By Daniel Mintz
A majority of the Board of Supervisors has rejected the idea of using health impact studies to guide transportation planning decisions.
Supervisors considered the relevancy of health impact assessments when they reviewed the update’s Circulation Element at a Jan. 28 update hearing. Most supervisors agreed that mention of health impact assessments should be edited out of a policy on determining the significance of traffic impacts.
A health impact assessment written by former county Health Officer Ann Lindsay drew heavy criticism during the Planning Commission’s review of the update and it was eventually removed from it. During a public comment session, Redway resident Tom Grover told supervisors the assessment was “not properly vetted” and he called it an “example of using bureaucracy in the worst way to bias against rural people.”
The assessment draws conclusions about the health effects of lack of non-motorized access to employment, commercial services and amenities like trails and parks. It linked rural and suburban development to increased vehicle use and lack of exercise.
The findings were refuted by the assessment’s critics and Supervisor Estelle Fennell said they’ve been “a very big bone of contention in rural areas.” She added that she’s “not very happy” about the mention of assessments in the policy.
Supervisor Virginia Bass doubted the validity of health assessments. “I don’t have a comfort level yet that they’re objective – I think they’re really subjective,” she said.
Supervisor Rex Bohn said residential development is already subject to multiple study requirements and if a project is conditioned on assessment of health effects, affordable housing will become even harder to build.
He also dismissed Lindsay’s findings as being simplistic. “If you lived in the country, you were going to look like me and be bald and have no teeth and be really unhealthy, and if I lived in a third floor apartment above where I work in town, I’d be fit as a fiddle,” he said.
Board Chairman Ryan Sundberg agreed, and described some of the assessment’s contents as being “completely ridiculous.”
Having endured a trouncing from the board majority, use of health assessments got some impassioned back-up from Supervisor Mark Lovelace. “I just want to strongly, strongly, strongly defend the health impact assessment,” he said. “It was done based upon a scientific approach and is really done to actually apply data.”
Lovelace agreed that “it was perhaps not rolled out as well as it could have been to the public” and has been misunderstood. Referring to Bohn’s comments, he said there’s been “complete misrepresentation” of the assessment.
“At its core, what it’s saying is to recognize that how we build our communities have an impact on how people live within those communities,” Lovelace continued.
But Lovelace’s assertive defense didn’t sway Fennell. “The bottom line here is that, yes, there were statements made that rubbed people the wrong way,” she said. “They insulted people to a certain degree – this is something I would like to see far less of in everything that we do in this county.”
Fennell referred to the range of policies in the Circulation Element that encourage public transit and comply with state laws calling for inclusion of multi-modal transportation in land use planning.
“Generally speaking, I believe that we’re doing that work anyway as we move forward,” she said.
Lovelace was the only supervisor who disagreed with removing mention of health impact assessments from the policy.
Also at the hearing, staff recommended that the implementation of a county-wide transportation plan be deferred until after the update’s completion. The plan is one of the main recommendations of a recently-formed ad hoc stakeholders group and would be done separately from the update.
County planning staff and Planning Director Kevin Hamblin said the plan should be worked on after the update, as it will divert staff work and lead to further delays. He also said that land use densities should be established in the update before work is done on the transportation plan.
Assistant County Counsel also warned that the Circulation Element is a required update section and the ad hoc group’s proposal includes deferring some aspects. “We don’t want to adopt policies that are deferred to some plan that’s not a part of the Circulation Element,” she said.
Representing the ad hoc group, Jen Rice of the Humboldt Area Foundation said the stakeholders envision using hired consultants, not county staff, to work on the plan.
Supervisors agreed that it should follow work on the update and Lovelace suggested that the group present its proposal before the board at one of its regular meetings.
Aside from having some policies referred to staff for further development, supervisors finished their review of the Circulation Element. They’ll take up the Noise Element at the next update hearing on Feb. 11.