Southern Humboldt Residents Alarmed About Code Enforcement Actions
A varied cross-section of Humboldt County society was represented on Wednesday evening, when more than 100 people – loggers and ranchers, old-timers and back-to-the-landers, business owners and marijuana growers – packed the Healy Senior Center for a meeting held by the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights, or HumCPR.
The meeting was held to familiarize locals with the organization’s raison d’être, which is to educate the general public about "the public outrage that resulted from the Planning and County Counsel offices’ manipulation of the General Plan Update process, specifically involving Timber Production Zoning regulations. Since that time, HumCPR has identified numerous other provisions included in the General Plan Update that we feel seriously threaten the historic fabric and economic vitality of our County."
Two items were the focus of discussion at the March 19 meeting: first, proposed changes to the General Plan that would result in major – according to some, catastrophic – life changes for people living in rural areas; and second, recent actions by the Code Enforcement Unit and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office – including unannounced forays into private property and the alleged beating of a dog – that have resulted in public outcry in Southern Humboldt.
"It Should Be An Update, Not A Rewritten General Plan"
"We’re a coalition of more than 1,500 people: doctors, lawyers, truckers, and yes, pot growers," HumCPR founder Lee Ulansey said by way of introduction. An artist who lives off the grid in Kneeland, Ulansey – who was, according to a flyer distributed at the meeting, "previously more active in environmental issues than land-use issues” – said he was driven to form the group “because I was sick and tired of bureaucrats telling me where and how I should live. We at HumCPR do not advocate unregulated building, but it’s what you get when you have unreasonable regulations."
Members of HumCPR have spent countless hours "monitoring the General Plan Update process," during the course of which they have found what they believe to be numerous causes for alarm. Chief among them is what the group perceives as a shift in county officials’ attitudes towards rural building, and how that has manifested itself both in proposed changes to the General Plan and in recent Code Enforcement actions all over the county.
Ulansey suggested that, in the case of existing buildings, "there should be amnesty for those who’ve already built homes without a permit, and positive incentives for people to work within the process." However, he argued, the fines that property owners are being threatened with for not complying with codes – such as $8,000 for a road and $16,000 for a greenhouse – are counterproductive.
The 45-day building moratorium imposed by the Board of Supervisors on TPZ properties was a hot topic, with several speakers opining that the supervisors had used the bankrupt Pacific Lumber Company’s proposed plan to subdivide its land into "mini-kingdoms" as a way to strike fear into the hearts of rural landowners. Rick Coe, a swimming-pool contractor who purchased 40 acres of TPZ land off of Highway 36 three years ago, told those gathered of his plans to build a home from lumber milled on his property – only to be told he couldn’t build when he planned to: "That’s what made me really aware of what was going on, and triggered my getting involved.
"The planning staff and director are trying to implement discretionary permits, which becomes like a conditional-use permit system, and then you basically have to plead in front of the Board of Supervisors," Coe continued. By definition, a discretionary permit must be approved by a ruling body – which means that the process of building a home on a rural parcel would become substantially more onerous. Coe added that one of the proposals for the updated General Plan is to demand a CUP for any construction on a parcel “more than a quarter-mile past a public road – and that’s almost all of us."
Blocksburg resident Bob Morris, one of three foresters who spoke at the meeting, explained that the county’s General Plan should be updated every 20 years; yet the current plan, approved in 1984, is not only long overdue for an update, "but county staff has been working on it for nine years, and an estimated $10 million has been spent." "How many potholes is that?" asked Ulansey, who added, later in the meeting, that in 2007 the Planning Department’s budget was $16 million, a substantially higher amount than it was in 2001 (queries sent to the department had not been responded to by press time).
"The new General Plan is going to be two to three times as complex," Morris continued. "It should be an update, not a re-written plan… They are treating Humboldt County as if it were a bedroom community of San Francisco, as if we were going to wake up in 20 years to find that the city limits are in Piercy. ‘Smart growth’ sounds good, because no one wants ‘dumb growth’ – but ‘smart growth’ is really urbanization."
Morris further alleged that, under proposals currently being considered for the General Plan Update, building on rural land would be so restricted that, "if an existing house burns down, you wouldn’t be able to rebuild without proving that doing so would further that land’s needs – for example, the ability of trees to grow, if it’s TPZ." On that note, retired Garberville realtor Syd Lehman addressed some people’s resentment of the property-tax breaks given to TPZ landowners: "We’ve heard from people who are upset that TPZ ‘gets a tax break’," he said. "We have to tell them, when the house gets built, they get taxed like anyone else."
But how many houses can be built on a rural parcel? According to Debbie Provolt of Humboldt Land & Title, one of the as-yet-unstated goals for the new General Plan is to make a standard parcel 600 acres – and "parcels not created for residential purposes will not be recognized as such. If you have four 160’s [160-acre parcels], why would a buyer want one of them if he can’t build on it? And if you have a 1,000-acre ranch with two existing homes, and your son wants to stay on the land, he wouldn’t be able to build a third home."
Another point of contention for HumCPR is a proposal to limit building only to areas under the purview of a tax-funded fire protection district – which would essentially freeze building in about 40 percent of the county, mostly in the south, where fire protection is provided by Calfire and/or volunteer fire departments. Provolt urged those present to flood county officials with correspondence, and to attend Planning Commission meetings. Salmon Creek resident Del McCain suggested, to enthusiastic applause, that people "show up en masse – ranchers, loggers, hippies, everyone. That’s what puts their tails between their legs."
Justified Actions – Or Persecution?
An already lively meeting became even more so with the arrival of Code Enforcement Unit Investigator Jeff Conner, who announced his presence in response to questions from audience members regarding the unit’s recent activities. Several people booed Conner as he made his way to the podium, but he managed – despite obvious tension in the room – to give direct answers to most of the questions posed to him.
The Code Enforcement Unit and the Sheriff’s Office have both come under fire in recent weeks, first in Northern Humboldt, then in Southern Humboldt. A widely discussed Feb. 28 North Coast Journal cover story, "Codes, Damned Codes," detailed a July 2007 crackdown against rural Trinidad landowner Charles Garth, who has a 30-year history of renting to people who either can’t afford to live in town or prefer to live in a communal setting. Then, on Feb. 25, two Code Enforcement investigations on Woods Ranch Road in Redway both resulted in marijuana busts. A few days later, widespread Code Enforcement and Sheriff’s Office activity was reported in the Elk Ridge area, with a string of furious e-mails being exchanged among residents reporting broken locks, trespassing, and – most egregiously – the beating of a dog in its owner’s absence.
Conner vehemently denied having harmed the dog – "none of us would ever do that" – but did tell an Elk Ridge resident, after the meeting, that he would investigate the matter (the dog has been treated and is recovering).
The actions have been widely perceived as an attack on the county’s long history of "live and let live," with several of the people at the March 19 meeting asking if certain landowners were targeted because of their "alternative lifestyles": after all, they reasoned, the unit’s work seems to be concentrated in rural areas, rather than in, say, Eureka and Fortuna. Conner said he and his partner, John Desadier – who was a deputy sheriff for a decade before being transferred to Code Enforcement – are part of the County Counsel’s office, and receive their assignments after complaints are filed with individual departments, such as Building and Environmental Health.
"The planners aren’t telling us where to go," Conner asserted. "My partner and I are both law-enforcement officers." He did acknowledge that some property owners receive a 24-hour notice of impending investigation, "but for some, we don’t want to do that… if there are smaller buildings, and an issue with access to places that people don’t want us in." "In other words, you’re not looking for code violations – you’re looking for marijuana," came the immediate response from several audience members. "That’s why you bring the deputies!"
Conner said the presence of the deputies was for safety purposes – "In rural Humboldt County, illegal marijuana growing under the auspices of 215 is widespread" – but that response didn’t mollify Elk Ridge residents: "The tax assessor comes alone!" said one. Conner replied that the tax assessor’s office has a different modus operandi, "because they don’t want to be known as snitches."
In response to a question about why the recent wave of Code Enforcement activity was instigated, Conner said it began with the Tooby Ranch, but three other areas of focus include Titlow Hill and the Schmook Ranch. A Schmook Ranch resident who lives with her three dogs asked, "Will you come to me without warning? Do I have to be afraid of men with guns coming to my trailer, or hurting my dogs?" Conner said he would inform her ahead of time, to which the woman replied, "You don’t even have my name and address. Who will you send the notice to? The LLC?" Conner ceded that that was the only address he had, then told the woman she could give him her address and he would contact her directly.
Another Elk Ridge resident asked Conner why, if Code Enforcement is supposedly accompanied by sheriff’s deputies "for safety," "there are vehicles driving every which way, with no pretense of warranted investigation." Conner said, "The Sheriff’s Department likes to explore… There’s also something called ‘the open-field policy,’ which essentially means that there is no privacy in an open field. If you don’t want the deputies on your property, you need to tell them to leave." Predictably, both those statements were widely derided by the audience; when the meeting wrapped up shortly thereafter, though, several individuals thanked Conner for attending and answering questions .
Ulansey thanked Southern Humboldt residents George Rolff, Kevin Caldwell, and Bob McKee for their part in organizing the meeting, and McCain reminded those present that the Civil Rights Monitoring Project (CLMP) is hosting a public forum at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 4, at the Veterans’ Hall in Garberville. Conner will be in attendance, as will Humboldt County Sheriff Gary Philp and Second District Supervisor Roger Rodoni.
For information about the April 4 event, call CLMP at 923-4646. For information about HumCPR, go to www.humcpr.org. For information about the General Plan Update process, go to www.planupdate.org.
Cristina Bauss – The Independent