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As the general plan update finish line looms nearer, upheaval over planning commission membership

The latest chapter in the long-running battle over the county general plan took place at the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, when the board voted 3-2 to reappoint Bruce Emad -- a 12-year veteran of the Humboldt County Planning Commission -- to another term.

Supervisors Jimmy Smith, Clif Clendenen and board chair Mark Lovelace supported Emad's return to the board, citing the need for continuity in the midst of the grueling update of the county's general plan, which has dominated the commission's work for the last several years.

The act was not taken quietly."For you to even pretend that this is a fair process, Mark, boggles my mind," said Julie Williams of the Northern California Association of Homebuilders, addressing Lovelace. "Interview all of the applicants, get some spinal cord and do the right thing."

The level of invective she unleashed was not untypical of the building and development community. The general plan update -- a rewrite of the county's basic plans and priorities over the next couple of decades, most pointedly those related to development -- has long taken fire from those quarters for concentrating new development opportunities in or around existing towns, and for taking too long to complete.

Williams' sentiments were echoed by at least a few speakers in the audience. They included Estelle Fennell, executive director of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR) -- a group that has been deeply critical of the general plan update -- and Tina Christensen, a Realtor and a member of the board of directors of that organization who had also applied for Emad's seat on the planning commission.

Despite the 3-2 vote, there was far less rancor on the dais. Supervisors Ryan Sundberg and Virginia Bass, both of whom took office only a month ago, expressed appreciation for Emad's service on the commission, but both expressed concerns about the process behind his reappointment.

Three weeks ago, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to request that Emad and fellow longtime commissioner Mary Gearheart reconsider letters of resignation they had submitted to the county. The board's request cited "an interest in maintaining a depth of experience" on the commission, especially at a time when work on the general plan update was in high gear. The two commissioners agreed to rescind their resignations.

However, at a meeting last week, the board stopped short of reappointing Emad to the position. Both Sundberg and Bass argued that it had not been clear that Emad's seat was due for reappointment. Since that was the case, both requested that Emad's appointment be delayed so that other applicants might come forward. (As Gearheart still had two years left on her planning commission term, no further vote was necessary.)

This week, Sundberg reiterated that he had earlier voted to ask Emad to rescind his resignation -- not to reappoint him for another term. If he had been aware that the former was tantamount to the latter, he said, there would have been a "different conversation." In addition, he thought that perhaps the commission needed more voices from the McKinleyville and Cutten areas, both of which are expected to absorb the bulk of new housing in the county's unincorporated areas.

For her part, Bass said that the board's process of appointment to the commission seemed slipshod. She said she had hoped for a more thorough vetting process of the many appointees who had come forward to be considered.

But Smith, Clendenen and Lovelace all maintained that continuity and experience were of overriding importance, given the arcane matters of policy under consideration in the general plan update. After initially withholding his vote in order to give the other supervisors and members of the public space to make their case, Smith seconded Clendenen's motion to reappoint Emad, and with Lovelace's vote, the motion carried.

Tuesday's vote means that both at-large commissioners -- Emad and Gearheart, whose seats are appointed by the board as a whole -- will, after the county's pleading, stay put for the time being. But at least one and possibly two other seats on the seven-member commission are up for a shift. Jeff Smith, the current chair of the commission and a 17-year veteran, will be retiring at the end of the month. As a direct appointee of the Fourth District supervisor, his replacement will be picked by Bass alone.

Likewise, the term of the Fifth District appointee -- Dennis Mayo -- is set to expire at the end of January. Last week, a rumor spread among political circles to the effect that Sundberg, supervisor from that district, intends to pick a different representative.

Reached Monday, Sundberg said that he had yet to make any such decision.

"His term comes up at the end of this month, so I've been meeting with people and looking at my options," Sundberg said. "But I haven't picked anybody yet."

Mayo, one of the more conservative members of the current commission and one of the more sympathetic to organizations such as HumCPR, could not be reached for an interview. However, he did leave the Journal a voicemail message Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm ready, looking forward to and happy to work on the issues we need to protect in this region -- the property rights and civil liberties of our citizens," he said. "I know Supervisor Sundberg is as well. We're all on the same page."

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Hank Sims

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