Wary of approving a draft General Plan Update policy that would prohibit residential subdivisions in flood plains, a majority of the Board of Supervisors supports conditionally allowing them.
Supervisors reviewed the update’s Safety Element last Monday and debated a policy that bans new residential lot splits in areas that are entirely within 100-year flood plains. Those areas are identified in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) insurance maps.
The majority of the board is development-friendly and uncomfortable with update policies that block new construction opportunities. “When I look at the word ‘prohibit,’ I have it underlined several times,” said Supervisor Virginia Bass. “I wish we could use something that’s more like ‘discourage.’”
Supervisor Estelle Fennell called attention to written comments submitted by the Humboldt Association of Realtors that claim affordable housing construction will be impacted by a flood plain prohibition.
But Supervising Planner Martha Spencer said her department habitually recommends not allowing new residential parcels in flood plains to avoid exposing people and homes to risk. Board members strived for flexibility, however.
“If this said ‘discourage,’ how would that be implemented or interpreted by the Planning Commission?” asked Board Chairman Ryan Sundberg.
Spencer said an environmental impact review could include an “over-riding consideration” – a statement that declares a project’s public interest value outweighs the presence of unavoidable impacts.
Supervisor Mark Lovelace asked Spencer for an example of an “over-riding public interest” that would allow a new residential parcel in a flood plain.
“I can see where there might be a private interest,” he said. “But I really can’t figure what kind of findings would justify it.”
“If there wasn’t any, then you wouldn’t have to worry about it,” said Sundberg.
The approach that most supervisors supported took a somewhat different tack – when County Planner John Miller said that elevating a home can, in some instances, give protection from floods, a rewording of the policy was proposed.
Over Lovelace’s objections, the rest of the board approved a revised policy that allows flood plain construction if the Board of Supervisors finds that flood impacts can be “reduced to less than significant levels.”
Flood plain zoning in Myers Flat and Phillipsville has been debated lately and during a previous public comment session, Myers Flat resident Mary Whitmore said it’s “erroneous” to use high-water events like the 1964 flood as a basis for zoning because its severity was unusual and affected by conditions at the time.
Farmland preservation advocate John LaBoyteaux said the ’64 flood is one of a series of high-water events in Humboldt’s history. “This is something that happens in Humboldt County and the problem is, it happens infrequently enough that people forget,” he continued.
County Planning Director Kevin Hamblin pointed out that flood plain zoning is based on the designations of the FEMA maps, not the water levels of the 1964 flood.
Supervisors finished their review of the Safety Element, which includes additional flood management policies and others on fire, earthquake and tsunami hazards. The board continues its review of the update on June 3, when afternoon and evening hearings will be held.
Supervisors decided to review the update’s guiding principles section in the afternoon and re-visit the controversial forest resources section during the night hearing.