Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – The county’s General Plan Update process has taken another sharp turn, as the Board of Supervisors has voted to suspend its review for 45 days and refer the controversial Conservation and Open Space Element to the Planning Commission.
The update is in a draft stage, with supervisors reviewing the version that was approved by the county’s Planning Commission in 2012. Recent elections have changed the make-up of the Board of Supervisors. New appointments have, in turn, changed the commission’s membership, making the group more aligned with the interests of developers and land owners.
With the board’s vote last week, the Planning Commission will be reviewing a Planning Commission draft of the Open Space Element.
The element was to be reviewed by the board at the Jan. 13 hearing, but three out of five supervisors supported referring it to the commission for unspecified changes instead. The move is in tandem with recent lawsuit threats and special interest group requests to have the commission review the update again.
Last month, the board got letters from attorneys representing the Humboldt Builders Exchange and the Mercer-Fraser Construction Company demanding that parts of the update be sent back to the commission.
The Humboldt Association of Realtors asked that the entire update be reviewed by the commission, and at its Jan. 9 meeting the commission itself voted to send a letter to supervisors making a similar request.
The commission’s vote was split, however, as three commissioners wanted to wait for supervisors to have a discussion about the process.
The lobbying and lawsuit threats were not mentioned as triggers for the process change at last week’s hearing. Instead, supervisors called attention to inconsistent definitions in the Open Space Element’s biological resources section.
Planning staff offered two options – sending the section to the commission with instructions to fix the definitions issue or referring the entire element while specifying what staff called “the parameters of Planning Commission review.”
A majority of supervisors voted to refer the element without identifying areas of change.
One of the dissent votes was from Supervisor Estelle Fennell, who said update elements should be reviewed by the commission after supervisors have done their work. “At this point, it appears that we’re interrupting the process right as we’re getting to the end,” she said. “We should send things back to the Planning Commission if we have concerns, but I question the wisdom of sending it back now and what kind of confusion that’s going to create.”
County Counsel Wendy Chaitin had said that by law, the commission must review sections of the update if the board has made substantial changes that have not been previously considered.
But she also said the board has discretion to refer any section it chooses, for any reason.
Responding to Fennell, Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said the Planning Commission might make shorter work of the update’s contents than supervisors have. “I can’t see how it would take longer than our process – it seems that at the very least, it would take the same amount of time,” he said.
During a public comment session, representatives of Realtors, developers and property rights groups told supervisors that having the commission do the grunt work could free up time for the board to work on other things.
But biologist Jen Kalt said the issue of inconsistent definitions will not be any better handled by the commission because county planners would work on fixing the problem and none of them have biological expertise. Planners had proposed collaborating with Kalt and Craig Compton of the Green Diamond Resource Company on correcting the definitions.
Kalt warned that the vague referral to the commission would be viewed “very cynically” by some observers of the process.
Supervisor Mark Lovelace questioned sending the entire element to the commission when only its biological resources section has been flagged for definition issues.
Planning Director Kevin Hamblin said that all the commissioners agreed that elements should be referred in whole and not part, however, and Board Chairman Rex Bohn said the commission’s work will assist in producing a quality general plan.
“This is a huge document with piles of paperwork,” he continued. “The one thing we can all agree on at the end of the day is that we want the right product for the people of Humboldt County.”
With Fennell and Lovelace dissenting, supervisors voted to take a 45-day hiatus from the update while the commission does its work on the Open Space Element. The 45-day time frame began the day the supervisors voted, but it is not a hard and fast deadline.
An original schedule for Board of Supervisors approval of the update set Sept. 2012 as the date for completion. The county has been working on the update since 2002.