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Rural land development goes under the microscope at local workshops

Pop quiz: What do a big box store, a freeway interchange and the old walled city of Florence, Italy have in common? Answer: They take up roughly the same amount of space. This was just one of many provocative facts presented to local planners and policymakers at Eureka's Wharfinger building last Wednesday at a workshop promoting compact community development.

"The point [of the quiz]," explained Alison Pernell, a project manager with the nonprofit Local Government Commission, "is you don't have to have a lot of space to create great civilization."

Such was the thrust of the four-hour workshop, the fourth and final training session in a series called "Building Healthy, Active Communities on the North Coast." "Healthy" and "active," in this context, implied walkable, which led to talk of compact, mixed-use developments -- a planning model that's near the center of two raging local controversies: the land use element of the county's General Plan update and the proposed Marina Center development on Eureka's Balloon Track property.

The workshops, underwritten largely by the California Endowment, included participation from the Humboldt Partnership for Active Living, the local branch of the American Planning Association and the public health arm of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services. Hoping to sidestep the messy particulars of above-mentioned debates, speakers strove to keep the discussion general.

"Remember that compact communities are not a new concept," Pernell said as an image of Ferndale appeared on the screen behind her. Conventional modern zoning, by contrast, separates residential neighborhoods from town centers. Consequently, the number of vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. is increasing three times faster than the population, Pernell said, adding that compact development can reduce car usage and infrastructure costs while preserving green space and resource lands.

Her colleague, LGC Director of Land Use and Transportation Programs Paul Zykofsky, said increased density can also combat climate change and the obesity epidemic by encouraging residents to walk rather than drive. "We lost our way when we started thinking of design around automobiles," he said.

Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council, a non-profit policy consultation group based in Truckee, took another tack, asserting that conventional planning is tied to outmoded values and demographics. "Married couples with children now make up less than 25 percent of American households, but we seem to keep making the product designed for [them]," he said. The fastest growing demographics -- young professionals, single parents, childless couples and senior citizens -- tend to measure wealth more through experience than property, which is spurring demand for live/work/walk communities, Frisch said.

Groups like the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights and the Humboldt Association of Realtors have argued that stricter zoning regulations could potentially jeopardize the rural lifestyle by preventing residents from building homes on large, remote parcels. "We're not proposing compact development everywhere," Pernell said, acknowledging such concerns. Rather, she advocated strategically locating compact development within existing cities.

When it comes to implementing this model, Frisch emphasized the importance of collaborative, community-based decision-making in advance of specific project proposals, and he offered a particularly resonant case study -- Truckee's own Balloon Track property, a former rail yard and mill site now slated for a major mixed-use development. (See "On Different Tracks," March 16, 2006). One distinction from Eureka's Balloon Track: no big-box stores. (Debate over a K-Mart 20 years ago prompted Truckee voters to approve an ordinance prohibiting businesses larger than 40,000 square feet.) But Frisch said that an even bigger key to minimizing fruitless arguments was the collaborative work done ahead of time. Developers, planners, investors and community members held "visioning" sessions in which they addressed such esoteric concepts as the town's "architectural vernacular" and "residential fabric." The net result was a document called the Sierra Nevada Town Pattern Book, which provides developers with detailed guidelines for what to include in their project designs. This helped create a Balloon Track development that Frisch said will fit seamlessly with the existing downtown, thereby helping -- not harming -- the adjacent businesses.

The following night, as the Planning Commission met to address the rural lands section of the General Plan update, several commissioners held copies of the LGC's Elected Official's Checklist for Compact Development. Sure enough, the topic came to the fore. Commissioners debated whether to include a goal in the draft GPU calling for "an adequate supply of vacant land suitable for large lot rural residential development... ." Commissioner Ralph Faust opposed ratifying the goal after Supervising Planner Tom Hofweber ran down the numbers on our current rural land inventory: 167,000 acres with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 home site possibilities. At the current rate of 40 new homes per year on rural lands, that's more than a 50 year supply. "If we truly have [that many] parcels," Faust said, "then we shouldn't be encouraging any more; we ought to be looking at exactly the opposite."

But Chairman Jeff Smith, in arguing to protect the county's rural lifestyle, made a rather delicate point. "I don't know how to say this ...," he began. Choosing his words carefully, he continued. "There's people that want to be urban, and there's people that want to be rural. And there's some people that really ought to be rural." This was met with appreciative laughter. "That's just how it is," Smith said. "And I think they ought to have that opportunity."

The discussion will continue at the commission's Nov. 12 meeting.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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