by Jim Hight
Illustrations by Grace A. Kerr
Your neighbor wants to take some valuable timber off his property and subdivide his land into two or three home sites.
You're horrified. Those beautiful second-growth redwoods shelter your home from the wind and the freeway noise, and they remind you daily why you live in Humboldt County. "This is a residential neighborhood," you and your neighbors tell each other, "not a timber production zone. The county should stop this."
But other neighbors take the opposite view: "It's his land, he can do what he wants with it. The county should stay out of it." A bitter dispute ensues, ending years later as you and your neighbors lose in court. After one last ugly confrontation with the hired logging crew, you watch the trees fall.
That's a rough sketch of what happened in Westhaven over several years, culminating last month when Dean Winkelhaus began logging his four acres.
Similar conflicts erupt in every corner of Humboldt County, where one person's "viewshed" or wildlife habitat is another's productive asset. The biggest controversies have divided whole communities, as McKinleyville was polarized over the Mill Creek Marketplace (Kmart, Ray's). But even a small subdivision or an oversized second dwelling can pit neighbor against neighbor.
Imagine being smack-dab in the middle of these stomach-knotting conflicts and you'll get a sense of the job done by Tom Conlon, the county planning director who resigned in March at the forceful suggestion of Supervisor Paul Kirk.
The planning director and his staff of misnamed "planners" are the gatekeepers for building and development projects in Humboldt County, outside of the seven incorporated cities. The Planning Department is the "lead agency" charged with enforcing rules for every regulatory outfit from fire districts to the Army Corps of Engineers. Spend an hour in the department's cramped lobby and you'll probably hear a planner trying to explain to a would-be builder or home remodeler why some obscure state law prohibits them from doing what they want on their land.
At any given time, the department has in process as many as 200 applications for subdivisions, zoning variances and conditional use permits. To the home and ranch owners, commercial builders, contractors and suppliers, those permits represent millions of dollars in stalled economic activity.
To citizens who want tighter reins on development, those applications -- and the public hearings where the permits are voted up or down -- represent opportunities to stop or alter projects that threaten neighborhood quality of life or natural resources.
The department also ends up in the middle of conflicts over what land-use and zoning policies the county should implement. And no matter what the planners do, someone stands ready to accuse them of a pro- or anti-development bias.
Conlon was promoted to director in June 1986, and during the 11 years since, his was usually the hottest seat in county government.
How hot? As hot as you can remember if you were there in 1988 when Conlon became the target of a redwood rebellion.
Prompted by a fatal fire in a substandard house and a grand jury report, the board of supervisors told Conlon to create a program to inspect homes and other buildings that had been built without permits.
United Stand groups in Humboldt and neighboring counties had been challenging these kinds of building-code enforcement programs since the early 1970s. So when Conlon proposed new powers for building inspectors and fines for violators, people mobilized to stop the proposal. At stake was the freedom to design and build homes and utility structures to their own standards, using home-milled and recycled lumber and whatever ceiling heights and lot setbacks they damn well pleased.
Thousands of people attended 23 hours of Planning Commission hearings held over several days at Eureka High School and Redwood Acres. Conlon was excoriated by fourth-generation Humboldt residents and "back-to-the-land" newcomers. At one point, "2,000 people chanted in unison to fire the planning director," remembers Fortuna-area logger Timothy Carter.
Conlon recalls a moment when the crowd's anger reached a crescendo. "A deputy sheriff came up and told me, 'If they charge the stage, we think we can get you and the Planning Commission out the back door.'"
The crowd let Conlon leave, the program was dropped and the supervisors let him keep his job. Eventually two things happened: The county adopted an alternate owner-builder ordinance for people living in very rural areas which allowed nontraditional housing and such things as composting toilets, and the Community Assistance Unit was created to respond to complaints about unsafe or hazardous structures.
That meeting may have been the last time Conlon felt the need to plan his escape route from a public hearing, but in the years since there's no doubt the department has often been under siege.
Consider these competing perspectives:
"You have to be eternally vigilant to watch the Planning Department or they'd be in essence working for the developers," said Lewis Klein, a McKinleyville service district board member. In his view, if you want the county to enforce conservation laws, you have to be ready to organize and go to court, as he and others have done in several cases.
On the other side, builders and real estate interests say the department plagues them with excessive regulations and an anti-development attitude.
"It takes so long to process a development anymore that you cannot even figure out how to track it," said developer Gerald Pavlich. "Years ago you could do one in six months, then it increased to eight months, 10 months. Now it takes two years. It's an anti-growth department. They're not there to help you, they're there to stop you."
Conlon, 53, started processing development permits for the county in 1973, about the same time that new environmental laws were changing the way builders could operate.
Before the 1970s "there was not a lot of interference in our lives," remembers Jim Johnson, a contractor and developer in southern Humboldt since 1958. Subdivisions were approved at the nod of planning commissioners.
But since the wave of environmental laws, builders are required to protect endangered species, water quality, wetlands, coastal access, archaeological sites and more. "Now it's grown to where you simply can't keep up with it anymore," said Johnson.
The stream of regulations never dries up, say building-industry people. Sand and gravel operators -- the foundation of the building industry -- are just this year entering a rigorous scientific monitoring program administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The regulations spell expense and frustration, and while many builders acknowledge that the laws come from Sacramento and Washington, they say the folks at the Planning Department at Harris and H streets add to their burdens.
"(The planners) aren't sitting there thinking 'How can we break these guys,'" opined Jack Noble, a Van Duzen River tree farmer and gravel miner. "But because they're government people they don't understand that a lot of these projects are leveraged. The bank is hammering this poor guy to keep his (loan) interest paid all the while the project is on hold."
Many of the aggrieved builders asked their county supervisors for help. Among the five supervisors, Bonnie Neely, whose 4th District is basically Eureka, embraced the critics' point of view most heartily. So, when a frustrated Tom Sutton approached her with his Planning Department nightmare, she was more than ready to listen.
Sutton, an apartment owner who ran Redwood Care Centers at the time, bought two one-acre lots in December 1993 on freshly subdivided Liberty Bell Court in Cutten.
He applied to the Planning Department to merge the lots into one. That transaction sailed through in three weeks, but in that time Sutton's priorities changed. He'd decided to sell the lots, so he asked the department to undo the merger.
Sutton figured all that was required was redrawing the line that once separated the two lots, so he anticipated quick action even though the split was technically a subdivision. He submitted the application Jan. 30, 1995, and was informed it would take about 10 weeks.
When Sutton walked into the Planning Department two and a half months later, he was shocked to hear that his application was 12th on a list of projects one planner was working on. His application, he was told, wouldn't go before the Planning Commission until July. "It was just adding a simple line back, and they didn't want to do it," said Sutton.
Sutton took his complaints to Neely and then to the entire board. Along the way he met others who were deeply frustrated with the Planning Department, and in June 1995 Sutton agreed to chair an investigative committee.
For 18 months the Planning Review Committee members talked to planning staff and observed the busy -- often tense -- front desk area. They fielded complaints from professional builders and ordinary citizens, and they met weekly with Conlon.
In 25 recommendations they challenged the department to improve the turnaround time for permits, enhance its "customer service" and change some rules to avoid delays from "unnecessary public hearings."
The committee, made up exclusively of developers and building-industry folks, appears to have transcended its private-sector perspective a bit and empathized with Conlon when he explained why certain improvements couldn't be made quickly. "It's a bureaucracy," PRC member Rob McLaughlin, co-owner of Eureka Redimix, said sympathetically. "We understand that there are a lot of limitations to how well some things can be implemented."
The committee even admonished the board of supervisors for spending too many planning department payroll dollars staffing this general plan update or that advisory committee.
Conlon implemented most of the recommendations by January 1996 and laid out how much money was needed to do the rest. "He took the concerns seriously and made a decent effort to make things work," was McLaughlin's assessment.
But Sutton and other PRC members criticized Conlon harshly for not nailing down cost-accounting to justify the increasing permit fees. Nor would he tackle the liberal flex-time policies, they said. "You walk through there on a Friday afternoon and you can't find anyone working," said Sutton. "They work four days a week, three days a week, whatever (is to) their convenience. (Conlon) would close the office on Fridays."
Several PRC members repeated the same stories of three-day work weeks and Fridays off, and in an April 3 interview with The Journal, Paul Kirk echoed their complaint about the department being closed on Fridays.
But those complaints are not true.
Except in the case of maternity leave, no planner ever worked a three-day week, according to several county sources, including county Personnel Director Rick Hage. Five of the 10 planners work four-day weeks, an arrangement that serves the employees and the department, which must staff many night meetings. The rest work five days.
The department was closed Fridays (a result of budget cuts that reduced public hours at many county offices), but Conlon began opening Fridays 16 months ago at the suggestion of the Planning Review Committee.
PRC members and supervisors alike appear to have amplified complaints about the department to keep the drum beating against Conlon. Even Tom Sutton's complaint was tailored to bring more heat on the planning director.
Sutton's two lots slope steeply into a tributary of Ryan's Slough, which feeds into Freshwater Slough. To enlarge the building site, Sutton had some fill brought in, an unpermitted job that cost him a citation from state Fish and Game.
Sutton and the subdivision developer are at odds over how much fill was brought in. Sutton says it was just a small amount.
"Try 1,500 to 2,000 yards," contradicted Liberty Bell builder Gerald Pavlich. "You cannot move more than 50 or 70 yards of dirt without a permit... He just tried to sneak it in there and it makes everybody look bad."
At least part of the delay Sutton suffered was due to this activity. Erosion control measures were necessary, and an inspection by the Public Works land use section, which had been alerted to Fish and Game's concerns.
These types of erosion problems are becoming increasingly common in new subdivisions. "We're getting away from all the nice flat land we used to have," said Harless McKinley, head of the Public Works' land use section. "We're developing on the periphery of communities, getting closer to the gulches."
But that kind of complexity is usually deleted when PRC members and supervisors make their public criticisms of the Planning Department.
In its December 1996 report to the supervisors, the PRC stopped short of recommending Conlon's dismissal. But its message to a cash-strapped board left little doubt as to its wishes. The members told the board, in Sutton's words: "Either put $500,000 into that department to put more planners getting the work done or take a look at administration."
But Conlon might still be planning director if last year's election for 2nd District Supervisor had gone differently.
Bonnie Neely's negative views of Conlon were no secret in county government and building circles. Paul Kirk had heard a lot of complaints from building-industry folks who contributed some $30,000 to his 1994 campaign, but hadn't moved to oust Conlon.
Then Roger Rodoni rode into town with his white hat (metaphor courtesy of Rodoni pal Rich Ames).
Cattle rancher, College of the Redwoods teacher, adviser to federal resource agencies and host of a talk show on KMUD, Rodoni lost a close election to Roy Heider in 1992. In the four years between elections he fielded complaints from many people in the Eel River Valley who felt unrepresented by Heider. It's easy to imagine Rodoni meeting friends and associates for morning coffee at Fortuna's Country Kitchen on Main Street, hearing story after story about Tom Conlon and the bureaucratic, foot-dragging, anti-development Planning Department.
He ran a radio ad on the topic and pledged to move against Conlon. "There was no question how I felt about it. I can give you names and numbers of people who have been bogged down in planning for one year, one and a half years, and they can't get anywhere."
Neely echoed these complaints in an interview, underscoring the point by noting how much more quickly development permits are processed in the city of Eureka.
But a former county planner who now works for the Eureka says the reasons for the difference are obvious.
"In the county a planner can expect to have as many as 60 projects, here in the city I range from 10 to 15 at the most," said Sidnie Olson. "In the city I only deal with urban areas. In the county, you deal with urban, rural, ag, natural resources, timber production, people wanting to do urban-scale development on rural lands... You're dealing with water quality, coastal protection, endangered species, things you just don't deal with in the city unless you're on the coastal front or the gulches."
The supervisors chose attorney Steve Nielson as acting planning director while they begin a search for a permanent director. Nielson has been county counsel, and he's done contract work for the planning department on gravel mining and zoning. His contract was increased 20 hours a week to cover the planning desk. At Nielson's $85-per-hour institutional rate, that'll cost the county at least $10,000 more than it would have cost to have Conlon stay on through a transition period, which is what Conlon says he would have preferred.
"The part that's most distressing to me is that there seems to be no plan... just 'get rid of Tom, then we'll figure it out,'" said Conlon. "All the employees who have worked so hard to make the system work better are at a loss as to where they're going."
Conlon received a modest settlement to retire: three months' pay, nine months more of health coverage and about $4,000 in miscellany, including his lawyer's fees.
He'd planned on retiring in a few more years, and with 23 years of county pension and a reputation that will open doors to consulting work, he'll land on his feet.
But before he thinks too much about career moves, Conlon and his dad are planning a trip to Ireland, where young Tom may well drink a toast to his Irish ancestors, who surely contributed some of the tenacity and resolve that it took to serve 11 years in the hottest seat in Humboldt County.
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