Planning Commissioners Hear About Property Rights, Water Issues and County’s Process
Cristina Bauss, The Independent 12/22/2009
A strong contingent of Southern Humboldt residents braved the elements to attend a special hearing held by the Humboldt County Planning Commission on Thursday, Dec. 17 at Redway School. About 200 people filled the school’s gym, including Second District Supervisor Clif Clendenen, HumCPR founder Lee Ulansey and executive director Estelle Fennell, and a divergent group of locals who spoke primarily on the issues of property rights, water conservation, and providing incentives – rather than meting out punishment – to people who have chosen rural lifestyles.
The sole purpose of the hearing was to receive public comment about the Land Use Element of the county’s contentious General Plan Update. Before commencing, commission chairman Jeffrey Smith acknowledged that the “lack of understanding” regarding the difference between General Plan designations and zoning designations – such as TPZ – “creates concern” among commissioners. In short, GP land-use designations determine “where timber should predominate, where agricultural use should predominate, and where rural residential should predominate,” Supervising Planner Tom Hofweber explained. “Every property has both designations” – one generalized, per the plan, and one that’s much more specific. Some TPZ designations, for example, have been made by the state, others have been made by the county, and some even exist within agricultural lands.
Opposition to Plan A
While the opinion of many speakers was that no major changes should be made to the General Plan, there was particularly vehement opposition to Plan A, which has been touted by some as the most environmentally friendly. For several people, including Fennell, the proposed merging of properties is a major concern: “In almost all cases, mergers result in loss of value,” she asserted. “They should be voluntary only.” “A, B, and C are not updates, but extensive rewrites,” Steve Dazey said. “[Plan A] would be very bad economically for the citizens and the government. For example, two of the three properties I currently own, totaling 87 acres, would be reduced from their current market value by about $1 million… This process is being driven by ideology, not the facts or values existing in rural areas – ideologies about open space, housing, water, timber, agriculture, and economic development are significantly clashing with each other.”
Michael Torbert, an organic farmer who has long served on the Sanctuary Forest board, explained that he owns five contiguous parcels, one of which has a conservation easement. “I plan to put easements on the others, but if you make me merge my parcels, I obviously can’t do that.” “It’s a myth that Plan A is the ‘environmental’ plan,” Del McCain said. “But when you pretty much insist that there be THP’s done on all TPZ lands, that pretty much means that they need to get logged. And the county has done very restrictive readings of the Williamson Act, most particularly on the Tooby Ranch. I know someone who’s got a huge vineyard there, and wants nothing better than to do large-scale agriculture, but he was told he has to do agriculture on every acre. I don’t know how you do that without doing cattle. Logging and cattle grazing I don’t find to be particularly environmentally sound enterprises.”
Syd Lehman, president of the Garberville-Redway Chamber of Commerce, presented a letter from the Chamber stating that “the approval of Plan A would be disastrous to Southern Humboldt and most of the unincorporated areas in Humboldt County,” because “it’s too restrictive to areas with limited sewer and water” infrastructure. Lehman further explained that only a handful of residential lots exist in Garberville and Redway, and most cannot be developed at this time because of a building moratorium in Garberville; furthermore, the Planning Department’s information about the number of buildable lots in Shelter Cove is not only erroneous, but the department has failed to consider that Shelter Cove has virtually no services such as schools and healthcare. “To purport that these lots are available for expanding residential living is ridiculous and misleading,” Lehman said. “You need to represent the entire county, and this plan fails in this regard.”
Speakers Describe Errors in County’s Data
On the issue of TPZ, Lehman added, “Instead of this huge fight about building on TPZ land, why not let people with small TPZ parcels opt out… instead of doing the ten-year buyout?” Currently, a property owner can ease out of TPZ by paying progressively higher taxes over a ten-year period; he or she can also submit an application for rezoning, but the process is expensive, arduous, and requires the approval of four county supervisors. To add insult to injury, the current system is rife with inconsistencies: according to Dazey, one of his parcels is zoned three different ways under the three different plans, while another one is rezoned as TPZ – even though the timber is too close to the riverbar to harvest. “When I bought my property 17 years ago, I was told it was TPZ,” Chris Westin said. “None of the maps show that. I live on several hundred acres. I’ve not sold my property; I’ve not subdivided it. I don’t understand how I have a certain zone, and it’s not even shown there… I have six AP [Assessor’s Parcel] numbers. I hear that you can have AP numbers that are considered illegal. Now how the hell did they get illegal?”
“How accurate do you believe the county’s data is so far?” real-estate appraiser and building contractor Blake Lehman asked. “And do you believe it’s wise to make decisions along that data?” Like others, Lehman told the commissioners he has found numerous errors in the existing data, and asserted that “there’s a need to update the General Plan” – including making corrections to the database – “not rewrite the whole thing.” He added, “Changing zoning to anything that has the word ‘rural’ is the kiss of death for most lenders. … With the challenges we have in the economy right now, do you really think it’s wise to throw up more roadblocks? One last comment: Why don’t the assessor’s office and the Planning Department work together? If we spent more time and effort getting the existing dwellings permitted, taxed, and counted in this inventory, our information would be more accurate, people could get a decent mortgage on their property, and we might even generate some money to spend on our schools.”
On that note, Chip Tittman, a green builder and Institute of Sustainable Forestry board member, was one of several people who strongly urged the commissioners to consider amnesty or a grandfather clause – similar to one being considered in Mendocino County – to protect the “thousands of property owners” who have been taxed for decades on unpermitted homes. “It’s absolutely critical to grandfather in existing parcels,” Del McCain added, “and have planning staff that really wants to help the public when they go in there. Right now, it’s really difficult… We’re spending all this money at a time when our infrastructure is at an all-time dismal low. Our schools are in trouble. Our roads are in trouble. Our libraries, our sheriff’s substation… Injustice breeds discontent, which prevents progress.”
A number of other people expressed dissatisfaction with the Planning and Building departments, including Dan Taranto and Walter Prince, who described a positive experience in the 1980’s, when a staff member assisted him with the electrical portion of his plan. “They were really helpful back then,” Prince said. “We didn’t have this adversarial fight. And the cost was reasonable.”
Some of the heartiest applause of the evening was reserved for Whitethorn landowner Bob McKee. “The General Plan is designed to be used by elected and appointed county officials on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s not designed for infrequent consultation, and failure to use the plan will quickly cause it to become out-of-date and irrelevant.” “That’s directly from the General Plan,” McKee explained. “And it’s my opinion that it’s sort of like the Bible in your house – you know, you don’t ever really pick it up and look at it. Chapter 2 says, ‘Humboldt County needs a complete housing-site inventory’… So, what’s the big problem with this housing-site inventory? You’re supposed to have it right now. You haven’t been doing it. … We have a decent General Plan that’s been on the shelf and irrelevant, only because it has not been used as intended.”
Water Concerns and Green Building
Environmental concerns, especially water, were at the forefront of many speakers’ minds. “I see trucks pumping water out of the river in Redway and Garberville, and that’s so people can be on land that doesn’t legitimately support a house,” Andrew Morris said, arguing that water usage must be the primary issue considered when permits are granted for both primary homes and secondary units. Several others argued that environmental stewardship should be rewarded, not penalized: currently, if a property owner installs a rainwater collection and storage system, he or she will not only get taxed on it, but the tax will increase with inflation – even though the value of the system and tank will decrease, and it will eventually need to be replaced. “Instead of trying to downzone us, not have us develop, why don’t you put some restrictions on it?” Torbert asked. “CDF requires 2,500 gallons, which is a joke; I have 30,000 gallons in storage, and that’s really not enough to get through the whole summer, when things get tight.”
“Years and years of work trying to save the salmon in this area are going to waste,” James Ficklin added. “We need incentives – tax breaks – for water storage, and there’s got to be some sensibility with planning regarding water. We have to live appropriately; we have to live within the means that nature sets. And the people who are trying hard to do that need to be rewarded, not punished.”
For others, such as Tittman, alternative building modes should be incorporated into the GPU, and current Health Department prohibitions against the use of composting toilets should be lifted. Addressing the crowd as much as the commissioners, Bob Froehlich said, “I don’t believe our rural lifestyle is in danger… or that the county government is conspiring to root out the back-to-the-landers and move them off their lands. But I will say that that impression was certainly aided by the mistakes made by the county while trying to aggressively enforce code violations, in a way that left the impression that Code Enforcement was a back-door way to bust pot growers.” Froehlich exhorted the commission to approve the use of alternative energy, water, and waste-disposal systems, and to “remove the roadblocks to make further permitted improvements on their land. … You’ll be helping many people who are not your enemies, who are some of the best caretakers of the environment, people with good values and great hearts.”
Several other speakers – including Cecelia Lanman and Richard Gienger, both of whom have worked with the Environmental Protection Information Center for more than thirty years – addressed the environmentally protective measures Southern Humboldt residents have undertaken on their own over the years. Gienger, Charley Custer, and Robie Tenorio all urged the commission to embrace the concept of “restoration zoning,” and Gienger highlighted the need for incentives that would encourage residents to engage in fuel-hazards reduction, road maintenance, timberland maintenance and accessibility, and fisheries restoration.
On behalf of EPIC, Lanman said the group “does support policies that prevent sprawl and development into forestlands, the most outrageous example being the PL/Hurwitz proposal to create ‘kingdom estates’ in the middle of the Headwaters Forest Reserve”. Speaking for herself, Lanman added that the county “has apparently abandoned the principles of community outreach” that governed its GP process in 1984, “in favor of stakeholder groups determining the platform for alternatives A, B, and C… The process has been flawed, and has resulted in a false polarization between environmental advocates and rural landowners.”
Keeping Landowners In The Loop
Others were concerned about the process of informing landowners about potential changes to their property designations. “I just recently got high-speed Internet,” Kathleen Creager said. “You may expect people to go online, but what about the thousands of people who are not conversant on the Internet?” “Anyone with changes will get a letter from our department,” Girard responded. “Once the Planning Commission says, ‘These are the changes we’re contemplating,’ a letter will be sent saying, ‘Your property is being considered for changes under the General Plan.’ … The bottom line is, anyone would get personal notice before it’s done.” That response was one of the few that resulted in a passionate response from the audience, with one man yelling, “That’s a lie!” Hofweber attempted to defuse the situation: “If you don’t have Internet connectivity,” he said, “feel free to give us a call, and we’ll respond to your questions and explain your current and proposed designations.”
“You would not have had the kind of public turnout and obvious disenchantment that the public has had here this evening,” Ulansey told the commission, “if they had been involved in the [planning] process for the last 14 years, at a cost of over $10 million of the public’s money. The public has not been involved. Your coming down here this evening is a first step. From my perspective, this is the first meeting of the General Plan process for the rural people of this county.” Girard took umbrage at some of Ulansey’s assertions: “It has not been a 14-year process that was initiated nine-and-a-half years ago,” he said in response, “and the cost, as of about four months ago, is $2.6 million. I don’t want to be defensive, but facts like how much the General Plan has cost and how long it has taken, and how many meetings we’ve had… Clearly, we have to be on the same page as far as facts that are easily verifiable.” Girard further acknowledged, “I know we haven’t done as good of a job as we’d like” in terms of presenting information more clearly.
While emotions did run high, the tone of the dialogue throughout most of the evening was respectful and informed. Custer, who has attended a number of county meetings where both Code Enforcement and the GPU have been discussed, thanked the commission “for the very unexpected pleasure” of responding to questions, and Tom Grover – who donated coffee from Signature Coffee Co. and brought locally grown olives from Persimmons Garden Gallery – told commissioners, “As much as people are uptight, they’re really glad you came, too.”
“You should know that you’re being heard,” Smith said before closing the hearing, “and the Planning Commission is a group of volunteers who don’t want to do anything other than make your time productive… Your comments are very well taken. We have had a lot of hearings on this, and when we come down here, this is a pretty homogeneous group in terms of your concerns. Most of you agree with each other. We have these in other parts of the county, where we get some pretty homogeneous groups that agree as well – but they don’t agree with you. And that needs to be recognized… Overall in the county, we’re not as homogeneous as we would like to be, and it does make it difficult to try to do the right thing.”
Other items addressed by speakers included the impact of large-scale music events on the Eel River; the potential difficulties of building on parcels smaller than 600 acres, per regulations that would go into effect under Plan A; and the challenges faced by ranching families that often depend on secondary-unit rental income.
County maps that were posted during the meeting are now posted at the Veterans’ Hall in Garberville. The meeting was aired in its entirety on KMUD, and is archived on www.kmud.org. More information about the General Plan Update is available from the county’s GPU site, www.planupdate.org.