Rural Dwellers Peer Review
A Rebuttal to Martha Spencer’s recent “My Word” Piece
By Bob Morris
Ms. Martha Spencer, Sr. Planner for Humboldt County recently wrote a “My Word” piece in which she attempts to explain the General Plan Update and its impact upon the rural residents of the County. She is knowledgeable on the topic and has been working on its development for seven years. But her account differs sharply from historic and on-the-ground reality in our view.
Ms. Spencer briefly discusses the various Alternatives being looked at by the County Planning Commission. These Alternatives have been likened to a “smorgasbord” from which the commissioners can “pick and choose” portions that will eventually be approved by the Board of Supervisors. It is obvious to those attending the Planning Commission meetings that the Commissioners are morphing the “recommended” Alternative B with the most restrictive Alternative A and the “smorgasbord” has become a tangled mess. Without the active participation of affected rural property owners, the pendulum may be swinging in a direction favoring severe restrictions on rural properties. This is apparent due to:
a. A recently elected Supervisor stating ” …I’m thinking the final result will be an A- or maybe a B+..”
b. The removal of long term Planning Commissioners with an in depth understanding of rural land issues and their replacement with proponents of “urbanized planning” concepts.
c. The reappointment of a Commissioner with a closed mind to the idea of rural houses (… I’m totally against any more rural residences…”).
This General Plan Update is composed of 12 different Chapters or Elements AND ALL of these must be consistent and considered when determining the meaning and application of the General Plan. Ms. Spencer glossed over this fact and tailored her comments only to the Land Use Element (which cannot be looked at as if in a vacuum).
With this in mind consider her following comment:
1. “…158,000 acres is set aside for rural homesteads…”
This seems like a large number, but let’s analyze it in a little more detail.
The County is comprised of approximately 2,300,000 acres, so it is apparent that 93.2% of the County is OFF LIMITS for “rural homesteads”. The County planners and some officials are trying to force the “clustering” of rural homesteads onto 6.8% of the County’s land base. With this policy they are essentially telling the owners of the remaining 93.2% that you cannot build upon your family lands and your children can’t either. If you want to live in the country you will have to buy a parcel within the 6.8% of the lands that the County says you can have rural houses on WHETHER YOU ALREADY OWN AN EXISTING LEGAL PARCEL SOME WHERE ELSE OR NOT!
2. What happens if you are currently living on a portion of the 93.8% of the lands that are off limits to rural homesteads and your house burns down? The policies being discussed DO NOT entitle you to rebuild under the General Plan Update UNLESS you are within the 6.8% portion of the County lands that the GPU allows for rural residences. If you are in the 93.8% land base, you will:
a. Be required to get a Conditional Use Permit from the County to rebuild. This would be a “Discretionary Decision” by the County and you must demonstrate that the residence is “necessary” to further the primary land use of the parcel (i.e. the growing of trees). This also opens up the permit to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and if someone objects to the permit an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) can be required. This type of environmental analysis cannot be done by a layperson and could cost tens of thousands of dollars. It would make a building permit cost prohibitive to all but the wealthy.
b. Be required to conform to the other 11 Chapters (Elements) dealing with the topics of: Infrastructure, Telecommunications, Traffic and Circulation, Housing, Economic, Conservation and Open Space, Water Resources, Energy, Noise, Safety and Air Quality. Many policies proposed in these Elements will effectively preclude the issuance of a building permit such as:
- Having to be within a “certified” fire district (CDF and “volunteer fire districts” don’t count).
- Being subject to a potentially cost prohibitive “cumulative watershed assessment”.
- Being on a dead end road greater than ¼ mile in length.
Just to name a few.
3. “The true controversial issue is residential development of lands zoned for timber … production”. This statement demonstrates the disconnect between the authors of the GPU and the rural landowners and County tradition. The true “controversy” is the attempt to nullify THE RIGHT TO BUILD ON PROPERTY YOU OWN!
In 1977, the State Legislature specifically adopted new Sections 1100 -1112 under AB 1111, dealing with Timberland Conversions. In the legislative history of this bill, the Board of Forestry developed language to “…maintain consistency between the Forest Practice Act, the Forest Taxation Reform Act (TPZ Act) and the Coastal Act”. The language that was developed was done “…to allow for such things as construction of a residence, ranch barns, corrals …”. The language goes on to state that
“…the 3 acre size limit is an application of the doctrine of “de minimus” …after consultation with the Attorney General…”. Thus 3 acres or less is not considered a significant impact on TPZ lands under CEQA guidelines.
THIS IS IREFUTABLE EVIDENCE THAT RESIDENCES ON TPZ LANDS ARE NOT IN CONFLICT WITH THE INTENDED PURPOSE OF THE TPZ ACT!
In public testimony before the BOS, an HSU professor summarized his analysis of the elimination of the “right to build” on TPZ lands as the largest asset devaluation in the County’s history. He went on to say that it was essentially placing a non-voluntary conservation easement upon these lands and not paying the property owner for it.
4. The proposed policy to restrict residences on TPZ lands in order to “save the timber industry” is not well thought out or realistic in light of market forces. The TPZ policies being proposed in the GPU will result in the EXPORTATION OF RESOURCE LAND DOLLARS OUT OF HUMBOLDT COUNTY. What did the planners overlook? They failed to realize that:
a. The bulk of the timber industry profits are derived from the land. Over two thirds of the total manufacturing costs of the “integrated timber industry” are for the payment and acquisition of logs for the sawmills. Thus, at least two thirds of timber industry profits are attributable to the owners of the timberlands from which the logs flow.
b. Profits flow directly to the owner of the profit making entity – be that the Corporate headquarters of an out of County “integrated timber company” or the home of a locally residing TPZ landowner.
WHERE DID THE PROFITS FROM THE REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK GO?
WHERE DID THE PROFITS FROM THE SALE OF THE HEADWATERS GO?
WHERE DID MAXAAM TAKE THEIR PROFITS?
Profits are largely spent close to home. A locally residing TPZ landowner will spend the profits from his TPZ lands more heavily in the County than will an out-of-area residing TPZ landowner. Resource derived land dollars will churn many more times in the local economy if they accrue to local landowners and are spent here.
c. The County’s GPU should promote policies that encourage TPZ lands to be owned by local residents. Removing the right to live on these parcels is an economic disincentive for a private person to own TPZ lands because during the long holding period between harvests, there is no economic income for the small owner. Historically this economic drought was partially offset by the fact that he could live on the land.
d. The proposed TPZ policies will relegate the value of TPZ lands to that based on the income derived from it (the growing of trees). This will gradually result in the TPZ ownership pattern of the County shifting to large industrial timber owners or the wealthy elite. The cycling of these timber dollars within Humboldt will diminish as the profits are repatriated out of the county.
WHY PROPOSE POLICIES THAT COULD PUT THESE FORCES IN PLAY?
5. Ms. Spencer alludes to problems with “… the subdivision of TPZ lands…” yet fails to place this topic in proper context. The subdivision of lands is controlled by the Subdivision Map Act. This Act has a definition of “subdivision” that is far different, and not applicable, to the vaguely referenced “problem” in Ms. Spencer’s piece.
IS THE COUNTY ABOUT TO ERECT A $100,000 FENCE TO PROTECT A $5 ITEM? The solutions that the authors of the GPU are proposing will do just this. These “solutions” are:
a. The merging of sub-standard TPZ parcels (less than 160 acres) via the implementation of a unilateral Parcel Merger Ordinance. This will have a devastating impact upon many family ownerships’ ability to finance properties, plan estate strategies and raise monies for emergencies. A little history may be in order:
TPZ lands are a major component of the County’s land base. These lands were designated such by the County in the mid 1970’s. Before that a timberland owner was taxed yearly on the value of the timber as soon as it attained the age of 40 years. This resulted in many landowners harvesting their timber at 39 years of age or younger in order to avoid the looming yearly tax. This was determined to be contrary to good forestry practices and the State Legislature passed new statutes that eliminated this yearly tax and instituted a Yield Tax, payable at time of harvest. In conjunction with this Yield Tax, the State also developed a new zoning classification for timberland, TPZ. The County unilaterally placed 99% of all County timberlands into this zoning class and explained it to the land owners in a County produced pamphlet entitled “ABC’s of TPZ”. In this document the County essentially said – we are lowering your land tax (because you’ll be paying a huge tax when you harvest and have available monies) and you can still live on the parcel. WHO WOULDN’T HAVE THOUGHT THIS WAS A GREAT DEAL? There wasn’t much one could do anyway. If your property had the statutory minimum yearly growth rate and had not been converted to other uses (and a residence was NOT a conversion) the County had the authority to unilaterally zone it as TPZ. They did so regardless of size and WHETHER IT HAD A HOUSE ON IT OR NOT. The County unilaterally created 99% of the “sub-standard” (smaller than 160 acres) TPZ parcels existing today.
For 30 years the County’s TPZ landowners thought they had a deal with the County based on the initial explanation by Staff, and also in the ABC’s of TPZ. Then along come some urban-style planners and propose to merge these legally created and certified “sub-standard” parcels BECAUSE they are “sub-standard”!
HOW CAN LANDOWNERS MAKE INVESTMENT PLANS, WITH A LONG TERM ASSET SUCH AS TIMBER, WHEN BUREAUCRATS RE-INTERPRET THE RULES PARTWAY THROUGH THE INVESTMENT CYCLE?
b. Increasing the minimum parcel size for much of the County’s timberlands to a 600 acre minimum size. Many parcels were substandard with a 160-acre size (State’s definition) and this number will balloon upwards with a 600-acre minimum size increase. This is not a solution to any problem and only complicates investment decisions and reduces the options of the small private landowner. WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU OWN A CURRENTLY CONFORMING 160 ACRE PARCEL NOW AND YOU BECOME “SUBSTANDARD” UNDER THE NEW 600 ACRE POLICY?
6. Ms. Spencer alludes to …water supply problems in rural watersheds… and … “new housing…”. Again the failure of the urban planners to recognize what is occurring in rural Humboldt is evident. They are proposing a solution to a “non-problem” (domestic household use – 500 gal/day) and ignoring the real problem (commercial withdrawal for illegal activities). The facts are:
a. People who are engaging in illegal activities DO NOT come in and request permits and do not care if they are in violation of zoning ordinances.
b. There is such an epidemic of permit violations occurring now that the Code Enforcement procedures are ineffective and not responsive to the situation. Permit violation corrections WILL NOT become easier with more restrictive policies.
c. There are existing STATE laws and enforcement personnel to address these watershed issues.
PENALIZING LAW ABIDING LANDOWNERS BY BURDENING THEIR RURAL LANDS WITH A MYRIAD OF NEW LAND USE REGULATIONS WILL NOT STOP ILLEGAL WATER WITHDRAWAL ACTIVITIES.
THE GENERAL PLAN IS NOT THE VEHICLE TO ADDRESS THESE TYPES OF ACTIVITIES.
7. The basic planning precepts behind many of the policies being proposed in the GPU is a planning concept called “SMART GROWTH”. This is an urban planning concept that originated on the east coast in high density locales. It is a concept that embodies the premise that you can “socially engineer” communities to achieve desired lifestyles. As examples of such “social engineering” look at the GPU policy of “infilling”. THIS IS THE PREDOMINANT AND OVERIDING POLICY WITHIN THE GPU.
Most people who come to Humboldt County did not come here to be placed in an urbanized setting. They came here for the rural lifestyle of the County. The “SMART GROWTH” philosophy essentially diminishes the rural lifestyle dream to a non-event.
The County has gone to great lengths to promote the attributes of “SMART GROWTH”. They have even enlisted the support of the County’s Department of Health and have had County Staff, Dr. Lindsay, embark on a promotional circuit to make the case that CITY PEOPLE ARE IN BETTER SHAPE AND HEALTIER THAN RURAL FOLKS. THE PRIMARY BASIS FOR THIS CONCLUSION APPEARS TO BE THE FALSE PREMISE THAT RURAL PEOPLE GET LESS EXERCISE THAN CITY PEOPLE.
The disconnect between the urban planners who authored the County’s GPU and the rural nature of Humboldt County is real and it is the primary reason for the “contentious nature” of the proposed planning document.