After close to two hours of divided public comments, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors approved a measure to loosen restrictions on properties located around Humboldt Bay. The measure, which still must be approved by the California Coastal Commission, aims to improve productivity and increase revenue by allowing more types of businesses to temporarily set up shop around the harbor on land that’s strictly zoned for coastal-dependent industries.

There’s currently an overabundance of parcels zoned Coastal-Dependent Industrial, or CDI, around the bay — roughly 1,200 acres of it, with only about 50 acres currently in use for those purposes. The proposal approved today will allow enterprises such as manufacturing, warehousing and even retail to operate on CDI properties for up to seven years after obtaining a conditional use permit. Through an amendment to the Local Coastal Plan, the measure aims to protect CDI property in the long term while generating revenue to prevent further deterioration of infrastructure such as water lines, gas lines, electricity and roads.

By now the debate lines are well established. Opponents to the measure argue that tampering with CDI rules, or reducing the county’s inventory of those properties, could undermine future prospects for international shipping, including efforts to build an east-west railroad connecting Humboldt Bay to the Central Valley.

These objections are often tied in with the politics surrounding the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, whose Board of Directors has moved away from chasing the dream of a major industrialized shipping port in favor of a more diversified approach. 

Supporters speaking in favor of the measure today included several owners of bay-front property requesting more flexibility with their land. Jon O’Conner, owner and founder of Humboldt Bay Tourism, said he’d like to set up a bed and breakfast on the Samoa Peninsula. “I very much hope you vote yes on this interim use [measure] so out there no longer feels like a Mad Max community,” he said.

Several young adults from the upstart group Next Generation Eureka also spoke in favor of the measure, framing the issue as an opportunity to improve job prospects for their generation. 

Opponents included members of several loosely affiliated organizations supporting an east-west rail, including UpState RailConnect and the Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group. Debbie Provolt, for example, argued that there’s plenty of non-CDI land available elsewhere in the county, and property on the waterfront should be preserved for coastal-dependent industry.

A couple of speakers tried to bridge the gap between the two camps. “Interim use doesn’t prevent the rail from being built,” noted property owner Charles Benbow. 

The board ultimately agreed. Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass was first to voice her support for the measure. Noting that this was a hard issue, and that she has friends on both sides of it, Bass said she finds the arguments in favor more compelling. “We need to add vibrancy to the peninsula, and this is how we do it,” she said. “Interim will create jobs.”

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn initially said he would vote in favor of the measure, but he wanted to change it a bit to increase protections for the land around docks. The rest of the board failed to back him on the change, but it was apparently a deal-breaker for Bohn. He voted no.

Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell tried to unite the two competing factions among the public, arguing that both the interim use measure and a recently awarded Caltrans grant to study the railroad feasibility are good news for everyone. Fears that this measure will undermine shipping prospects are unfounded, she said. “I think cleaning it up, making it more vibrant will in fact make [the harbor] more attractive.”

Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg agreed, calling the proposal a “win-win.”