NCJ - What is a General Plan? Sept. 9, 2004

Planning Commission to choose growth model
County appears to shy away from sprawl
Planning Commission to choose growth model
County appears to shy away from sprawl

AFTER SEVERAL YEARS OF PREPARATION and months of lobbying from environmental and building interests, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is preparing to decide the shape of future development in unincorporated areas.

And despite heavy pressure from Humboldt Economic and Land Plan (HELP), a group made up of members of the building community, it appears that the county is moving away from the idea of significantly expanding residential construction into farmland or forests.

The board's upcoming choice among the county planning staff's "sketch plans" -- broad-stroke visions of the county's growth patterns over the coming 20 years -- will be a critical step in the county's general plan update. The choice will determine whether the county will focus on modest growth, largely confined to existing communities, or vast and rapid housing expansion designed for some 60,000 new residents.

At a meeting of the planning commission last Thursday, the county's Community Development Services director unveiled three new sketch plan options, all of which shied away from suburbanization of resource lands to one extent or another. Director Kirk Girard said that the public overwhelmingly endorses the idea that future growth should be accomplished through "infill" -- or denser development within already existing communities -- wherever possible.

"One of the major take-homes from this stage is that the alternatives that were on the table, which allowed for extension of water lines and rural residential subdivisions, were not supported by anybody," Girard said. "That finding was, in part, what led staff to overhaul the sketch plan alternatives."

The three new sketch plans, now called "A," "B," and "C" to distinguish them from their four numerical predecessors, all curtail the amount of development that can be done in rural regions. Plan A would essentially ban all residential building in areas not served by municipal water and sewer lines. It would likely involve "down-zoning" many properties in the outskirts of existing town, restricting existing landowners' rights to subdivide their parcels, while it would increase the allowable density of residences in already existing urban areas.

Sketch plan C meets one of HELP's goals in that it provides enough land to accommodate a growth rate of 2 percent per year -- 18,000 new homes over the next 20 years -- but it would tightly pack that large number of residences into a dense area in and around already existing communities. In short, it wouldn't seem to provide HELP advocates with anything close to the amount of raw land they have been demanding. (Plan B is a mid-point between the two extremes, but like plan A it is based on the state's official estimate of a 0.6 percent per year growth rate in Humboldt County.)

No members of HELP were available to comment on the new sketch plans when they were unveiled. The group's spokesperson, insurance agent Mike Harvey, was attending the Republican National Convention at the time. On Monday, Harvey said that the group would be meeting to discuss the new options over the coming days.

"We're in the process of regrouping a little bit with these things," he said, noting his preliminary approval of the fact that the county took HELP's preferred growth rate into consideration when developing the new sketch plan C. "We asked for a new sketch plan, which I guess they've kind of done."

In recent months, HELP has given public presentations, printed up full-color brochures and launched a Web site to present its message -- that the county needs to foster a friendlier business environment, and that the quickly rising cost of homes in the county can be tempered by opening up additional opportunities for residential development. In addition, the group commissioned a Portland, Ore., firm to conduct a poll of residents' attitudes toward development. The group says that the poll results back up their message.

Despite their apparent success in advocating infill, the Healthy Humboldt Coalition -- an organization comprised of the Humboldt Watershed Council, the local chapter of the Sierra Club and the Northcoast Environmental Center, along with support from allied groups such as the Alliance for Ethical Business -- is carefully watching the remainder of the process.

At last week's meeting of the Planning Commission, Mark Lovelace of the Humboldt Watershed Council expressed concern that the county would consider any expansion outside the boundaries of towns, which Healthy Humboldt believes is the most expensive, as well as the most environmentally unfriendly, option.

"We need to look at the fact that we can accommodate lots more within our existing areas," Lovelace told the commission. "Let's keep looking within our communities."

Healthy Humboldt's apparent success may be in part due to the fact that some groups not traditionally allied with the environmental movement -- the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, for example -- have also championed infill over expansion.

John LeBoyteaux, Farm Bureau vice president, told commissioners that agricultural interests believed in protecting agricultural lands from suburban-style development. He said new growth should be focused in areas that have municipal water and sewage systems available.

"The Farm Bureau has long advocated providing growth focused within and adjacent to existing serviced areas," he said.

Much work will still need to be done to flesh out the complete general plan after the supervisors pick a sketch plan alternative. It will likely take more than a year for county staff to finish the complete plan, develop a zoning ordinance to codify regulations envisioned by the plan and write and circulate and environmental impact report, which is required by law.

The Planning Commission is expected to pick its favorite among the new sketch plans at its regular meeting tonight (Sept. 9). The commission also is likely to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on additional "policy options" in the new general plan -- new regulations developed in tandem with the new general plan and designed to promote affordable housing, protect agricultural and timber land, support the Port of Humboldt Bay and address the export of county water, among other things.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear the Planning Commission's recommendations and take further public comment at a special session Monday night. It may decide on the plan that evening or at a later meeting.

But both HELP and Healthy Humboldt are promising to stick around and follow the general planning process meticulously, even after the winning sketch plan is chosen.

Their mutually antagonistic advocacy may make mincemeat of Planning Commissioner Bruce Emad's hopeful words at the conclusion of last week's meeting.

"What we will come up with, at best, will disturb and make everyone unhappy -- within reason," Emad said. "Everyone will walk away and say `This is not what I want, this is not exactly what I had in mind.' But they won't be disturbed enough to come in here with pitchforks and throw tomatoes at the board."

Upcoming general plan hearings
Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004, 6 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 13, 2004, 6 p.m.
Both meetings will take place in the Supervisors' Chambers of the Humboldt County Courthouse, 825 5th St., Eureka.

What is a general plan?

One of the most important powers of cities and counties in California is broad control over land use within their jurisdictions. A general plan, often called a "constitution for development," is a state-mandated document, rewritten approximately every 20 years, in which local governments lay out their visions for their communities' future.

Humboldt County's general plan, which was last updated in 1984, covers all the land under county jurisdiction -- in other words, outside the limits of the county's seven incorporated cities, each of which has its own general plan. A little over half the county's population lives outside the cities, including residents of McKinleyville, Cutten, Willow Creek, Westhaven, Orick and Garberville/Redway.

General plans must address many issues in determining how to meet future needs of residents, including transportation, public safety, open space and even noise levels. Each of these topics, along with others that governments may wish to address, is covered by a separate chapter (or "element") in the plan.

The most important elements of a general plan, though -- the ones that set the pace for all other issues -- deal with land use and housing. The land use element of Humboldt County's plan defines what sorts of activities will be permitted on each parcel of land in the county's jurisdiction. Any piece of land may be designated for housing, industry, timber production or agriculture, for example, and owners of that parcel are subject to restrictions on what sort of development they may undertake on their properties. The land use element of the general plan is implemented through the county's zoning ordinance, which spells out those restrictions in detail.

The housing element of the general plan is subject to greater oversight by the state government than other elements of the plan and must be rewritten at least every five years. Local jurisdictions must demonstrate to the state government that they are adequately prepared for population growth.

If this test is not met, the state may reject a jurisdiction's housing element and send it back to the drawing board. The land use element of the general plan must set aside enough land for construction to meet the needs projected in the housing element. Humboldt County's last housing element update was passed in December of last year.

© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.