Custer’s Stand: General Plan Update Justice
by Charley Custer
There’s a striking imbalance in Humboldt County’s General Plan Update process. Put simply, a handful of people in cities largely unaffected by the Plan’s most sweeping landscape pronouncements are imposing those pronouncements upon a minority with no say in what’s happening to them. I might feel better about the representatives of Eureka and Arcata telling me I can forget about building my dreams in the country, if I could tell them to stop putting stoplights and strip malls farther and farther from where I drive in town-but that’s an unrealistic desire on my part. I can’t tell cities, with their own governments, elected representatives and planning departments, anything that will affect their decision-making. Yet a few people living in and near cities think they can impose upon me notions of how I may or may not live many miles from them. They govern themselves, and must discuss and agree among themselves, even when imposing policies upon me that I can’t participate in creating.
Some people say this ain’t so. They say hundreds of General Plan meetings have taken place throughout the county, and it’s my own lazy fault that the desires of rural residents are ignored in the Plan Update alternatives. But, before I became a lazy hill muffin, I attended one of the first public meetings supposedly taking community input for the Update. It was a Forest Resources session held at the Samoa Cookhouse ten years ago-though it could just as well have been in Garberville last week. Way back then, the Plan Update was already locked and loaded: Planning Director Kirk Girard told us that a principal planning goal was to prevent more people from having small rural parcels of farm or forest. The people who nonetheless wanted them demanded to know why their desires were to be excluded from our General Plan Update. Girard replied that their interests were too small to be considered economically viable; they didn’t deserve a chance to grow.
And that was that. Though more than 100 people were literally shouting their desires to our Planning Director at his official community advisory meeting to receive them, the county did not acknowledge, still less incorporate, what rural residents, and rural wannabes, overwhelmingly called for. From the very beginning of the GPU public process I witnessed, rural desires were brushed off the table. So I’m a little tired of people shaming me for not wasting my time over the last ten years going to many more pre-pointless shout-fests. I preferred to wait for the wave of illegitimate policy-making to reach its crest, and start its collapse.
Planning Commission Chair Jeff Smith got me reminiscing about this when he closed a December Planning Commission meeting in Redway with this benediction: “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.”
To my ears, a symphony of overlapping issues and concerns had been played for the Planning Commission in Redway. But lumping the views of the Garberville-Redway Chamber of Commerce with its arch-enviro neighbors as ‘homogenous’ seems a bit rich for even our reliably contrarian community.
There certainly was agreement, particularly that the lack of rural participation in the General Plan Update has ill effects as obvious to preservationists as to developers. Implicit in many comments was the idea that a GPU informed by the communities it planned for would work better than the blind-men-groping-an-elephant system that has created our current controversies.
“How accurate do you believe the county’s data is so far?” asked local appraiser Blake Lehman, alluding to Shelter Cove buildable-lot figures which are known both locally and in Sacramento to be so fanciful that they were rejected by the state Housing Commission for use in the Plan Update’s Housing Element. “And do you believe it’s wise to make decisions with that data?” Lehman inquired.
He also pointed out what rural mortgage-seekers know painfully well, that “changing zoning to anything that has the word ‘rural’ in it is the kiss of death for most lenders.” While this is widely known to businesspeople in the country, that’s not evidence of our homogeneity, it’s evidence that county muckety-mucks have empowered themselves to make startlingly uninformed decisions.
EPIC’s former program director Cecilia Lanman noted that the county “has apparently abandoned the principles of community outreach” under which our current Plan was written 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.”
‘Stakeholders’ are the people invited by the county to closed meetings where the GPU was actually outlined. It turns out that the General Plan Update was revved up and rolling before most people in the county heard a word of it.
As if to prove Jeff Smith’s point, HumCPR founder Lee Ulansey echoed EPIC’s Lanman, saying, “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.”
Planning Director Kirk Girard disagreed with these assessments, while conceding “I know we haven’t done as good of a job as we’d like” in presenting the information that many otherwise polite people found unworthy of presentation.
But it was process and product, not presentation, that caused the real problems. A few months later, chair Jeff Smith was flummoxed at the March 11th Planning Commission meeting to hear that the Farm Bureau had changed its recommendations concerning the county’s proposed parcel merger ordinance and multiplied minimum lot size. But the Farm Bureau, along with the Cattlemen’s Association and the Buckeye Conservancy, had in fact made their policy recommendations nine months earlier, in a letter to the Commission dated June 6, 2009, which said: “We encourage the Commission to review the Forestry Review Committee’s (FRC) recommendations that were not fully integrated into the General Plan Update and to direct staff to incorporate them into the final version of Section 4.6 Forest Resources.”
But there was a problem: the Forestry Review Committee had been prevented from presenting its recommendations to the Planning Commission, by Kirk Girard. He argued to the Commission that the Forestry Review Committee wasn’t supposed to review policy, despite the Board of Supervisors’ official invitation to committee membership that specifically enumerated policy review among its duties.
To be clear, the Forestry Review Committee, comprised of seven licensed foresters from the public and private sectors, makes recommendations, not decisions, for the Planning Commission and its boss, the Board of Supervisors.
After concerted lobbying, on March 11, 2010 the FRC was finally permitted to present its recommendations, most of them unanimous, coming out of meetings held two to three years earlier. They recommended against the merger ordinance and ‘substandard parcel’ intolerance currently written into the county’s favored Plan Update options.
Among several FRC members who spoke that night, SmartWood-certified sustainable forester Jim Able, with 35 years of experience in the timber industry, told the Planning Commission, “I was very frustrated, and so were a lot of other people, that a lot of decisions that actually required a forester, rather than a bartender or somebody else, were being made-all due respect . . .”
Next, his equally experienced fellow committee member Gary Rynearson said: “I want to make sure the Commission understands the framing of these decisions. They weren’t made with a smattering of people in the crowd, they weren’t done in a vacuum, they were done in a very transparent process . . . they were done in this room (the Supervisors chambers) with a standing-room only crowd, who expressed concerns not in a hearing but in an informal format. . . . This happened over several years.” But those democratic recommendations got presented only after a months-long fight behind the scenes, which culminated in half the Planning Commission voting to reject them anyway. Their 3-3 deadlock left the final decision on the FRC’s recommendations (which are also the Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s desires) up to the Board of Supervisors.
And then, in a remarkable development reported on page 2 in this issue, on April 15th the Planning Commission voted 4 to 1 to endorse the recommendations after all! Our message is finally being received in the last months of this 10-year process, thanks to so many citizens’ unflagging voices. This decision too will be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors.
But the question remains: why has this been so hard? How could rural Humboldt have been shut out of planning its own future? Why were we subject to squelching even after we pried the doors open, with appointed and respected professionals united at our side?
vWell, consider this: more than two thirds of our county’s population is huddled around Humboldt Bay between McKinleyville and Fortuna. Our Supervisors’ districts are gerrymandered to give each of the four biggest cities around the Bay a home Supervisor, with Jimmy Smith representing their suburbs. That’s politics: all Humboldt Bay, all the time. But when these urban representatives claim an authority and vision over rural futures that’s blind to rural residents and landowners themselves, they’re running a wrong-headed railroad into the bush.
One of the oddest injustices in county governance is that our Board of Supervisors only governs unincorporated areas, where a minority of the county’s population lives. Yet they’re elected mostly by people living under town governments largely immune to supervisorial decisions. So Supervisors may be quite comfortable ignoring the communities that actually are under their governance-because those communities aren’t who elects them.
This is a recipe for toxic politics. If we had even one actual rural representative on the Board of Supervisors, the county’s GPU railroad would run less roughshod over the land we love. But there’s a moss-moist glimmer of a bright side, in the fate of the railroads run through Humboldt’s rural heartlands over the long haul: like it or lump it, the hills rule. With patience, all this foofaraw too shall pass.