GOVERNMENT’S DUTY – CITIZENS’ RIGHTS
Humboldt County General Plan – Section 1500
by Peter O. Childs
The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their pubic servants the right ot decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created." – Brown Act, 1994; Gov’t Code Section 54950
OPEN LETTER TO THE CITIZENS OF HUMBOLDT COUNTY, THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, AND THE PLANNING COMMISSION
After a good deal of thought, I have decided that the current rewrite of the General Plan should be stopped, and restarted at the beginning. Certainly an enormous amount of time (far too much) and work has gone into this rewrite, and some important things are being considered, such as responsible development and protection of our environment, but there is (among a host of other problems) a critical flaw in the process that renders the whole plan unacceptable.
That flaw is that the democratic process upon which this nation is supposed to be based has been almost completely ignored. George Washington observed:
"The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty…(is) justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." Entrusted to the people, not to special interest groups of any kind, or to "leaders". Thirty years ago a group of people (the Citizens’ Participation Advisory Committee) devised and got written into the General Plan (which is still in effect) a carefully thought out and effective (if practiced) set of programs specifically designed to maximize citizen input to the planning process "beginning at the outset and continuing throughout the planning process". This is the 1500 section of the General Plan; check it out.
The Planning Department has very largely ignored these instructions, which they are legally obliged to obey (much of the 1500 section is command language ["shall", not "should"], and in any case the General Plan is legally required and is expected to be followed). The General Plan is the Constitution of Humboldt County, and the 1500 section is the Bill of Rights. That section orders the Planning department to "motivate" the public, to inform them thoroughly regarding every important matter being considered, in plenty of time and with sufficient specificity to prepare the citizenry to participate effectively. Perhaps the most basic requirement is that Citizens’ Advisory Committees be formed in every area of the county that wants one. The full range of opinions in each area is expected to be represented, in order that people can bring those differing views together, educate each other, and form a consensus as to the common interest. They can then meet with the planners in a cooperative rather than contentious fashion, making them aware of what the needs of each area are (How better for the planners to learn these needs, which they are hired to serve?) Imagine how different things would be if the planners had been promoting these activities for the last thirty years as they were directed to do, instead of 1) opposing them, 2) failing to implement them, and now 3) attempting to simply do away with them.
The Planning Department has decided not to use Advisory Committees, claiming (understandably) that they tend to become contentious and take too much time. The problem is (aside from the fact that if they were following their instructions they would have to deal with much less contentiousness), they have no authority to deviate from these instructions without amending the General Plan to allow such changes, and they have not done this. True, they have told the Board that they want to ignore these requirements, and the Board has been perfectly willing to go along. But that doesn’t make it right, and it is not right at all. It is, if you understand the nature and importance of democracy, highly improper as well as apparently illegal.
Rather than obeying the instructions of the 1500 section of the General Plan, the Planning Department has chosen to focus on meeting with "stakeholder" groups, which boil down to "special interest" groups. The idea is apparently that this is an effective way to survey the needs of the citizens of the county as a whole, but if you add up all the members of these stakeholder groups they will surely add up to less than a majority of the registered voters in the county; probably very much less. So the bulk of the citizenry has been excluded from the planning process, unless one considers a few marginally informative local meetings with the planners and three minutes before the Board or Commission to be adequate in that regard. And not only have these instructions been almost completely ignored, the planners are now trying to simply wipe them out of the General Plan! The 1500 section, on public participation, is almost completely absent from the proposed rewrite. And a whole lot of other things are being tossed as well; check out the two hundred and twenty-five items that were slated for removal from the Housing Element (we got seventy of them put back, but only in the Appendix and just prior to the adoption of the Housing Element). Should you find checking on these items difficult to do, ask why. Insist on an acceptable answer.
If we care about democracy; if we realize that it has real value only as it is practiced, not just talked about, then we must insist that it be practiced. We have a very thorough set of instructions for our public servants in this county to do just that. Far from throwing out these instructions, we should start the revision of the General Plan over from the beginning and do it properly. I regret the loss for the moment of good new ideas, but I am content to allow those ideas to rise to the top in a genuine democratic process. Use it or lose it (Washington-"…perhaps as finally”; Lincoln; "the last, best hope of mankind").
This is of the highest importance; none of us, citizens, Supervisors, or Commissioners should be sitting on our hands here. We should do it right. Now. At an absolute minimum we should insist that the entire 1500 section of the General Plan be retained intact, and that it be practiced next time instead of ignored.
by Bob Morris
One of the options that will be considered by the Board of Supervisors, when they make the final decision on approving the rewrite to the General Plan, involves whether to place a significant amount of the County’s timberlands into a Land Use Classification labeled “Industrial Timberland”. Is your parcel destined for inclusion? Don’t think so? Don’t be too sure. Do you want to face the future possibility that a house is not permitted on your 40-acre parcel? Your 20-acre parcel? That you may not be able to put a house on your property unless you own at least 600 acres? In fact, according to the proposed language, under the "TI" Classification "Residential use will only be allowed as a conditionally permitted use where necessary for caretaking purposes, or for compatible recreational use". Which means, even if you could build a house it wouldn’t be your home.
After receiving word from several of its members that their lands appeared to be included in this new Industrial Timberland designation, HumCPR researched its database to find out what properties were to be included. The results were eye opening! Along with the large timber companies there were 828 small, private landowners who owned 3275 small parcels whose lands were designated with the ambiguous classification of "Timber OR Timber Industrial". When queried as to how a person could determine which of the categories their lands would end up being classified the County replied "staff will determine that when they draft the final Land Use maps". In other words – let the BOS decide on an option and then staff will work out the parcel inclusion details later (after public comment has closed).
Almost two thousand (1,972) of these private parcels uncovered by HumCPR’s research would be classified as "substandard" parcels. They would be smaller than the 160-acre minimum proposed under "TI". A landowner would not be allowed to "create" such a parcel but the County can do it by fiat, with no justifiable basis. Research uncovered private parcels as small as 18 acres being put into this Industrial Timber classification.
In public forums where this "Timber Industrial" item has been discussed (i.e. Planning Commission meetings) Staff has attempted to gloss over the inclusion of small landowners into this category by stating that "a few small landholders may be included to prevent impacts upon or the fragmentation of large blocks of corporate ownerships". In plain English this means if you are in the proximity of a large timber company ownership (i.e. border them or are in the same watershed) your lands are candidate lands.
From a forest land operational viewpoint, the "fragmentation" argument is outdated in today’s heavily regulated atmosphere that controls timber management activities. It may have had more meaning 10 years ago before the ascension of the water and watershed regulations which have trumped the traditional Board of Forestry rules. Today’s Timber Harvest Plans must have the concurrence of the Water Board and the Department of Fish and Game in order to be approved by the Department of Forestry (Cal-Fire). As such downstream water concerns now play more heavily in the forest management arena. As an example of the dominance of watershed impacts versus "fragmentation" impacts one has to look only at areas such as Elk River, Yager Creek, Salmon Creek and Freshwater. There are gigantic blocks of unfragmented timberlands in the headwaters of these drainages yet much of the forest management activities are driven by downstream water concerns and impacts. Fragmentation is an outdated argument and doesn’t have a realistic basis, as many of the proposed rural land policies in the General Plan rewrite do not.
Creating a whole separate classification such as "TI", with more restrictive requirements than are already in place does nothing for forest management. Trees DO NOT care upon whose lands they grow. They grow just a vigorously on one owners land as another. All that a new classification accomplishes is devaluing these traditionally valuable lands and making it even harder for timberland landowners, small or large to stay solvent, borrow capital based on property values and to economically thrive.
Including small private landowners into the Timber Industrial category only underlines how misdirected this proposal is. These landowners are no more "industrial" in nature than are the members of the Board of Supervisors or the Planning Staff who dreamed up this scheme. When questioned as to what the definition and/or criteria was for "Industrial Timberland" the Staff has an answer for every day of the week. Day to day it will vary from acreage on Monday, to location on Tuesday, to condition of the property on Wednesday, to historic use on Thursday, to income of the property owner on Friday or the latest proffered definition "if it doesn’t have a house on it".
The traditional and commonly accepted definition of an "industrial timber owner" is one who is involved in the manufacturing of lumber products. The mere ownership of timberland has not traditionally classified an owner as "industrial". Creating new definitions only adds chaos to a General Plan rewrite process that has already consumed 10 years and $10,000,000.
The County has an appointed Forestry Review Committee (FRC) that is composed of Registered Professional Foresters. This committee is charged with reviewing County forest policy, among other duties. This committee has not been appropriately used in the formation of the timberland component of the General Plan update. Staff controls the submission of data TO the FRC and FROM the FRC to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Having non-forestry professionals propose and promote policies that are not based in fact and substance is shortchanging the citizens of the County.
The decision makers, the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, should insist on FRC participation and presentation on forestry and timberland policies when these matters are before them. The chairman of the FRC needs to step up and provide direction to staff rather than taking direction from them. FRC recommendations have been largely ignored or not included in staff-developed alternatives. Bottom line: The County should adopt the recommendations provided by the FRC and drop further consideration of "TI".