discussion on the existing values of open space and precluded a vetted consideration of ecological factors. The action was taken despite Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford’s musing that the action was likely to result in lawsuits from other McKinleyville developers who have limited development options due to wetland presence on their properties. The action taken failed to include clear public noticing and/or a robust effort to involve citizenry in community decision making. 

The entire event appears to be predicated upon a false dilemma. Why is that the Town Center boundary can’t be altered to allow for elements of Town Center development elsewhere within the downtown? Why must the Town Center be sited as it is? The current Town Center boundary was defined in the mid-’90s, well before the environmental and socio-economic challenges we face today. At two separate Town Center meetings I have asked the county to consider revising the Town Center boundary to reflect the needs of today and into the future. The county has yet to offer response to my queries, instead “tabling” my comment for some as-yet designated future discussion. The county is in the midst of a developing a Climate Action Plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions (GGH) at the county-wide level. How does the conversion for development of our McKinleyville wetlands figure into that, especially when defunct and empty commercial developments exist within our downtown — areas that are suitable for redevelopment?

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Amending the McKinleyville Town Center Plan qualifies as a project. How will this loosening of environmental standards be evaluated under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)? At the last Town Center meeting, John Ford (County Planning Director) mused that our Community Plan likely needs CEQA updating to address climate change. Does the action undertaken on July 8 lie at odds with efforts to combat climate change? Will we see a reckoning of these issues in the county’s CEQA document?

As part of the McKinleyville Organizing Coalition, I have become familiar with our Community Plan and over the last year I have been privy to much community input on the Town Center. The community continues to express as its utmost core desire – increased connectivity, both physical and social, as well as the retention of our rural character. Many community comments request the ecologically-informed, human-scale development of economy, housing and circulation/accessibility for the Town Center. A well-studied, well-conceived and well-vetted McKinleyville Town Center Masterplan might conclude that the development of the wetlands behind Safeway is the best alternative to facilitate the county’s proposed 200 units of low-income housing. However, why is this a foregone conclusion? While, low-income housing may well provide a piece of creating the community we want, it has not been a defining “big idea” for the community. Actions taken on January 8 appear to overwhelmingly advance county interests, rather than those of our community. 

Having the county advance its own agenda as it did on Jan. 8 rather than our community’s can lead to feelings of distrust. At the introductory meeting on Nov. 13, 2019, the county solicited our “big ideas” purportedly to create a scope of work objectives for Town Center planning. However, our responses were then shoehorned in to a set of eight scoping topics predefined by the County (Natural Resources Protection, Land Use, Open Space, Design, Transportation, Streetscape, Public Facilities and Financing). These scoping topics have remained unaltered—but for the fact that “Natural Resource Protection” has mysteriously morphed into “Wetlands.” The Wetlands topic was then the first to be explored, with the decision making going down as it did on Jan. 8. What happened to the scoping topics suggested by community comments of Arts and Community Space, Sustainability, Housing Alternatives, Walkability and Economic Development? Personally, I also find it vexing that the county is pushing to wrap up Town Center planning by March 11. After 18 years of waiting for the county to undertake our Town Center planning, why must we rush to develop it in four months?

I will also ask, what of community ideas for continued agricultural and resource protections at the subject site behind Safeway? How about a showcase of sustainable development for McKinleyville that sets us up as role models, brightly facing future? Might part or all of the parcel yet be developed as a community heart, even crown jewel, though the development of a community permaculture site? Part or all of the parcel could be preserved as open space with orchard, vineyard, row crops, U-pick produce, farm animals and recreational trails. The open space site thus supporting community food self-sufficiency, education, outreach, jobs, internships, recreation, tourism, reduced GHGs and forested/wetland values. How about development for McKinleyville that retains and enhances our sense of self, our unique rural character? In fact, let us capitalize on open space, agriculture and natural resources as the defining characteristics that identify what McKinleyville has to offer.

Let us also consider Town Center planning that creates a cohesive, connected community by embracing our asset of the Central Avenue “strip.” Put Central Avenue on a “road diet” by dedicating two of its current five lanes to non-autos, thereby creating a walkable, recreational asset that traverses the majority of McKinleyville’s business center and provides linkage between specially zoned hubs of mixed-use developments (to be developed within the currently defined town center area as well as the commercial area at Kmart/Ray’s). Let’s include parklets and dedicated open spaces along the avenue. A Town Central Plan if you will.

Perhaps the McKMAC should reclaim the planning reins from the county and establish a special subcommittee of community volunteers to prepare our Town Center Masterplan — as per the original implementation plan, before the county talked the McKMAC out of such an approach. This project is for the community, let us have it planned by the community — not the county. We have an exciting opportunity at our feet to do tremendous things for our town. However, it feels the county is steamrolling us. 

I hope everyone is inspired to show up at the next meeting to make known their own hopes, dreams and opinions for the Town Center. The next meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 22 at 5:30 p.m. at the Azalea Conference Center of the McKinleyville Middle School. Topics to be covered include open space, land use/zoning and design.

Kelley Garrett is a resident of McKinleyville.





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