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What's the Plan, Humboldt?


AT THE END OF 1999 the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors adopted a document called "Prosperity! -- The North Coast Strategy" as the county's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy and appointed Supervisors John Woolley (photo at right) and Bonnie Neely to a subcommittee to plan ways to put the strategy into action.[photo of John Woolley]

About the same time the board shifted responsibility for economic development from the County Administrative Office to the Planning and Building Department, creating a new department called Community Development Services.

What does "Prosperity" -- a document that addresses such quality-of-life issues as small town friendliness, pace of life, and the growing income gap between the rich and poor -- have to do with building permits? And what does any of this have to do with the $22 million the county received from the state and federal government from the public acquisition of the Headwaters Forest?

They are all pieces to the same puzzle, a puzzle that will begin to take shape in the coming weeks as the county presents a series of community workshops.

[photo of Bonnie Neely]"This is the first time the county is going to have an economic development component in the General Plan," said Supervisor Bonnie Neely (photo at left). "We felt that it was important that we tie it in with spending the Headwaters money. Those two things are dovetailed together. It's exciting to have the opportunity to update the General Plan and have this money that we can put into the economy."

"Even before Headwaters came into the mix, the concept of blending land use decisions with economic decisions made sense," said Supervisor John Woolley. "Oftentimes they were seen as two disparate trains of thought. Businesses go forward and land use planning is seen as separate. We want to unite them.

"The General Plan principles and framework are going to be key in making sure that our policy decisions are guided by the community. These meetings will give us some important input about how we should judge our future growth."

Five regional public workshops will begin next week. Each will have one or two county supervisors in attendance. The workshops will begin with the topic of how to spend or invest the Headwaters revenue, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. After a half hour food break, the workshop topic will shift to discussion of the General Plan update from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

"What better way to decide how we should spend this money in terms of developing our community than to have a public process where everyone gets to participate? We're dying to hear what people have to say about their vision for the future of the county," said Neely.

The meetings will be Tuesday, Sept. 12, at Trinidad City Hall; Wednesday, Sept. 13, at the Agricultural Center on South Broadway, Eureka; Thursday, Sept. 14, at Masonic Temple in Garberville; Tuesday, Sept. 19, at Mad River Grange in Blue Lake; and Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Humboldt Bank in Willow Creek.

For more information contact the Humboldt County Community Development Services Department at 445-7541.

An interview with Kirk Girard

[photo of Kirk Girard]Kirk Girard is director of the new Humboldt County Community Development Services Department, formerly the Planning and Building Department. The department is responsible for traditional duties such as issuing building permits and conducting inspections. It is also responsible for overseeing planning and development for the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors under state law and the county's own General Plan, which will be updated over the next four years. As of last December, the department was handed the addition charge of administering economic development grants and programs.

The Journal spoke with Girard last week about plans for the future.

Let's begin with this series of meetings coming up to discuss the Headwaters Fund and the revision of the General Plan. What`s the plan?

The first part of the meeting will be to tell the public what the supervisors have done to date with the Headwaters Fund. Basically they've said that they want all of it or almost all of it to be used for economic development for the county. A small fraction went to pay off some law enforcement costs and some timber yield tax losses, but the bulk of the fund has been set aside in an endowment account to be used for economic development.

How much money?

At 6 percent interest, the $22 million endowment should generate $1.3 million in interest a year.

The second thing we'll do in these meetings is get input on where those monies should be spent in the county. We'll provide everybody with an opportunity to put in their two cents. There will be some descriptions of the possible alternatives that are being considered for use of the money, everything from infrastructure development to loans to mini-grants in various areas such as reforestation, investment in land for manufacturing uses. A whole range of options have been talked about and contemplated. We'll talk about some of those things to spark thinking. The results of those meetings will be written up and presented to the Board in December offering some alternatives about how the Headwaters Fund can be invested or spent.

To what degree is your department going to be involved in planning how the Headwaters money will be spent?

This is under our new department organization, Community Development Services, which includes planning and the General Plan effort and also economic development.

Is this actually a reorganization or is it just a change in titles?

Economic development used to be managed out of the County Administrative Office. At the beginning of this year that division was moved over to the Planning and Building Department and we changed the name.

Most people think of the Planning Department as the place you go for building permits, zoning questions -- land use issues. But you're talking about something broader.

You may have heard of "Prosperity," the comprehensive economic development strategy. The plan was adopted by the Board of Supervisors about the same time as our department was reorganized. It charts a course for the economic development of the county.

In the end game the spending of the Headwaters Fund should be consistent with and linked to Prosperity!, the economic strategy. The board made that clear. In comes the General Plan, it will ultimately be consistent with "Prosperity." The two will work in a complementary way.

Isn't the General Plan essentially a land use document?

It's better to call it a development document. Believe it or not, land use is just one chapter. Anything that has to do with growth or physical development in the county needs to be addressed in the plan. That's everything -- transportation, schools and education, safety including geologic hazards, earthquake preparedness, tsunami hazards, public services and utilities -- all of those things are related to the growth of the county.

When you say the county, does that exclude the incorporated cities?

In terms of jurisdiction, yes it does. Each incorporated city has its own general plan that is the constitution for development within the city. The county's general plan has to consider all of the general plans within the county and try to develop some sort of coherent whole to the planning.

Isn't McKinleyville just about done with its own General Plan that will be part of the larger plan?

That's technically a "community plan" within our General Plan. But you take a situation like Arcata where they have sole jurisdiction to adopt their own general plan. The county reviews it and there is a mechanism to deal with the area right around the city, it's called the "sphere of influence." We work very closely with the city to make sure that what the county is doing is consistent with what the city wants to do in the long run. We have these spheres of influence around each city and those are coordinated in our general plan.

Prior to the upcoming public meetings you have been meeting with some community groups. Which ones have you talked to?

We've met with the Farm Bureau, we had a pre-meeting the Northern California Homebuilders and will have another meeting, Humboldt Economic Prosperity Forum, the Humboldt Watershed Council, the Sierra Club. ... It's quite a long list. I think we have seven or eight groups under our belt so far. We're meeting with the Manila Community Services District Board some time soon. [Other groups include the Audubon Society, North Coast Growers Association, the Board of Realtors, Northcoast Environmental Center, the Agriculture Advisory Committee and the City of Trinidad.]

Those are all special interest groups, each with its own agenda.

That's right. Let me draw an analogy. We just completed a community plan for the Avenue of the Giants, Miranda, Phillipsville, that area. It was an action-oriented plan. As you can imagine the growth rate down there is not that large. So we got together with the whole community and asked, What projects would you like to see? A few rose to the surface. One was, "We need a summertime bridge to Stafford," another was "We need better emergency protection services," "We need trails," "We'd like to work more closely with the park [Humboldt Redwoods] on its planning." We formed these committees with people who really wanted to do something for the community.

Then we came in with the planning document to make it so they could attain their goals rather than have to fight with an adopted plan. The idea was to assess the dynamic in the community and reflect that in the plan. We're trying to scale up that basic model to the county level. We're going to groups that have agendas, that have ideas and a vision for where they would like the county to go. We're saying, "What is it? Can we accommodate your vision in the overall plan?"

What are some of the things that have come up in your advance meetings?

One is having a regulatory framework that recognizes the needs and impact of micro-businesses. There are a lot of businesses with just one or two people trying to make a go of it, yet they have to go through the same regulatory process and comply with the same guidelines as a well-heeled business. That can stop a business in its tracks. Say they can't afford a $3,000 permit process, or it drives them underground. They end up working out of their garage because they can't really legitimize themselves. Often for micro-businesses the regulations are overkill, but we've got a one-size-fits-all regulatory process.

Another common theme is quality of life. What is that? How do we identify it and preserve it with land use policies? That includes questions like, What do we do with the forest lands immediately surrounding our towns? What about subdivisions design? Trails? What kind of retail should we have? Do we have viable downtown centers?

You're talking about what people would like to see in the future, but isn't the General Plan essentially a regulatory framework?

That's a good question. The General Plan is the big picture trying to -- as clear as we can -- describe what we want the county to be like in 20 years. The regulatory framework gets you there. That actually comes later. The basic package consists of a vision of the future and the policies that will get you there, and the policies are fairly broad. It could be something like we want a subdivision where people can ride bikes and walk around, that's part of the subdivision design. Then you get to the next level, what you call "regulatory framework." After policies, you develop specific standards. If someone wants to come in and design a subdivision, you can give them a piece of paper that says, "For a subdivision of four lots or greater we would like to see individual trails linking every lot." That's linked to the community plan.

But when it says, `We would like to see,' it doesn't mean you have to do it?

That's right. You put "shall." In fact in the regulatory framework we have now and even in our policies, some are advisories and, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice?" One way to clean up the documents, so that you're clear on what goes and doesn't go, is to have clear understandable rules that people know they will have to abide by. We're going to move to try to eliminate all of the advisory "feel good" policies and stick to those that are going to be implemented, rules that are going to get us where we want to go. And we think that in doing that we will be able to reduce the volume of documents dramatically.

When it comes to something like zoning, it seems that getting around the General Plan is easy. Variances are routinely granted. Once you make these new planning rules, will people actually have to follow them?

The best way to make sure that decisions are made according to plans is to have good, viable, fresh plans that everybody has subscribed to. Our framework plan now is a 1984 document, so it's somewhat out of date. And it didn't necessarily benefit from a sense of vision about where the county is going to go. I'd say it was intended to meet state mandates for regulatory framework land use decisions, but it didn't capture people's imaginations in the sense that we do have things to preserve in Humboldt County. We want to make sure that we don't turn into another -- pick a town -- Sacramento, Roseville, Santa Rosa, some people are even starting to say Ukiah. The trend is somewhat clear in terms of the effects of development pressure in California when you don't have a plan that you abide by, one that suits the circumstances.

How long do you expect this process to take?

We want to be done in three or three and a half years. The plan will have a 20- to 30-year time horizon. We're calling it "Humboldt 21st Century."

A citizen's advisory group has been working on a revision on the McKinleyville General Plan for years. Will there be a similar community-based committee working on this?

We're not going to have that sort of advisory committee on the policies. We are working with an informal group of people talking about the process, how public involvement occurs, the format of the reports and communications. So we are getting advice on the process from citizens at large. But we're putting the Planning Commission and the Board [of Supervisors] in the position of being `the committee' instead of just being decision makers at the end where they are sort of the final judge and jury that sorts out all the controversy. We'll have them attending the community meetings, the workshops, the summit meetings that we'll have. I think we'll get better decisions at the end if they're involved in the process from the beginning.


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