Article Published in the Mad River Union

June 26, 2017

Written by Stephen Madrone

That is the question that Humboldt County residents should be asking as we approach the end of the General Plan Update (GPU) process.

The final document is now out for public review and comment after years of delays and conflict. Public comments should be sent to Michael Richardson by June 30 at 5 p.m. at mrichardson@co.humboldt.ca.us or 3015 H St., Eureka, CA, 95536.

So who wins and who looses? From my perspective the only winners are certain real estate interests and the four members of the Board of Supervisors who have taken election campaign donations from real estate interests to dismantle the General Plan. The losers are the developers themselves, the taxpayers, and the general public. Why are these the losers and winners?

Let me explain why I believe this to be so. First, just because the Board of Supervisors has dismantled the General Plan, this does not mean that state planning laws have changed. The California Environmental Quality Act  (CEQA) is still the same.

While some folks may think CEQA is just another government regulation, it is also there so you as a member of the public can have your say in what happens in your neighborhood and community. Without CEQA we would go back to the time when moneyed interest could do whatever they wanted, neighbors be dammed.

Dismantling the General Plan has given developers a false sense of development opportunities based on an inadequate General Plan. These developers then spend tens of thousands of dollars pursuing a new subdivision or patent parcel development only to be stopped in their tracks by appeals and lawsuits from concerned neighbors and citizens. Inevitably the neighbors win their case because they have CEQA law on their side. There are many examples of where this has happened locally.

I work with developers all over Humboldt County and they constantly tell me two things. One, while they do not necessarily agree with all the laws and regulations, the worst thing for them is unpredictability. If they know what laws and requirements they have to adhere to then they do the math on that and see if their development ideas pencil out as profitable. If they think their development will make profit then they proceed only to be delayed or stalled for years by appeals and lawsuits. This is all a big waste of money and time for developers.

The second thing they tell me is that if the laws are clear and they do not change them midway into their development (safe harbor) then they can make an informed decision on whether to proceed or not.

There are those that say that increased development is good for the community and creates an increase in property tax revenues for the county as well as more jobs. The jobs come faster when the development can proceed in an orderly and timely fashion. Appeals and lawsuits delay the job creation whereas clear and consistent planning law will lead to more jobs sooner.

As regards increased tax revenues, this is more complicated. Usually when this argument is put forth it is only a one-sided analysis. Only the benefit is discussed. A true cost-benefit analysis would look at increased revenue as well as increased expenses.

When piecemeal development occurs without consideration for the larger impacts of the development, then there are unmitigated costs that are placed on the neighborhood, the community, and on public services. If we increase property tax revenues but also increase the costs for police, roads, schools and more, then we end up with less resources for roads, police and schools.

A sound development that follows CEQA would increase property taxes and deal with additional issues of public service costs. A piecemeal development that does not follow CEQA often leads to lawsuits that the county must then defend.

In the past 10 years the county has found itself embroiled in numerous lawsuits regarding inadequate, approved development. The Moss subdivision in Northern Humboldt and the Tooby Ranch in Southern Humboldt are just two examples of this. The county has wasted millions of dollars defending these bad decisions by the planning commission and Board of Supervisors.

That is how the community and taxpayers lose. Our limited tax dollars are being spent on defending poorly planned and unmitigated development.

These inadequate developments when approved create more impacts in adjacent neighborhoods leaving us all a little poorer. When tax dollars are limited, then fewer roadwork gets done, there are fewer police services, and we cannot give raises to home health care workers and more. And yet there are enough funds for the Board of Supervisors to give themselves a raise.

Having a sound General Plan that meets the requirements of state planning law would lead to increased development and jobs, while protecting neighborhoods and communities and the environment.

The losers with the current General Plan Update process are the developers, the communities, the taxpayers and the environment. The only winners are some real estate interests and the Board of Supervisors that take money from these same individuals.

If these things concern you, submit comments to the county by June 30. Then consider carefully a candidates position on these issues when the next round of local elections comes around.

What are the solutions to this? Here are a few ideas.

There has been a massive focus on the General Plan Update and yet it is only a set of guidelines that can be followed or not. The real teeth-in-law comes with the zoning ordinances that will accompany the General Plan changes.

Zoning ordinance must be followed. They are not just guidelines. So over the next few years the county will be crafting these zoning changes. It would be good to have elected officials that understand planning law and basic economics. Understanding the difference between carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives would be a good start.

Rather than dismantling government so that certain special interests can make even more money at the expense of community values and safety, we should be trying to make government more responsive to community concerns and visions.

We should incentivize good land stewardship and business practices and reward those values that mean the most to the community.

An engaged and educated citizenry can create a future that rewards us all.

Stephen Madrone is a Forestry and Watershed Management Lecturer at Humboldt State University, is the executive director of the Mattole Salmon Group and spearheaded the completion of the Hammond Trail. He lives in the Trinidad area.