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Humboldt Coalition For Property Rights > Issues > General Plan Update > Local Lawyer Weighs in on Rural GPU

Local Lawyer Weighs in on Rural GPU

WILLIAM G. BERTAIN
ATTORNEY AT LAWaton-mebel.ru

_____________

August 30, 2009

Board of Supervisors
County of Humboldt
825 Fifth Street
Eureka, CA 95501

Re:    General Plan Revisions / Update/ Housing Element –
Some Questions, Concerns, and Recommendations

Greetings:

As one of those deeply involved in the development in the 1984 Humboldt County General Plan, particularly in the areas of Timber Production Zoning and the Housing Element, I have a number of concerns that I would like to share with you in this hastily drafted letter. And I would like to do so before great harm is done to the foundation and fabric of Humboldt County and its residents.

          Here are my thoughts:

1.     Unjustified Increase in Minimum Parcel Sizes. Where is the evidence to justify increasing the minimum parcel size of rural areas, particularly TPZ land? For the last ten years or so, it seems that what I assume are well intentioned people, particularly the head honchos of the Humboldt County Planning Department, have been pushing hard to increase the minimum parcel size on rural lands and in the outlying areas of the County, and reduce the number of people occupying such lands. This effort has been undertaken and encouraged by some elected officials who have done so without asking for evidence of the need for such an increase in parcel size. Certainly it has not been demonstrated that there is such a need.

The County of Humboldt itself has for the last 60 years experienced in increase in population from 105,000 to approximately 128,000, hardly a boom in growth. Since the adoption of the existing General Plan in 1984, any significant reduction in the availability of resource land has not been due to construction of rural homes; it has been due to government acquisition of resource land.

It would be highly irresponsible, in my opinion, for elected officials to drastically change the size of parcels that can be purchased in the rural parts of our county without having evidence in front of such officials justifying such changes or even hinting of a problem. Although I have not been able to follow the development of the proposed General Plan revisions as closely as I would have liked, it is clear that the policies being pushed hard by the Planning Director regarding parcel size are based not on facts, but on a world view that itself is not consonant with the current social, economic, and environmental situation in Humboldt County today and what it is likely to be in the future, especially in light of developments in technology, agriculture, and environmental conditions. I will try to explain why I say this, but some questions need be posed.

2.     Where is the Economic Analysis? Has there been an economic analysis performed before the Board of Supervisors takes action on the Housing element and the proposed revisions in minimum parcel sizes? It seems only prudent and absolutely necessary that an economic analysis, be developed or overseen by what used to be called a Citizens Advisory Committee. Such a study would examine the adverse consequences to the local economy and to individuals’ desires to own rural land from the proposed elitist approach to land use.

For example: Has either the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors been informed of the likely, nay certain, decline in the net value of large rural ownerships when the minimum parcel size is increased to 600 acres? Obviously, the net worth of many of Humboldt County rural land ownerships is going to decline precipitously – beyond the consequences of the overall collapse of the U.S. economy. Why would you want to cause this? Why would you want to proceed without knowing the consequences?

A parallel consequence is that the price of small parcels, for example, 20 acre or 40 acre parcels in rural areas, will rise out of reach of the type of people that you want purchasing said parcels, namely hardworking individuals who want to fulfill the current General Plan’s policy goals of more intensive agricultural production in the County. Why would you want land prices to rise out of reach of people who will implement innovative and ingenious agricultural use of our rural lands? What your planning staff is urging is harmful, not helpful. Their recommended policies will reduce the value of large ownerships by 50% or more, discourage significant agricultural ownerships, and discourage productive use of small parcels. What kind of sense does this make anyway?

County government should encourage innovation and intensive use of our agricultural resource lands, not make it more difficult.

3.     Sending Timber Dollars Out of State. One of the clear consequences of increasing the minimum parcel size in rural lands is greater corporate, out of state ownership of our timberlands. What kind of sense does this make? Obviously, if Joe Sixpack owns a 40 or 160 acre TPZ parcel with a residence, when that timberland is eventually harvested (and probably not on a short 25 or 35 year cycle), the timber will be turned into real saw logs. And, the greater value that results from the proceeds from the sale of that timber to local saw mills will likely circulate in this County much more than is the case with the profits derived by out of state corporate owners, who seem to be willing to utilize very young trees to supply their mills. But if you discourage or prevent residences on TPZ land, fewer individuals will want to own timberland.

Surely, before you make any decisions regarding minimum parcel size, you should have an economic analysis prepared to avoid going against all of the lessons we have learned in the past 40 to 60 years from our experience with out of state ownership of our timberlands. Have we forgotten the recent experience with Maxxam’s ownership?

Talk to those non-corporate foresters experienced in the timber industry. They will tell you that the overall change in resource land ownership that will result under your proposed revisions of the General Plan, will function in favor of large corporate non-resident owners with headquarters and bank accounts and treasuries located far from Humboldt County.

4.     Citizens Advisory Committees and Citizens Handbook. Whatever happened to the Citizens Advisory Committees and the use of the Citizens Handbook for encouraging participation? My recollection is that the notion of utilizing Citizens Advisory Committees was a critical part of the 1984 General Plan. It seems that the Planning Department staff, with perhaps passive and uninformed acquiescence by the Board of Supervisors, has not made appropriate use of Citizens Advisory Committees, and has probably violated Humboldt County’s own ordinances by not making the Citizen’s Handbook widely available. This has been detrimental to the development and implementation of rational policies and has effectively circumvented the requirements of the current General Plan. Such intrigue certainly works to the advantage of the result-oriented world view that your senior planning staff and leadership have been attempting to implement. Sadly, the citizenry of Humboldt County deserved better treatment than to be subjected to a process that has been biased from the outset.

5.     Innovative Wastewater Systems and New Gray Water Standards. Whatever happened to the County policy of encouraging, with scientific and citizen input, the use of innovative wastewater systems? In the 1970s and 1980s, Humboldt County was leading the State of California and the country in the development and perfection of innovative wastewater systems. But now, systems that would allow safe and healthy methods for disposing of human waste in areas that previously had been prohibited are being ignored by the process and thereby being blocked from use. Such innovative systems, using American ingenuity, do not seem to jive with the planning staffs’ expressed desire for more dense housing construction “no matter what” despite the fact such innovative wastewater systems can reduce public infrastructure expense and help people realize their dream of rural ownership. Appropriate innovative wastewater systems appear to be nearly forgotten.

      Within the last month, California’s state government has taken action to clarify and hopefully increase the use of gray water systems. This extremely significant development needs to be addressed in the proposed Housing Element. The impact of the State’s action could be huge. For example, think of the effect if community services districts that provide sewage treatment were able to reduce the volume of wastewater treated by 40-50% by encouraging the use of gray water systems by residents.

Secondly, and get this: Incinerating Toilets have been significantly improved and made amazingly efficient and economical. Don’t laugh folks. They are being used all over the country now. They are clean, energy efficient, and easy to use. And yet, the proposed Housing Element appears to have ignored this development.

6.     Encourage, Don’t Discourage, Local Food Production. By and large, the policies being promoted and pushed by your planning staff fly in the face of the promotion of locally grown food products, as advocated by Michael Pollen, California’s Food Production guru. To discourage people in an area such as Humboldt County from utilizing resource lands in the manner promoted by the 1984 General Plan seems so unfortunate and wrong-headed. Humboldt County has such a diverse set of soils and climates that can be so productive of locally grown food and agricultural products that it makes no sense to try and pack everybody into or close to existing incorporated cities. By continuing to allow and encourage parcels sizes provided under the current General Plan, you would not be encouraging rural sprawl.

7.     More Consideration Needs to be Given to the New Energy Paradigm. I can’t help but wonder why it is, as we are about to experience a wholesale transfer of a significant percentage of residences and businesses to a non-grid based system of energy usage, that with the General Plan revisions proposed by your staff, people will be effectively discouraged and in most cases prevented from more efficiently and effectively using the soils with which we have been blessed in this county, is it not evident by now that photovoltaic panels and electric cars are going to transform our local, regional, and national economies? I ask: Will you, prior to making these critical decisions effecting the lives of every person in Humboldt County, require an analysis of what our county can look like with the innovations that are heading our way such as photovoltaics, electric cars, and long lasting storage batteries? How can this Board of Supervisors contemplate these drastic decisions effecting property rights, land values, and our economy without obtaining a full blown analysis of these factors, an analysis that could be developed and overseen by a Citizens Advisory Committee and not merely by a result-oriented staff?

      Finally, would it not be the prudent thing to do for the County Board of Supervisors to step back, exercise an appropriate amount of humility, and admit that this entire General Plan process is flawed and needs to be reexamined, especially in light of your new awareness that the Citizen Participation requirements under the current General Plan were not followed and, also in light of the huge significance that the new gray water regulations have on what can be done in the area of land use and planning.

My recommendation to you is to avoid doing harm, continue with the current 1984 General Plan, and establish Citizen Advisory Committees on the most critical aspects and elements of a revised County General Plan. To do otherwise is to needlessly create a polarization in our community that can do nothing but harm for our civic life – and life here in general, despite what we might assume were good intentions on the part of your staff.

Be forewarned: the contentiousness that will likely result with proceeding with the County Planning Department staffs’ recommendations will have such sad consequences for the County as a whole. I would urge you to step back and consider the consequences more thoroughly before the citizens of Humboldt County experience a dramatic and wholly unnecessary diminishment of freedom, a squelching of opportunities for progress, and a bleaker future here for our young people. We in Humboldt County should and can do better – and we can embark on a more hopeful and happy era than is promised by your staffs’ proposals.

Thank you for your consideration of these observations and concerns.

      Very truly yours,
William G. Bertain