Addressing the Fundamentals in the GPU
by Steve Hacket
Rancher, Forest Manager and Conservation Planner
When attempting to do something extremely difficult (develop complex public policy), the only possible solution for success is to focus on the fundamentals. These are the fundamentals as I see them:
Fundamental #1: Humboldt County Planning is a Threat
The threat is to the landowners, to our culture, our economy and our ecology. I have been observing the GPU while immersed in work as a commercial resource landowner agent on conservation easement (CE) transactions. In order to appraise the monetary value of rights to be traded, we wade through the logistical morass of perfecting parcels to establish a landowner’s entitlement to separate parcels (subject to the State Subdivision Map Act, The Ca. Timberland Productivity Act and the Ca. Williamson Act). I find my motivation for engaging in this process is repeatedly misunderstood. But perfecting parcels is mandatory when a landowner is contemplating the conveyance of a conservation easement. Here’s why:
Two issues determine the monetary value of a conservation easement in the majority of working resource land CE deals. They are: 1) the landowners’ conveyance of separate parcel entitlements, and 2) the landowners’ conveyance of the right to rapidly deplete timber stands (subject to the Ca. Forest Practices Act, the Federal Clean Water Act, and the Ca. and Federal Endangered Species Acts). It is unthinkable to make a charitable donation of or sell rights to commercial timber without cruising the timber to establish its volume and value. It is equally unthinkable to sell or donate parcel entitlements without perfecting parcels to establish their size and quantity.
Valuation of CEs currently impacts only a small minority of landowners. CEs are a growing industry however, and a public Taking of those separate parcel entitlement rights removes the ability for Humboldt County landowners to be compensated for their good stewardship, and for our community to realize the benefits of the potentially massive flow of capital generated from the general population of California and the nation, into Humboldt County and onto private resource lands.
Taking separate parcel entitlements also impacts a very large majority of resource landowners who are not currently contemplating CEs. Taking those rights not only defaces our nation’s founding principals but also sets the stage for massive conflict. When taking separate parcel entitlements, policymakers apparently fail to comprehend a landowner’s investment in those earned rights.
The investment is concreted in our expectations about what we have struggled to earn and keep, sometimes against overwhelming odds, and always with decades of good hard labor; it is made even more real by years of memorable difficulty, pain and sacrifices from our families.
There should not be any proposed GPU change until both the landowner and the Humboldt County Planning Staff are clear about what rights are being taken and respectively given up. Unless the entitlements and proposed alternatives are disclosed, Humboldt County policymakers look like they are attempting to use the GPU to covertly take entitlements.
Many of the alternatives discuss incentives, which is a great approach. Meaningful incentives work. They provide positive reinforcement and focus on what we want, not on what we don’t want. The road to cooperative planning and public-private goodwill is to recognize and respect what rights are entitled. We can’t work together until policy makers eliminate the threat they are currently creating. As a first, fundamental step, entitlements on all rural ownerships must be perfected. Is that going to be difficult?’ It is impossible with the current protocol. Change the protocol. Invest in it and streamline it. Disclosure of the process in a written document would be a great first step.
Policy makers must provide incentives and migrate away from conflict-based regulation in order to conserve our ecology and economy. You can’t migrate away from conflict-based regulation until you reduce conflict. You can’t reduce conflict until you reduce your threat. You can’t reduce your threat until you disclose and respect the investments landowners have made in their entitlements. If policy makers do that, we can develop meaningful and effective incentives that our community can identify as common ground, get behind and pull together on.
Eliminate the threat and focus all attention on conservation incentive, and you will accomplish more in the end than you can ever hope to accomplish any other way.
Fundamental #2: Effective Planning Requires Background Experience
The primary step of my company’s process of conservation planning involves investing at least a few years of shadow-time on the land with the landowner, and conducting quantitative assessments so that we gain background experience to identify strategic perpetual conservation boundaries based on geography and soil potential. Designing perpetual conservation boundaries cannot be done without private sector experience, because the fiscal economy of a private property (and also a public property in the long term) is at least as important to natural ecology as biology. Economy and ecology are inexorably tied.
TPZ, and other zoning regulations, and Williamson Act technical regulations often combine to diminish the effectiveness of conservation boundary planning. The current GPU residential growth, industry and resource conservation boundary alternatives all lack credibility because they appear to be mostly remote sensed and to have no meaningful background.
Functional incentives will require a clear understanding of the logistical challenges the various existing policies impose. Fundamental background information is essential. I have studied the GPU alternative boundaries on and adjacent to my family’s property and that of my clients. The current GPU alternatives appear (from the plan alternative maps) to be disjointed and arbitrary, without background.
At least, a fundamental direction to Planning staff in the GPU should be to get our house in order. Humboldt County planning information is in a state of chaos. We need an accounting system that identifies what we currently have before any change is contemplated.
- How many substandard TPZ “legal” parcels are there and where? How many of them have JTMPs?
- Which parcels currently have houses?
- Which TPZ parcels have houses?
- How many of those TPZ parcels with houses do not have a NTMP or have not filed a THP in the past 25 years?
- How many APNs reflect legal parcels?
- How many legal parcels are perfected that the Assessor does not recognize?
- Where are perpetual conservation easements? What is their proximity to other natural resource lands and residential areas?
- Where are the class I soils and the redwood Site I productivity sites? Where are the Site II?
Fundamental #3: Effective Strategy is Basic
Build strategies that take a first step in simplifying, reducing conflict and that create meaningful background. Here are some examples:
1. Perfect all legal parcels to remove threat, identify background data (examples above) and have a basis for informed decisions. Establish streamlined written policy to this end, and commit resources to it.
2. The State-mandated residential requirements need to be planned credibly. We can’t do that however without a good basic strategy that streamlines regulations based on material issues. For example:
a. Current TPZ zoning should be the only specific Commercial Timber Production land use. It serves no purpose to have more detailed designations. It is an effective incentive. Don’t mess with residential related issues this GPU because we don’t have background.
b. The Williamson Act has traditionally been about grazing on grasslands (on Class B and C). The sustainable biology and economy of grasslands is ungulate grazing (not vineyards nor small farm Ag.). Designate Class B & C Williamson Act preserves as Grazing to set appropriate expectations going forward. It is an effective incentive. Locking in a 600-acre preserve size in zoning removes the incentive, takes entitlements and feeds conflict. Grandfather the previous policy mistakes caused from a lack of clarity regarding small farm Ag. (E.g. Tooby Ranch) to reduce conflict and to move forward. Don’t mess with residential related issues this GPU because you don’t have background.
c. Designate all alluvial soils as Prime Ag land use unless there is current residential or commercial zoning. Base it on the USDA soil survey. (The current alternative maps have some crazy boundaries that apparently have no background).
d. Designate all other private rural lands (other than Prime Ag, Grazing and Commercial Timber Production, and lands not already zoned for commercial industry or residential) as mixed Ag and timber. It serves no purpose to have more detailed land uses without credible background.
3. Provide policy to engage Watershed groups, Fire Safe Councils or Agricultural Districts to build cooperation and trust, gain background and incentivise community participation.
4. Merge appropriate (restricted development and severed interest) conservation easements into one legal parcel and one APN to begin to streamline accounting, planning analysis and provide a minimal property tax incentive for conservation easements.
5. Recommend that Supervisors create policy that requires the Assessor to eliminate all but one APN on all currently recorded mergers, and one per recorded certificate of compliance. This will help show where the risks to resource conservation are (i.e. without it you can’t tell where the risks are, and where ecology and natural resource economy is already or likely to be lost. Current background data is garbage data, and from a planning standpoint, it’s garbage-in-garbage-out).
6. Create Planning Dept. policy to incentivise Planner cooperation with the Assessor.
7. All rural residential zoning should be incentivized to develop Fire-Safe Councils.
8. Prohibit subdivision (of existing entitlements) on Prime Ag soils and Site I redwood.
9. Communicate clearly: IF policy makers persist along this fatal “alternatives” path, GPU maps need to depict the current land use designation condition on one map, and each of the alternative proposal maps should only depict on each map what changes are being proposed for that alternative.
I regret that I waited to comment. I thought the proposal would be boiled down by now, and Humboldt CPR and The Resource Lands Working Group ideologically represent me. When commissioners prefaced the Redway meeting by saying what they wanted to hear was only which alternative is preferred, it was like asking whether I would rather live with a murderer or violent biker gang. I can’t do what they ask.
To conclude, I’m not clear about what commissioners are proposing (i.e. how they plan to choose between the alternatives, and whether they will mix and match). As always, the devil is in the details, and based on the current state of information they possess, they won’t be able to develop any better planning without respecting, recognizing and perfecting entitlements, and changing the entire way they collect, record, share and utilize information. I ask that they get our house in order before any zoning changes are made. This GPU should be an action plan on how to do that.
I understand what I suggest is a monumental long-term task. All the more reason to start now. I also understand the fear that perfecting parcels will lead to residential sprawl. The fear is without grounds. It will be the threat imposed by the Planning Department and resulting political gridlock in our polarized community that will lead to residential sprawl.
See Steve’s complete comments at: