One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Dancing with the County – by Charley Custer
A rural development in the works for several years was stalled at the 11th hour, by the Board of Supervisors last November. This is just one example of how difficult it is to work with the county on rural property issues.
The 2000-acre Hilltop Ranch, zoned TPZ, sits on a ridge above Miranda in the South Fork Eel valley north of Garberville. Resource Land Holdings, who bought the property in 2006, applied for and received Certificates of Compliance for each of the underlying patent parcels in 2007, which meant the county certified that each parcel was legal for sale. Access and easements were created for each of those 21 parcels, and a Joint Timber Management Plan was written to certify that each one could profitably manage the timber it contained. (This JTMP is required by the Assessor’s Office for divided Timber Productivity Zone lands, to assure that reduced TPZ land taxes are justified for smaller parcels.)
Forester Chris Carroll of Timberland Resource in Fortuna worked on that JTMP for more than a year. He says, “It went through the Forest Review Committee, where it was unanimously approved. Then it moved on to the Board of Supervisors, where Planning staff had also recommended it for approval. At the last second the Board voted to not accept the JTMP, based on an assertion by Supervisor Lovelace that he didn’t feel comfortable with it because the JTMP contained no guarantee that the parcels were going to be logged.”
This complaint about JTMPs had not come up before. Chris says, “The Timberland Productivity Act, which created this TPZ zoning, does not explicitly require a landowner to harvest their timber, however there is a “reasonable expectation” that harvest will occur. Our local forests require anywhere from 35 to 50-plus years to reach merchantability. Therefore, some TPZ landowners may never harvest timber in their lifetime. Nonetheless, growing and tending a forest is consistent with the intent of the Legislature. The suggestion that landowners should be ‘required’ to harvest their timber, at some predetermined point in time, is not only disingenuous, but bad policy which could lead to unintended consequences. If this was the standard, you would never grow large trees, which are valuable as forest products and wildlife habitat.”
There’s also an appearance of extremely selective enforcement: “I have a problem with the premise that for particular landowners, and for this particular part of the county, they think owners are not going to log. I think they’re playing judge and jury on the types of people buying these parcels, and I don’t like that. When we prepared these JTMPs we looked at the land and it’s capability to be managed-we don’t try to judge who might own it in the future. The litmus test is; if this ranch is broken into some parcels that are less than 160 acres, can those sub-standard parcels be managed? This was thoroughly analyzed in the JTMP, and the FRC concurred.”
Chris points out that 24 percent of TPZ land in Humboldt County is in parcels of 160 acres or less, with 2 percent being 20 acres or smaller. “We have big timber companies that dominate ownership in our county, obviously, and we also have a good number of large ranches. Based upon my professional experience, small, non-industrial timberlands, such as the JTMP area, tend to be managed less intensively, more selectively, and with longer rotations between harvests. This not only benefits wildlife and watersheds, but also helps provide for a more stable flow of wood products, many of which are of higher quality. A diversity of landowners with different management styles strengthens our timber industry.”
But other parties disagree. A principle goal embedded in the upcoming General Plan Update is to prevent smaller parcels, such as the Hilltop Ranch’s, from being divided off large timber holdings. The theoretical reason for this is to conserve the efficiency, productivity and long-term survivability of Humboldt’s world-class timberlands-no matter what Humboldt’s world-class timber operators, and other rural residents, may think about these ends and means.
This policy goal is not yet achieved, but it seems to have mired other JTMPs along with the Hilltop Ranch’s in similar otherwise unaccountable delays: county staff seems to be awaiting policy shifts that will ultimately create reasons now lacking for rejecting parcel sales already in process.
The county’s de facto moratorium on TPZ housing permits is another example of such tactical delays at work, which can’t be openly discussed. Why not? On the one hand, because government is supposed to process ‘ministerial’ permits (which applicants have a right to receive when defined requirements are met) without extraneous conditions-which a moratorium manifestly does not do; on the other hand, because applicants, no matter how privately frustrated, don’t dare criticize capricious treatment from agencies they cling to hopes of receiving final approvals from.
In a nutshell, the county (both planners and supervisors) is playing with people’s rights while they fiddle away with a rewrite of the laws that affirm those rights. As one interested observer reflected, “I think the Board (in going along with Lovelace) blindsided the county, too.”
Targeting Small Forest Landowners
Mixing JTMP and NTMP
The County Planning Department is making a complex mess out of the Joint Timber Management Plan (JTMP) process and the use for which it was originally intended. The Planners are in the process of arbitrarily changing the traditional use and content of the JTMP in a manner that mixes it together with a Non Industrial Management Plan (NTMP) to create some new “morphidite” Timber Plan document. It is obvious that these Planners are not foresters versant in these documents and do not really understand why these documents were created, what their differences are and what their intended use was.
A Joint Timber Management Plan is NOT a timber harvest document. It is authorized under the Government Code section, which is commonly referred to as the Timberland Productivity Act. This code section deals with the ZONING of land, not with the harvest thereof. Section 51115.1 states that “the zoning of a parcel … shall give rise to a presumption that timber operations (defined in PRC Code section 4511) …. may reasonably be expected to and will occur on that parcel”. No section in this Act REQUIRES or MANDATES that harvesting will occur in any particular time frame or by any particular owner or successional owner.
The Timberland Productivity Act goes on to state in Section 51119.5 ” …a joint timber management plan (be) prepared or approved as to content by a registered professional forester… “. This Section states, “the JTMP shall provide for the management and harvesting of timber … and shall be RECORDED with the county recorder…”. As with the language in Section 51115.1 (cited above) there is NO REQUIREMENT or MANDATE that harvesting occur, only a presumption that it might.
Documents are recorded for the primary purpose of putting the public on constructive notice that a particular event occurred or may occur. A JTMP “restriction shall run with the land for a period of not less than 10 years…” (Section 51119.5). This language reinforces the fact that a JTMP does not REQUIRE harvesting in that if the timber stand was only ten years old when the JTMP was recorded (and many JTMP’s involve young age timber stands) the timber would have to be harvested before the potential expiration of the JTMP at age 20 years.
A Non Industrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP) is a harvest document. It is authorized under the Public Resources Code, the Code that deals with Timber Harvest Plans and all harvesting activities. The NTMP was created for the benefit of small timberland owners (less than 2500 acres) to allow them the flexibility of a long-term harvest plan (contrasted to a 3 year life of a normal THP). This extended time allows the small owner greater opportunity to harvest their timber during a “good market period” and not be forced to harvest, or go through the considerable cost of renewing an expiring THP, when the markets were depressed.
Joint Timber Management Plans and Non Industrial Timber Plans primarily benefit small landowners and are used by them extensively. One is a “notification” document and the other is a “harvest” document, both authorized by separate and distinct legislative acts.
Now, the County is trying to impose a harvest document requirement as part of a land use regulation process. Arbitrarily changing the traditional use and intent of these documents is creating extreme consternation and concern among small landowners as to what can they actually count on when it comes to retirement planning, estate planning and other long term economic investment decisions making. It is particularly unfair to these owners to use land use policy as a tool that reduces the flexibility and the value of their property.
On top of all this, County Planners are proposing changes to the County’s General Plan that will impact these small owners even more significantly. Involuntary parcel merger, changing traditional zoning classifications and increasing minimum parcel sizes are actions that could consolidate land ownership patterns into fewer owners with correspondingly larger parcels. This trend has the potential to discourage small ownerships. Instead, Humboldt needs to encourage forest owners small and large, to recycle their dollars locally and guard against the exportation of financial resources out of the County.
When small local timberland owners harvest trees, profits stay and circulate in the county economy. Small forest landowners continue to be very important to the viability of the timber industry as a whole in Humboldt County. Why would we want to lose that independent and sustainable diversity of ownership?
The County Planners are not economic wizards. They do not understand the timber industry dynamics and have bought into the fallacious argument that in order to make the capital investment necessary for a sawmill one must own huge tracts of land. If this was an economic truth, then why are the following sawmills in place: Schmidbauer Lumber Co., Eureka, Redwood Empire, Cloverdale, Willits Redwood, Willits, Trinity River, Weaverville, the old Mission Lath mill, Arcata, the old Britt mill, Arcata etc. These sawmills own virtually NO timberlands of any consequence and yet they provide timber output that nearly rivals the mills owned by the larger landowners of Humboldt County in productive output.
These County Planners are proposing General Plan land use changes that are going to fundamentally punish the small landowners by taking away their ability to manage their lands to benefit themselves and their families into the future.