Board of Supervisors approves 'safe surrender' sites; plastic bag bans, Williamson Act Program discussed

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution designating Humboldt Bay Fire and Arcata Fire Department stations as "safe surrender" sites at its Tuesday meeting.

Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said he knows that the choice of giving up a child "can't be easy" for a parent, but that safe surrender sites would be the least harmful option in that situation.

"I think this avoids a tragedy," he said. "It's a pretty responsible thing to do if someone knows that they can't care for a child. It could save a kid's life by having these options."

Humboldt Bay Fire Battalion Chief Chris Jelinek and Arcata Fire Chief Desmond Cowan also attended the meeting, urging the board to pass the resolution.

"It's hard to imagine someone who would not support this," Cowan said.

Jelinek spelled out the general purpose of what the designation will provide the community.

"The purpose is to give a mother or parent, in what can be one of the most difficult circumstances in their life, an option," Jelinek said. "We all feel that it's the right thing to do."

California's Safe Surrender Baby Law allows parents or guardians with legal custody to surrender their newborn child to a designated "safe surrender" site up to 72 hours after birth without facing legal consequences. These sites include hospital emergency rooms as well as those designated by each county's board of supervisors.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn applauded the two departments on their commitment to the county.

"I think this is a perfect case in point that it isn't just about fighting fires," Bohn said. "You guys are involved in the community on so many different angles."

Later in the meeting, the board held a public hearing for any county resident to express concerns or issues they have with current transportation and transit needs. The public hearing was a requirement under the Transportation Development Act for the Humboldt County Association of Governments to ensure that no expressed needs were left undiscussed before moving on to approving funding for roads and streets.

Only one member of the public spoke at the meeting, but Associate Planner Debra Dees of the association explained to the board that the majority of their public input has come through surveys.

"Staff directed that a transit survey be developed which could be found at the HCAOG website and a variety of distribution sites," Dees said. "Staff is still inputting data from the survey, but to date there were approximately 315 responses."

Dees said that the public will be able to voice any transit needs through the association website or at any of the website's listed transit hearings up until April 20.

The Williamson Act Program Ad Hoc Committee -- formed by the board in 2012 -- also gave a report to the board regarding the costs and benefits of the Williamson Act Program in the county. The act, also called the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, intends to preserve land used for agriculture and open space while discouraging urban development on the property.

Humboldt County planner Cliff Johnson told the board that as of 2012, about 300,000 acres of Humboldt County land was participating in the program.

"As of December 2012, there were 174 separate established agricultural preserves," Johnson said. "This allows for the county to establish limitations on development as well as to encourage the continuation of agriculture."

Those who contract their land under the program receive tax incentives for their participation. To reimburse local governments that lost revenue by providing these tax incentives, the Open Space Subvention Act was passed in 1972, Johnson said. A staff report said that until around 2009, the state gave the county about $200,000 for these reimbursements until dropping to $6.24 for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, due to state budget cuts. Johnson said the county has "received nothing ever since" due to the subvention act being suspended.

This lost revenue made the board look closely at the production and compliance of lands contracted under the program.

"That changed the rules of the game of how the county looks at this," 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said.

Staff recommended that the board approve accepting further applications for the program as well as add two amendments. The amendments make it easier for the board to stop the renewal of unproductive lands and to eliminate a farm income standard for certain types of preserves in order to create a more generalized land preserve standard.

Local rancher and ad hoc committee member John Rice expressed the importance of agriculture to the board at its basic core.

"Once early societies developed agriculture and did not have to spend all day foraging for food, they went on to industry," Rice said. "If you don't eat, you don't have a lot of industry," Rice said.

County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes gave a report to the board concerning plastic bag bans in the county. The board directed staff to compile ideas for a draft ordinance to ban single-use, point-of-sale plastic bags for unincorporated areas of the county.

The board authorized Smith-Hanes to submit an application for a $200,000 Brownfields Assessment Grant. The grant would fund an assessment of environmentally hazardous materials at locations to be determined should the grant be approved in September.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or Follow him on Twitter @Will_S_Houston