More last minute changes to General Plan; time constraints leave other items off the table

With public comment taking up the majority of the final review of the General Plan's Conservation and Open Space Element, the Planning Commission ended its meeting with some last minute deliberations -- but not as many as planned.

"It would have been better to discuss some more of the policies and goals," Commissioner Lee Ulansey said during a Friday interview.

During the last half hour of Thursday's meeting, the commission revisited eight changes made to the Biological Resources section using straw votes -- or votes with non-binding results -- and recast them with final action votes.

The lengthy string of public testimony earlier in the evening was not without its effect.

Commissioner David Edmonds said he decided to switch his vote on definition changes for streamside management areas as a result of the continued public outcry.

"It became clear to me that there was a great deal of concern from the public," Edmonds said. "After listening, it became apparent that the update we were proposing was not going to be in compliance with state and federal law."

Edmonds had previously voted during the commission's Jan. 30 meeting to approve the changes -- which would have reduced the buffer zones around stream management areas and placed more conditions on extending out the boundaries.

His decision to switch resulted in a 3-3 vote -- with commissioners Noah Levy and Susan Masten also dissenting and Kevin McKenny abstaining -- causing the proposed changes to fall short of the majority approval needed to pass.

The commission approved changes to six of the eight sections discussed, including the elimination of certain length requirements for buffer zones around wetlands.

American Fisheries Society fisheries biologist Ross Taylor said the proposed alteration to the setback conditions would put already threatened wildlife at an even greater risk.

"Having riparian buffers set to a 1984 standard that's 30 years old, that was pre-coho and steelhead listing ... to carry that forward for the next two decades is not a wise decision," he said.

Humboldt Baykeeper Policy Director Jennifer Kalt agreed.

"You're basically making, to use Commissioner Ulansey's own words, an arbitrary and capricious decision," Kalt said.

Edmonds said that more time is needed to finish the task of reviewing the Conservation and Open Space Element that was handed to them by the Board of Supervisors in January.

"We're not accomplishing everything that I'd hoped we'd accomplish," he said. "I was on the previous commission when we were discussing these sections, and now we're revisiting everything again."

Thirteen sections of the Conservation and Open Space chapter were slated for discussion, but were never addressed due to time constraints -- including the controversial subject of billboard permitting.

Since January, several billboards along U.S. Highway 101 between Eureka and Arcata have been cut down. This has created friction between billboard landowners, local governments and Caltrans because a conditional use permit is required to repair the toppled structures.

Caltrans has also been ordered by the California Coastal Commission to remove as many of the billboards as possible as a condition of approval for its Eureka-Arcata Route 101 Corridor Improvement Project.

Former Eureka resident Jim Hoff said he came out from Dallas, Texas, to tell the commission to change the language in the chapter's Scenic Resources section, which requires owners of damaged or toppled billboards to apply for new conditional use permits in order to rebuild.

"I find it unreasonable to be forced to go through a conditional use permit process for a second time in order to repair a sign that was damaged by an act of God or man," Hoff said.

In order to see whether the supervisors are looking for additional review of the chapter, a divided commission approved a letter asking the board "to review the work completed and to give us further instruction" in a 4-3 vote -- with commissioners Bob Morris, Edmonds and Ulansey dissenting.

Ulansey said he did not disagree with sending the letter, but believed the commission needed to provide the board with more details.

"They gave us a project, and we didn't get it done in the time they gave us," Ulansey said. "We ought to tell them how much longer it would take us to complete it."

Masten said the supervisors should make the decision of how much more time to give the commission -- if any.

"What they need to evaluate is whether they got a better product from this commission's review," Masten said. "I didn't want for us to be saying we want more time when I don't feel that's our decision."

With several special meetings scheduled this month to review the Housing Element, Masten said that it is important for the commission to learn from its past meetings.

"Having gone through the last process, there has to be adequate time for the public to come and be prepared," she said. "It's not fair to them, to staff or even the commission itself, when we have such tight deadlines, because it doesn't allow the time for people to participate and have their voice heard."

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