From the Dec. 29, 2010 issue of the McK Press. For all the articles and columns in the newspaper, please subscribe.
By Daniel Mintz
Press Staff Writer
The economy was the most attention-getting topic of 2010 and it influenced the county’s politics, policies and culture.
Many of the main events of the year would have played out differently if not for the recession, which made economic improvement a mandate.
Times would have been far worse if millions of dollars of federal stimulus money hadn’t been delivered, paying for hundreds of jobs through the end of September. Still, economic downturn was reflected in the county budget as timber yield, property tax and building permit fee revenues stagnated.
And predictably, there was political change.
A surge in liberal politics had been seen in Humboldt County and in 2010 it deflated along with the economy.
Improving the economy was the number one issue of the November election. And the conservative candidates who came across as being allied with business interests were the ones that were elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Ryan Sundberg and Virginia Bass won the fifth and fourth supervisorial district seats and both were criticized for taking contributions from an alliance of developers and construction-related business owners.
But in a slack economy, developers are the heroes, so the jibes may have backfired.
Bass replaced incumbent candidate Bonnie Neely, while Sundberg replaced Jill Duffy, who didn’t run for re-election. While Duffy’s political identity is difficult to pigeonhole, the later stages of Neely’s long run as a supervisor put her squarely in the liberal camp and the balance of power has shifted to the right.
That will have an effect on the General Plan Update particularly. If anyone is looking for a place where the power shift could show itself, they can start there.
Through the Update, the county will chart the scale of future development and people’s investments are at stake. Considering where their financial support came from, Bass’ and Sundberg’s votes on whether or not to make homebuilding on timberlands more restrictive, for example, aren’t hard to predict.
One stalwart of the county’s liberal glory days prevailed, however. District Attorney Paul Gallegos again proved his resiliency by gaining somewhat more than 50 percent of the vote against his challenger, Allison Jackson. The conflict between the two tread familiar ground, right down to second-guessing Gallegos’ decision-making on specific prosecutions. But given the choice between an incumbent DA who said he’s not beholden to police and the challenger who was supported by them, most people picked Gallegos.
This was the year that the county’s marijuana growers came up from the underground to react to the prospect of legalization and, apparently, vote against it. Proposition 19 showed that there’s a point where those who want to eliminate marijuana and those who produce it meet, and that’s on the question of whether it should be legalized. Maybe there’s plenty of cultivators who voted for legalization but if one looks at the results from Southern Humboldt, the county’s marijuana breadbasket, the message seems clear – keep the market in the black, in legal terms and economically.
It wasn’t just growers who feared the effects of legalization and through Prop. 19, the influence of the county’s marijuana economy got some light shed on it. As with other industries, the dark side was talked about too, with home invasion robberies, generator spills and neighborhood fire risks being cited in calls for crackdowns.
The county responded by drafting a new and more restrictive medical marijuana ordinance, which was released earlier this month and only applies to personal indoor grows and the permitting of dispensaries.
The year also saw groups of marijuana growers emerging to lobby for an outdoor growing regulatory structure, one that will allow the county to better develop its medical marijuana industry. The response to that has yet to come but the county has indicated that the recently-unveiled medical marijuana ordinance is the first of several.
General Plan Update
In the midst of the year, the Board of Supervisors declared a now-forgotten deadline for the Planning Commission’s review of the General Plan Update. November 18 was to be the date that the Commission would finish its work but its members essentially rejected the edict to speed things up and several chapters of the Update await.
Complaints that it’s taken too long are understandable but so, too, is the length of time that’s been taken. For each thorny topic multiple issues are debated and well-funded advocacy groups are prepared to push their stances in courtrooms if necessary.
Even the speedier schedule was argued about, as those who are doing much of the arguing said their input would be sacrificed if things went faster. Planning commissioners agreed that the timeline was unfeasible, at last achieving unity after being split on the most pressing issues of the Update’s chapters on forestry and agricultural resources. Most of the division was over the balance between agricultural and timber productivity and landowners’ desires to subdivide and develop their parcels.
The Update’s Housing Element, which is renewed every five years for state review, was also fertile territory for conflict. The Element’s completion in the spring of 2009 was followed a year later by demands from the state to revise it. Realtors and developers groups argued that the county’s inventory of developable land is generally overstated but the state has more specific concerns. It’s become apparent that the county, like many others in the state, hasn’t kept pace with the demand for affordable and low income housing. And that made this cycle’s Housing Element a particularly tough one to come to grips with.
The Element’s implementation measures will trigger the Update’s most intense controversies. A recently-passed state law requires that areas be designated for principally permitted homeless shelters and transitional housing. Similar requirements are in effect for multifamily housing.
The county’s remedy for its low income housing shortfall is outlined in the Housing Element and it will ignite mass discontent in early 2011. Sometime in February or so, the county will roll out its plan to rezone properties for high density, low income housing.
An uproar is expected and it will be one of the upcoming year’s most newsworthy happenings.
The Marine Life
In a coastal community like Humboldt, it’s no surprise that MLPA implementation would be met with sharply-phrased but compelling opposition from a variety of people who use the ocean. But the county’s also famed for its environmental consciousness and its champions of habitat conservation would be expected take their advocacy to sea.
They didn’t. If anyone at all argued in favor of the MLPA, they didn’t do it assertively. And there was only one proposal for a network of Marine Protected Areas from a regional stakeholders group – the one that puts MPAs mostly in lightly-fished areas widely spaced from each other. Without an alternate proposal from conservationists, the burden of arguing for more habitat protection falls squarely on the Department of Fish and Game.
The consensus proposal is a one of a kind phenomenon and it’s been called a remarkable achievement. But it hasn’t achieved what it was expected to, which is to map an MPA network that meets science guidelines for size, spacing and habitat replication.
When the state’s Fish and Game Commission meets in February to begin decision-making on North Coast MPAs, it will make a choice it hasn’t been faced with before – to accept the desires of a united community in a process that’s been touted as consensus-driven, or to heed the advice of the DFG and give the people what they don’t want for the sake of having a functional MPA network.