By Daniel Mintz
Press Staff Writer
Pressured by state law, the county has to identify areas where homeless shelters are unconditionally allowed, and one of them is at the Airport Business Park in McKinleyville.
That triggered a strong reaction at the Jan. 29 Planning Commission meeting.
When Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard said a new state law requires counties to identify zones where emergency homeless shelters are allowed without discretionary review, Planning Commissioner Bruce Emad objected to the Airport Business Park designation.
“You’re proposing (emergency housing) on the Airport Business Park as a principally permitted use?” he asked.
“Yes,” Girard responded.
“That just boggles my mind,” Emad said. Girard began to talk more, but Emad talked over him.
“Twenty miles from town, and we put homeless people right smack in the middle of a business park that we’ve spent all this time and money to develop and promote and be a showcase next to the airport,” he said.
Girard told Emad that there’s “a disconnect” between sound planning and providing services to the homeless.
“The normal approach we’ve had in this jurisdiction is that there are good places and there are bad places and to sort that out, you need a discretionary review process,” he said.
“And that is good, sound planning, but as a practical matter, with that good, sound planning in place, the forces usually result in no place being identified,” Girard said.
Objection from neighbors is an influential factor, Girard continued, and he said the state has reacted to the political obstacle by requiring homeless shelter zones by law.
But Girard said commissioners can disagree with the location of proposed zones.
During his presentation on the county’s seven-year Housing Element, the element of the General Plan which identifies housing needs and how to meet them, Girard also said a recent count of homeless people totaled about 700.
“Suffice to say, we have a problem here,” he continued.
The preferred alternative in the county’s 20-year General Plan Update, Alternative B, mandates that emergency shelters “would be allowed, by right” in certain commercial, residential and industrial zones, he explained.
Transitional housing also has to be zoned, and Girard said it could include areas for vehicle camping.
The state is getting serious about low-income housing and has added a new category of it: extremely low-income housing.
Tougher enforcement of mandates for other low-income categories is expected, and Alternative B also expands the county’s land inventory for lower-cost multifamily units.
As McKinleyville found out several years ago during debates on the Central Estates subdivision, development of multifamily units draws impassioned opposition.
Girard said people fear property devaluation, and because“cultural issues” come into play, people will often “come out fighting against that rezoning.”
As a result, the county’s production of multifamily units has “dropped dramatically in relation to the need and is not adequate,” he continued.
Girard said the county has had better luck with affordable second units.
The draft Housing Element includes a range of policy statements focusing on the county’s most pressing planning issue, low-income housing production.
Commission Chairman Jeffrey C. Smith said it’s not reasonable to expect the private market to supply housing for poorer residents.
“It seems counter-intuitive to think that we’re going to build brand new housing that’s affordable to the lower income levels – you wouldn’t do that in terms of thinking about automobiles,” he continued.
“You don’t go and figure out, ‘How can I build a brand new car for poor people?’” Smith said.
During a public comment session, developers and Realtors were at odds with low-income housing advocates.
Representatives of Realtors and developers groups said requiring the construction of low-cost housing will drain profits and drive up the prices of market-rate homes.
However, those who disagree said there would be no profit decrease because the cheaper units will cost less to build.
Sensing that the formal format of hearings on the Housing Element has become somewhat stale, commissioners set Feb. 5 as the date of what Girard called “a free-form, town hall, question and answer” workshop on the plan.