Matters get tense as new majority of Supervisors prepare to kill General Plan Update
By Thomas Bradshaw
A carefully constructed facade of collegiality came crashing down today in the Humboldt County Supervisors’ Chamber.
The new conservative majority flexed its political muscle, with Supervisors Ryan Sundberg and Rex Bohn leading a shocking about-face against the Humboldt County General Plan draft adopted by the Planning Commission — one which has claimed 12 years, millions of dollars and multiple political careers.
Today’s plan update hearing went according to plan at first, with staff presenting pretty much the same report they did four weeks prior — since there were no straw votes taken on any of the land use policies looked at on Aug. 13 at the insistence of Bohn, who said he needed a month to catch up on the material.
But once the hour or so of public comment was aired, featuring the usual line-up heavy with the developer and real estate lobby, the meeting swerved right off agenda; Sundberg led the way with charges that the document was just too big and unwieldy to digest and then justify to the public.
“At the end of this, we’re just going to get sued,” he said. “At the end we’re going to find out we can’t even afford to implement it.”
Supervisor Clif Clendenen, serving out the final year of his term before leaving office, characterized the plan as a clock at a quarter to midnight; he offered to compromise on some optional elements, but protested the prospect of starting over the entire process.
“We’ve got all this input on this plan, I don’t think that would be in the public interest,” he said.
Bohn went to bat for Sundberg right off the bat, saying a month wasn’t enough time for him to familiarize himself; he compared the General Plan to a building with misplaced bricks that’s tilted and bound to fall.
“I think we can afford a Yugo and we’re building a Cadillac here,” he said. “I made promises to people that I would protect people’s property rights and property values and I have to stand by that…I’m the newbie but I’m pretty set protecting the rights of the people.”
To audible gasps, Bohn finished by saying: “We’re going to have to start a new one in a year anyway.”
Long a champion of the plan update process before assuming his seat in 2008, Supervisor Mark Lovelace was visibly shaken by the turn of events and lashed out in response.
“None of us has any basis to say we can’t hack it,” he said. “I’m sorry, but this is the job we signed on to…the idea of even beginning to throw away twelve years of process is just not acceptable.”
Sundberg fired back, telling Lovelace he objected to being chastised.
“I think it’s borderline rude to say we’re not willing to hack it,” Sundberg said. “I’m asking the question of whether we can pare [the General Plan] down to where it’s understandable.”
Coming back to the center of the dais, Supervisor Virginia Bass said the conversation underway was one that should have happened some time ago.
“It’s something I have not had the guts to say,” she said. “I want to thank Ryan for bringing it forward.”
Lovelace backtracked, apologizing for how his thought was expressed, but still stuck to his guns, echoing Clendenen’s point that the General Plan had to be adopted as a whole and not piecemeal.
“Anything other than the process we have before us is a strawman,” Lovelace said. “The vast majority of the policies before us aren’t controversial.”
County staff attempted to not take sides on the ideological flare-up; interim Planning and Building Director Martha Spencer said her department was simply following the work plan laid out by Supervisors.
“If the Board wants to change the work program, that’s another topic,” she said. “Whether we want to do another 10 or 12 years, I don’t know.”
With the meeting rolling towards a 4:15 p.m. cut-off imposed by Bass due to the child care needs of Deputy County Counsel Davina Smith, Supervisors scrambled to come up with a motion to direct staff as to what to do at the next General Plan Update hearing on Sept. 17 — only to be told by Smith that, since nothing on today’s agenda mentioned a re-write of the update process, a formal motion would run afoul of the Brown Act.
Lovelace attempted to suggest a workshop on “Planning 101″ and how to work through the materials, which Sundberg took umbrage with, saying he just wanted a clean and clear comparison between the “Framework Plan” adopted in 1984 and the present draft.
“Can we know what the difference between an update and a rewrite looks like?” Sundberg asked.
County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes said he had clear enough consensus from the Board to include an overview and possible redirection of the GPU process on the Sept. 17 agenda. This sets up next Monday as possibly the final showdown on the General Plan draft; whether or not it gets shredded, the illusion of consensus amongst the new set of Supervisors lies in tatters.