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New Front in the Development War 

Housing and population growth have long been among the Humboldt County's most sensitive political issues. The question of where to put new people, and how tightly local government should control development, has fueled any number of deeply ideological, bitter debates in recent years, especially where they touch upon county government's work to update its general plan. Broadly speaking, the debate is between those who believe that new housing should be concentrated in existing urban areas -- this is the side that's winning, currently -- and those who believe that government should generally stay out of the way and let the market determine things.

Now it seems that there may be a new front opening in this ongoing skirmish. Recently, the Humboldt County Association of Governments -- a group comprising county government and the area's seven incorporated cities -- decided to rejigger the release date of the latest version of its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, a document that divvies up the region's expected growth amongst the cities and the county. The change in schedule was made to allow for public input into the process, as is mandated by law, and was taken at the request of the Healthy Humboldt Coalition, a group of organizations that advocates anti-sprawl-style "smart growth."

Why does it matter? Well, housing development is one of the very few matters of local planning in which the state of California takes a hand. Every region of the state is mandated to expect a certain amount of population increase. Regional governmental associations like HCAOG allocate the housing mandate among their members, who are required to file plans showing how and where new houses or apartments may be built to accommodate that increase. Housing developers use those plans as leverage to argue for their projects.

In the past, HCAOG's allocation of the housing burden has operated as a sort of gentleman's agreement -- shares were parceled out to the cities and the county according to each jurisdiction's population, past growth and potential for new development. It's far from clear how this works in practice, even to those familiar with HCAOG's work. "It seems like a pretty arcane formula," said Arcata Mayor Mark Wheetley, that city's representative on HCAOG's board of directors, on Tuesday.

However the division happened, though, it did so relatively quietly and without public controversy. The matter will inevitably get still stickier now that the state law requiring public comment into the process is being applied. In particular, groups like Healthy Humboldt will likely argue that a greater share of the housing burden should be placed on areas of the county where infrastructure like roads, water, sewage systems and health care already exist. In words, on the cities.

"We're not trying to stick it to anybody," said Healthy Humboldt Coalition Policy Director Chris Rall. "We're trying to get the best possible result. There's a lot of benefits to taking this approach, for the cities as well as the county."

Certainly, convincing the cities to carry a greater load in the future would be a great boon for county government. The county has long been leaning toward a greater emphasis on smart-growth development, as well as preservation of working agricultural and timber lands. If its share of the housing demand were less, it would be more free to declare rural lands off-limits to subdivision and housing conversation in its new general plan. On Tuesday, County Supervising Planner Tom Hofweber said that he expected the conversation around the HCAOG housing allocation would change this time around, but he took pains to add that the new county general plan would not lock up the hinterlands. "We intend to provide a full range of housing opportunities in the county," he said.

For his part, Mayor Wheetley was more concerned about getting stiffed from another direction. There is currently some new legislation floating around Sacramento that would provide financial assistance to regional entities like HCAOG in figuring out these kinds of questions, he said, but rural areas seemed to be specifically excluded from applying.

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Hank Sims

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