As we know, the Humboldt County General Plan Update, 12 years in the making and nearing the finish line, was thrown into turmoil Monday when a majority of the board — Supervisors Ryan Sundberg, Rex Bohn and Virginia Bass — voted to look at possible options for rebooting the entire process. 

Things are about to get more complex. County planning staff are now presenting the board with a suggested course that tackles head-on the ostensible problem — the three supervisors’ difficulty in understanding the update — while, in fact, giving the board’s new majority far less than what it asked for, and perhaps doing nothing at all to address that majority’s actual issues.

This report will be delivered at a sure-to-be-contentious special meeting on Monday, Sept. 17, at 1:30 p.m.

First, let’s back up and review. You can find video of this week’s meeting on the subject at this link. The debate over whether to dramatically reboot the general plan update starts about 85 minutes in. But if you want a quick (nine-minute) summary, you could watch the following excerpt.

Supervisor Ryan Sundberg floats the idea of passing the general plan update piecemeal, by going back and approving simple revisions to the current (1985) plan that would bring it into line with a quarter-century of evolution in state and federal law. After that, the board could go back and look at other elements of the update before them, bit by bit. Such a path, he suggests, would one way of addressing his confusion, and that of others.

Hackles raised, Supervisor Mark Lovelace retorts that no one who signed up for their job has the excuse of saying that the work is too difficult. The update itself is not the difficult part, Lovelace suggests; the difficult part is making a decision that is bound to displease one constituency or another.

A very emotional Sundberg then charges Lovelace with being “borderline rude,” and repeats that his problem is with the difficulty of the documentation. “Read a piece of it,” he says. “It seems like it goes in circles sometimes.” He says that he is simply asking if there is a way to pare it down and bring it back to the board in “bite sizes,” and says that it is “completely unfair” that he is “being chastised.”

Video below: 

But is the complexity of the general plan update actually the issue? Not, in the end, for Supervisor Rex Bohn. He, too, complained about the difficulty of understanding the legalese of the update — it is, remember, a legal document — but only insofar as its complexity might mean that something of substance slips by him. “I’m just trying to get this as well as I can, because I made promises to people that I would protect their property rights and their property values and I’ve got to stand by that,” Bohn said. “If somebody up here can say property rights and property values are going to be held in whole when this gets through, I’ll vote for the whole thing right now and we can walk away from here. But I don’t think anybody can do that”

This sentiment is perfectly in keeping with the “piecemeal” approach that Sundberg floated as a possible way to reboot the Supes’ work program. For years, property rights organizations have pressured county officials to undertake the simplest possible revision to the 1985 plan, rather than the more ambitious version of the plan that was eventually passed by the Planning Commission and is now before the board. 

At the end of Monday’s meeting, Lovelace and Supervisor Clif Clendenen each made efforts to address what seemed to be Sundberg’s core complaint. Lovelace put forward a motion to hold a sort of workshop or seminar, aimed at board members and led by staff, on how to read and work through the materials before them. The motion died for lack of a second.

Clendenen then offered that staff could possibly pull back and give supervisors the “30,000-foot-view” of the update, along with additional simple “frame-of-reference” descriptions of each suggested policy that the board will be looking at in their current “straw-poll” series of general plan update reviews. County staff responded by saying that perhaps a “motion” was not was was needed; perhaps it would be better to have general direction as to how staff might address Sundberg’s concerns better.

Sundberg said that he’d like to have staff bring the board a range of options for “how to make this process more understandable, possibly easier.” Some of those moving forward with a new general plan update plan of work. One of those options, he said, would be to pare down the general plan along the lines he suggested earlier — back to the existing 1985 general plan, with state and federal changes added in, and with additional elements added later.

Today, though, staff brought him nothing of the sort. The staff’s suggestion — its only suggestion — amounts to kind of a supercharged version of the idea Clendenen tried to float. Staff, it says, can offer up a simple “narrative”-style report on each set of policy changes in the plan as they come to the board in the current (and unchanged) series of “straw-poll” meetings. They’d also offer a chart detailing the difference between each proposed policy and its counterpart in the 1985 plan. Nowhere does staff offer Sundberg the option to reboot that he requested.

We’ll see this Monday, but most likely this is because, as Lovelace said in this week’s meeting, that a piecemeal approach would require a whole new environmental impact report, as well as the roundfiling of the countless thousands of hours put in by planning commissioners, county staff and members of the public that got the county to the working draft it has now. This would be massively more costly than the current program of work, which, after all, is nearing the finish line after 12 years. And there’s no indication at all that the end product would be any less controversial than what is before the board now.

The staff proposal takes Sundberg’s objection at its face — the update is confusing, so we will dumb things down as much as possible to give you an eye-in-the-sky overview. If Sundberg’s objection as stated really is his objection, this should be plenty to secure at least a 3-2 vote that will get us moving forward again. If Sundberg’s objection is not, in the end, the style of the update but its substance, then we’ll be in for a rocky ride Monday.