As several major projects move steadily ahead throughout the Humboldt Bay region, county officials are looking for ways to offset potential impacts associated with future development. The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, prompted by Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo, revisited the topic of development impact fees during Tuesday’s meeting as a strategy to better accommodate incoming residents.
In a nutshell, development impact fees are fees that are imposed on specific projects to mitigate costs associated with new or additional public facilities – including fire and public safety, parks and transportation – that are needed to serve those developments. They must be based on the impact of new development and the cost of providing additional facilities or improvements.
Humboldt County is the only county in California that does not have development impact fees, largely due to the county’s historically low growth rate, but that may be about to change.
Cal Poly Humboldt is rapidly expanding to accommodate its increasing student population. Nordic Aquafarms is furthering its plans to build a land-based fish farm on the Samoa Peninsula. Crowley Wind Services is working with the Harbor District to build a full-service terminal on Humboldt Bay to support a 200-square-mile offshore wind development off the North Coast. There are also a couple of high-speed fiber optic lines being built in the region that will feed into a big data center in Arcata. And then, of course, there will be all the new housing that will be needed to support these big projects.
As developments move forward, the county and local municipalities can expect even more pressure on existing public resources and facilities. That’s where development impact fees come in.
Planning and Building Director John Ford noted that, while the county doesn’t have a development impact fee program per se, the costs are applied and accounted for throughout the development process. Ford used the North McKay Ranch Subdivision as an example.
“In that particular case, the [Environmental Impact Report] EIR identified that there were traffic impacts that needed to be addressed,” he explained. “The way a traffic fee would work – as applied to that [project] – is that the county would have done a nexus study to identify what the cumulative impacts are needed to implement the development allowed by the General Plan, and … identify a list of improvements that are needed to address those impacts and then to identify fees associated to implement them in that particular case.”
While development impact fees tend to add to the cost of a building permit, Ford noted that developers would be able to calculate their costs up front instead of going through the EIR process “to understand what their fees are.”
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell asked how development impact fees would affect rural, unincorporated communities. Ford said it would depend on the community and the improvements needed to mitigate the impacts of a specific development.
“The downside, frankly, is that when your growth rate is slow and the amount of money coming in from fees isn’t sufficient to fund the improvements … the money gets returned [to the developer],” he said. “It’s really not applied very much in the rural areas. We just don’t see that kind of growth that the more populous counties do where they’ll build a new town in the middle of nowhere with 10,000 people. That’s not the kind of growth that we see.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said he had contacted a few local housing developers ahead of Tuesday’s meeting and said they were “very concerned” about the prospect of the county implementing development impact fees.
“I’m not saying this is a bad idea [or] something that shouldn’t be looked at … but do we reach out enough and talk to the people that are actually going to be affected?” he asked. “The people that are going to be here tomorrow … to build houses into the future because we’re losing those. … I don’t think it’s great idea, but I’m not against it.”
Bohn recommended county staff look into the item further before moving forward. Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Steve Madrone noted that the item did not require any immediate action from the board, adding that staff’s recommendation would direct staff to conduct more research on the subject and bring a recommendation back to the board with a scope of work and cost estimate.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he would support a continuance of the discussion but also expressed his support for the implementation of development impact fees, noting that “it’s not just about the up front cost.”
“It is about the sort of the pain of paying up front for infrastructure and services, but we also have to remember all the folks that live in the community that … will use and utilize – and require, really – the services and infrastructure associated with fees like this,” he said. “We’re lacking in that space. I would also add that recreational districts are really popular and have been for a long time. There have been fees around that because they bring needed and really very popular infrastructure to communities and neighborhoods that are actually valuable to people’s property values and public safety.”
Returning to Bohn’s previous comment, Arroyo noted that she completely agreed that extensive outreach would be essential to implementing a development impact fee program but said, “I view this very much as a slow burn item.”
“I see this as something … that could would take quite a while to implement because there would need to be a lot of underlying study and analysis,” she said. “We would need to really understand to what type of development this applies and what kinds of improvements we’d be seeking to fund with the development impact fees. … It would be good to confer with our counterparts in the cities to understand what their appetite is for this and … [if there are] potentially other community services that can be funded.”
Returning to the subject of increased building costs, Bushnell said she would like to know more about how development impact fees would affect rural communities in comparison to cities, but said she wouldn’t be in favor of an additional fee that would serve “as a deterrent to building homes.”
Bushnell also asked Ford how the additional research would impact staffing in his department. “A lot of it depends on the board’s action on the budget in terms of what our staffing is gonna look like,” he said.
Speaking during public comment, Dave Watson, a representative of the Humboldt Builders Exchange, said he generally agreed with Bohn’s concerns surrounding increasing building costs but expressed support for Arroyo’s idea of streamlining the process to make it easier for development along the way.
“That’s absolutely fantastic, but I think the real fear is that it’s going to end up costing more money,” he said. “We’ll establish a secondary bureaucracy. We’re going to add more steps and the [EIRs] and all the other mitigation are still going to need to happen. It’s hard to see this as a net positive but I’m absolutely going to participate in any way that we can.”
After a bit of additional discussion, Wilson made a motion to move forward with staff’s recommendation to conduct more research on the item. The motion passed in a 4-1 vote, with Bushnell dissenting.
Public River Access at Fisher Road
The Board of Supervisors also received an informational report from staff regarding public access to the Van Duzen River via Fisher Road near Hydesville.
Local residents and avid fishermen have used Fisher Road to access the Van Duzen River for decades, but a change in the river’s course a few years back left a near-vertical cliff along the bank, making river access more difficult. The river access point also requires trespassing on private property, though the county has asserted a common-law dedication through public use and maintenance.
The property owners, Kelly and Shelby Patton, asked the county to give up the southern portion of the road late last year to prevent the public from using it as a river access point. The matter was listed on the board’s Dec. 20 agenda but the meeting was canceled in response to the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that rocked the entire county.
Members of the Humboldt County Fish and Game Advisory Commission have pushed back against the property owners’ request to vacate the road, arguing that the public has a right to access the Van Duzen River.
“California’s Constitution of 1879, laws, and judicial decisions have established public rights to access the state’s navigable waters, as well as tidelands, submerged lands, streams, lake, bays, and estuaries,” according to an Apr. 18 letter from the commission. “These resources are held in ‘public trust’ for current ad future generations. The public trust doctrine was established to ensure that government officials protect these sovereign lands for the use and enjoyment of the public, free from the obstruction of interference of private landowners.”
Before taking questions from supervisors, a lawyer from the county counsel’s office advised board members to keep their questions focused on public access rather than Fisher Road specifically. Similarly, Madrone reminded the board several times throughout the discussion that the item at hand was an informational report and did not require any additional direction from the board.
Speaking during public comment, Alicia Hamann, representing Friends of the Eel River and the Great Redwood Trail Coalition, advocated for continued public access to the river.
“You’ve heard from many community members who value this relatively rare point of access on the Van Duzen River and many of those people also have used this road to access the river for decades,” Hamann said. “I want to focus right now on reminding the board that about 30 years ago, the supervisors proudly protected public river access, even going as far as litigating to preserve public access at Odd Fellows Park Road, about a mile east of Fisher Road, as referenced in our letter.”
Hamman added that the court’s ruling established that the Van Duzen was a navigable waterway, adding that the public had a right to use the river and the riverbed up to the high watermark.
Speaking on behalf of the Humboldt Trails Council, Bruce Silvey emphasized the importance of the county securing and maintaining public access to Fisher Road, which will eventually intersect with the proposed Great Redwood Trail.
“The river access, at this point, is the only access along the Carlotta Branch Trail and the trails council believes that having a clear river access point will have an important impact on the number of people using the trail,” Silvey said. “The more people who use the trail, the safer the users feel and the less unwanted activities will occur on the trail. Also, there’s added benefit of a healthier and happier community with increased trail use in the county.”
Steve Rosenburg, a retired attorney and a fisherman, added that the public has a right to use the river access point under the California Constitution and case law.
“The end of [Fisher] Road has been used – until a few years ago – for over 75 years continuously despite the fact it’s been in private property ownership in the last several years,” he said. “The public has a permanent right, by this long-established use, to not only require the county to continue the county road in effect [but] also, the public has a right to use the private property’s narrow strip of land for access to the river bar as it has for 75 years.”
Rosenburg acknowledged the issue of dumping and illegal camping on the river bar but maintained that “there’s a way to handle that through enforcement, key access,” and other strategies.
Kelly Patton, one of the property owners, maintained that “there is no deeded right-of-way all the way down Fisher Road,” adding that he had former Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell and a representative with Fish and Wildlife at his property some years ago to look at the road.
“They pulled all the armor out of the bank that had been there 35-plus years and protected that parking lot,” he said. “Basically, we argued about [the] process of what them pulling the armor out was going to do to the access. They told me I was a fool and said I didn’t know what I was talking about. The first winter, about five years ago, it washes all out and gets blocked off. And not by our doing. I did everything I could to keep it open. But we’re not going to give up more land or give up part of our fields to give new access to the county.”
Patton added that there are several other river access points in the area.
His wife, Shelby, criticized the Fish and Game Advisory Commission and others for “being outraged about things they don’t know” and for failing to consider the other side of the story.
“If people don’t choose to find out what the truth is and what property law is, we’re going to continue to repeat and repeat these issues,” she said. “I can definitely tell you, in this particular case, if [the Fish and Game Advisory Commission or Rosenburg] had just approached us personally [and] respectfully, we might not be in the same situation we’re in right now.”
Turning back to the board for discussion, Wilson acknowledged the “variety of opinions around public access,” but said that the county, as a public trust agency, is obligated to “public trust responsibilities with relation to access to public trust resources throughout the county.”
Wilson made a motion to receive and file the report, which was seconded by Arroyo. The motion passed 5-0.
Other notable bits from Tuesday’s meeting:
- The County Administrative Office requested the board pull an item from the consent calendar to further discuss a $4.5 million bid to repave the parking lot at the California Redwood Coast-Humboldt County Airport. To meet requirements set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the county is required to open the public bidding process before receiving the FAA grant funding. The winning bidder will be selected shortly after bids open on May 31, and a separate item will be brought to the board to enter into a contract with the winning bidder. The county will be reimbursed in full for costs associated with the project.
- The board met in closed session to discuss anticipated litigation from former Deputy County Counsel Cathie Childs who asserts that she was wrongfully terminated by the county last fall. The CAO did not report any action on the matter.
- The board adjourned in memory of local artist and activist Richard Evans, who passed away earlier this year.