Madrone, Shepherd clash over General Plan Update rezones

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – In a hearing that included accusations, audience interruptions and cross-talking, county planning commissioners found that implementing the county’s updated General Plan won’t be easy.

At their Nov. 1 meeting, they reviewed the General Plan’s variety of rezonings along with a controversial “matrix” of landowner requests. The less controversial rezonings were recommended for approval, while others were recommended to be set aside for further community input.

The commission’s review – which was continued from the previous meeting – didn’t go smoothly. It included a long public comment period where speakers called for greater study of rezones that would allow cannabis grows and facilities, an accusation of conflict of interest against one commissioner from a newly-elected supervisor and occasional raising of voices.

The controversy is mostly in the Blue Lake/Glendale and Willow Creek areas. Residents said they’re blindsided by the changes and asked for more public notice and involvement.

A rezoning for the Mercer-Fraser Company’s 13.5 acre Glendale area site bordering the Mad River is one of the high-profile requests. The rezoning was included in the company’s proposal to operate a 5,000-square-foot cannabis manufacturing facility at the site.

It was withdrawn last spring after the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District flagged the change and the industrial uses it would allow as a threat to the drinking water supply.

During the commission hearing’s public comment session, John Friedenbach, the district’s general manager, said the General Plan’s allowance of further heavy industrial uses at the site would be inappropriate. He told supervisors that agricultural zoning is “the appropriate zone” for parcels bordering the Mad River.

“It’s the public drinking water source for 88,000 people and the public interest should outweigh those of an individual,” Friedenbach said.

Other speakers wary of the Mercer-Fraser rezone included Don Allen of the Mad River Alliance, who said it would be “bad land use planning” to align the zoning with the existing industrial use due to the proximity of the river.

Also included in the landowner request matrix are changes to properties owned by the Green Diamond Resource Company.

Speaking as a McKinleyville resident, Jen Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper said the company’s requested changes include a 400-acre property just east of McKinleyville that’s being considered for use as a community forest.

Changing the zoning to allow five-acre minimum parcels would have “a huge environmental impact that has not been addressed in the General Plan Update process,” she continued.

Many people asked for further public outreach. “What we desire is a forum either with this body or other bodies that will give us a chance to be heard,” said John Corbett, chair of the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee.

Trinidad Councilmember Dwight Miller said there’s concern about zoning designations that could lead to over-use of Luffenholtz Creek, the city’s water source.

Many residents of Willow Creek also objected to landowner rezone requests, including one from Mercer-Fraser.

The land use decision-making was described as being difficult to follow. “You have confused the public very well,” said Larry Glass of the Northcoast Environment Center. “People don’t understand the process; they don’t understand what’s going on.”

Fifth District Supervisor-elect Steven Madrone also described the process as being too bureaucratic and confusing for most people to follow.

Recommending a slower pace, he said the county has at least two years to align zoning with the General Plan’s maps.

“The communities are speaking up,” he said.

Saying that the process is “confusing at best,” Madrone said that “the only way you’re going to accomplish clarity is by reaching out to the communities,” a move that he described as a way to avoid lawsuits.

The General Plan Update was under consideration for 17 years before it was approved, however, and most commissioners were hesitant to stall implementation.

Commission Chair Bob Morris and Commissioner Noah Levy debated how to proceed, with Levy supporting a more in-depth process and Morris pushing for approving the rezones, describing them as achieving General Plan consistency. “We’re not opening up a Pandora’s Box here,” Morris said.

The discussion ¡lingered and when Fifth District Commissioner Ben Shepherd said, “I don’t see that this is heading anywhere” and called for a vote, Madrone approached the podium and demanded a “point of order.”

“Sit down! Sit down, you’re out of order!” Morris shouted.

Madrone continued talking, saying that Shepherd “clearly is not impartial” and “any commissioners that have real estate interests that would be benefitted from these zoning changes tonight need to recuse themselves.”

He added that if the commission votes anyway, “You will proceed at your own peril” because he’ll file complaints with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

Shepherd made a motion to recommend approval of the less controversial rezones to the Board of Supervisors.

The motion excluded the contested items, referring them to community review.

Shepherd specified that “I have no properties that will benefit from this motion.”

More discussion ensued and at one point audience members audibly grumbled when Shepherd said opposition is mostly focused on a former golf course property in Willow Creek.

“Excuse me, we listened to you, quietly, and you will listen to us, quietly –let’s have some manners,” Shepherd said, speaking loudly as the audience continued to react.

Eventually a majority of commissioners voted in favor of the motion, with Levy and Commissioner Brian Mitchell voting against it. Mitchell had said that there is insufficient information to define the implications of the vote. 

Before the vote, Shepherd emphasized that “this isn’t a final decision – we are only recommending a process that the Board [of Supervisors] begin.”


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