The rewriting of the draft General Plan Update’s guiding principles is triggering strong reactions and is the most controversial move made so far by a politically-united Board of Supervisors majority.
Supervisors Ryan Sundberg, Virginia Bass, Rex Bohn and Estelle Fennell are like-minded on land use issues and all of them got campaign support from a fundraising bloc of landowners, developers and development-related businesses.
The General Plan Update approval process is the arena where they’ve carried out their most definitive political actions, changing policies to reflect an ideological platform that favors land use flexibility.
After making a series of changes to the update’s draft policies, the board majority is facing intense criticism – and assertive support – for an action it took at a June 3 update hearing. In a 4 to 1 non-binding straw vote, with Supervisor Mark Lovelace strongly dissenting, the landowner-friendly supervisors agreed to rewrite the update’s guiding principles to better reflect what they view as community consensus and actions they’d previously taken.
Most of the pre-existing principles, which had been developed through numerous public meetings, have been tentatively rewritten in line with recently-effected political trends. The most notable re-writes strike a reference to “increased restrictions” as a means of protecting farmland and timberlands, eliminate mention of urban in-fill and replace a statement on natural resource protection with one that calls for the county to “honor landowners’ right to live in urban, suburban, rural or remote areas while using a balanced approach to protect natural resources.”
Those who agree with the changes believe they’re upholding property rights. But those who object view them as the spoils of a political turnover favoring subdivision and development entitlements.
Having been outnumbered at the June 3 update hearing, dissenters dominated the June 11 regular board meeting’s public comment session. There, the board majority was depicted as a puppet government controlled by landowners and developers.
Westhaven resident Sylvia De Rooy noted the political prominence of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR), which Fennell headed before being elected. Fennell is the primary author of the controversial rewrites and De Rooy, like other critics of the revisions, objected to the quick turnaround between their emergence and their approval.
“The hypocrisy of Ms. Fennell’s history of proclaimed belief in the import of public input has become quite clear – actions trump words, Ms. Fennell,” said De Rooy, mispronouncing Fennell’s name.
De Rooy added that after voting for the appointment of Lee Ulansey, the founder of HumCPR , to the county’s Planning Commission and choosing Bob Morris, the group’s treasurer, as her commission appointee, Fennell’s concern for the county’s future well-being can only be endorsed by those who are “naïve indeed.”
Gary Graham Hughes of the Environmental Protection Information Center was more diplomatic but said the revisions have “disappointed” many people.
“It happened really fast, we didn’t have a chance to be involved at all,” Graham Hughes continued. He noted the circulation of a petition and vouched for its request for reconsideration of the rewrites.
But Blue Lake resident Kent Sawatzky, who described himself as an affordable housing developer, pointed out that the revisions have only gotten tentative approval. “It’s a straw vote and there’s plenty of time for people to give input,” he said, adding that he “applauds” the timing of the board majority’s action.
There had been mention of a hoped-for recall of Fennell but at the update hearing earlier this month, Fennell had said that her rewrites actually strive for consensus. For years, there’s been talk of a “city-country split” dividing rural landowners who want some flexibility in how to use their properties and residents of urbanized areas who are believed to have been influencing rural land use from afar – until now.
It’s likely that what Fennell’s done has increased her level of political support within her district, which includes the pro-property rights hub of Fortuna as well as Southern Humboldt, where distrust of county planning and code enforcement runs strong. And when last week’s public comment session ended, Fennell told the audience that there’s a lack of understanding about how the new guiding principles were developed.
“I don’t think a lot of people who finally got stirred up when we got this issue in front of us understand just how long it took to get the guiding principles in front of us – I think that I’ve been mentioning it for months,” Fennell said.
She also highlighted the approval vote’s tentative status and advised that “if there are some good suggestions that can come forward, I’m sure they will be addressed at some point.”
Although the revisions were made public only a few days before the straw vote on them, Fennell re-emphasized that discussions about revisiting them were ongoing well before. She thanked the audience members for their input and said supervisors will be “keeping our minds open as we move forward.”
Meanwhile, those who support more restrictive county planning policies have until next year to muster up candidates – and funding — to challenge Sundberg and Bass and regain some of the ground that was lost in the game-changing elections of recent years.