Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – In response to lobbying from housing developers, county supervisors have revisited several General Plan Update decisions.
Modifications to update policies related to low-income housing, pedestrian streetscapes and business development were approved by a majority of the Board of Supervisors during an Oct. 19 update hearing.
A previously-approved policy directing the county to streamline subdivision approvals in higher-density Housing Opportunity Zones (HOZs) was one of several pulled for reconsideration by Supervisors Ryan Sundberg and Virginia Bass.
Mapped for areas with water and sewer services, HOZs are part of the county’s state-mandated Housing Element and demonstrate that low-income housing is being planned for. But housing developers want the streamlining to apply countywide.
County planning staff told supervisors the pre-planning that enables a faster permit approval process would be an overwhelming task if applied to the entire county area. Extending it beyond HOZs would also undercut the goal of prioritizing historically under-served lower-income housing.
“I just want to remind you that when you prioritize everything, you end up prioritizing nothing,” said Planning Director Kevin Hamblin. “So you might want to see exactly what you consider to be a priority for putting on the fast track.”
Supervisor Mark Lovelace said the HOZs figured into Housing Element approval because the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees housing plans, wanted the county “to provide specific incentives (for low-income housing) above what we were doing elsewhere.”
During a public comment session, Julie Williams, who represents the Northern California Association of Home Builders, said HOZs were not required by the state and have “undermined quite a few projects” outside of the zones.
Williams related HOZs to the controversial policies of Kirk Girard, the county’s former planning director. “I’m going to call it what it is – it’s rat at the bottom of the boat that you’ve finally turned in the right direction as far as housing and development for all incomes in Humboldt County,” she said. “Girard used (HOZs) as one of five or six mechanisms to shut down development in the county in general and we think that that stinks.”
Williams added, “We think you guys need to snap out of the Girard zone.”
Most supervisors supported changing the policy’s wording to generally state that the county will streamline permitting, including in areas designated as HOZs. Lovelace was the only supervisor to vote against the change.
Similar disagreement between Lovelace and the board majority was seen when supervisors changed a policy on permit streamlining for business expansion in neighborhood centers, town centers and Business Opportunity Zones.
Reconsideration of a policy calling for pedestrian-friendly streetscapes also stirred debate. The policy encourages “pedestrian-friendly residential design” through techniques such as using alleys and courtyards to minimize street-facing driveways and minimizing street-level views of garages.
County Supervising Planner Rob Wall said the policy stems from an overall “backlash” against poor design. Sundberg said the policy is “too prescriptive,” however, and added that the market will influence design standards.
“Developers are going to do whatever makes them the most amount of money and usually that involves making a really nice place for someone to live,” he continued.
Sundberg added that sidewalks and other aspects of walkability are already required for new development and “I just don’t know if this (policy) is necessary.”
Supervisors voted to delete the policy, with Lovelace dissenting. Lovelace was again the lone dissenter when he suggested that second units built within Timber Production Zone conversion areas should require conditional use permits on timber parcels of 40 acres or less.
Earlier in the meeting, supervisors declined an Arcata resident’s request to revisit a straw vote they had taken at the previous update hearing.
Lisa Brown, an Arcata farmland preservation advocate, asked supervisors to reconsider their majority vote to allow an Arcata Bottom property owner to subdivide her 12.5-acre parcel into multiple 2.5-acre parcels.
Brown said subdividing the parcel would be at odds with the goal of maintaining Arcata Bottom farmlands.
The county’s Planning Commission supported changing the parcel’s designation to agricultural-exclusive in the 2012 update draft. Board Chair Estelle Fennell emphasized that in reversing the commission’s version, supervisors are affirming a subdivision right that already exists.
Supervisor Virginia Bass, who had “reluctantly” joined Lovelace in voting against the subdivision request, said that in retrospect, she would have voted the other way.
Supervisors will hold another update hearing on Nov. 16, when they will review the plan for consistency.