General Plan Update: Uncertainty over TPZ parcel splits

The Board of Supervisors has achieved consensus on several key policies of the General Plan Update’s Forest Resources section but some have been deferred, including one on subdividing timberlands.

Supervisors continued their review of the draft update’s Forest Resources section at a June 17 hearing. One wouldn’t have known that it’s been considered as one of the most controversial parts of the update, as supervisors were in complete agreement on a series of non-binding straw votes.

Policies on processes for doing Timber Production Zone (TPZ) lot line adjustments, clustered development and conservation easements were unanimously approved and there was also unanimous agreement on deleting a policy establishing forestland-residential interface buffers.

But a vote wasn’t reached on a policy that sets conditions for subdividing TPZ lands. A provision requiring that TPZ subdivisions will “result in significant improvements” in timber growth and productivity was a sticking point for Tom Schultz, the operations manager for Humboldt Redwood Company and a member of the Working Lands Resource Group that advanced policy recommendations on the section.

Citing the example of a 320-acre TPZ parcel that would be split into two 160-acre parcels with as many houses “to go ahead and manage that property there,” Schultz asked how that would detract from timber management.

“From staff’s point of view, we’re assuming that the county really wants to protect our timberlands so does this enhance the management of timber?” said Supervising Planner Martha Spencer. “Because if it doesn’t enhance it, why are we doing it?”

She added, “That’s really the point – if you want to subdivide but can’t say that it really does enhance it, you can get out of TPZ and do a residential subdivision.”

A TPZ designation allows property tax breaks and during the Planning Commission’s review of the section, there was a lot of debate about whether state law requires that residences be related to timber management.

But the subdivision policy isn’t new – it’s in the 1984 General Plan and perhaps confounding the expectations of those who view Sundberg as being uniformly pro-development, even on TPZ lands, he said TPZ subdivisions should only be done if timber management is improved.

“We want to keep the larger TPZ parcels,” said Sundberg. “This has been in effect since 1984 so I would have to have a pretty good reason why someone would split that down to half.”

“You don’t have that right now – I don’t see why you would expect it,” he continued.

Sundberg referred to the values outlined in the update’s guiding principles and their call for protecting forestlands. He said once a TPZ parcel is reduced in size, “It’s easier to do something different with it.”

The county’s historical practice was called into question, however. When Sundberg  re-emphasized that the subdivision policy is “not anything different from what we’re already doing,” Schultz responded, “Well, that’s because no one’s enforcing it.”

There was a period of silence after the comment and no response to it.

Although most supervisors agreed that the policy should be approved, there was some doubt and staff will bring it back with additional options.

Other items to be brought back include setting standards for a planned rural development program and several policies that include the term “ecosystem values.” Supervisors want clearer definition of the term before approving the policies that mention it.

Criteria for creating buffers between forestland and residential areas is relevant to fire safety and will also be brought back, as a procedural bind was created when  supervisors deleted the forestland-residential interface policy.

Supervisors will continue their review of Forest Resources on July 8.

The hearing was Spencer’s last as a county planner, as she’s retiring.