Supes Act to Rein in Planning Commission

Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors is taking steps to prevent the Planning Commission from placing items on its agendas that appear to represent board policy actions.

The process by which the commission sets its agenda items was the subject of a long and carefully-worded discussion at the May 24 board meeting.

A primary trigger for the discussion is the commission’s recent consideration of a moratorium or ban on medical marijuana manufacturing facilities.

Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said it led many members of the public to believe that the Board of Supervisors had asked for a recommendation on a marijuana manufacturing ban when it had not.

Other items of concern are the commission’s recent deliberations on a traffic impact fee for the greater Eureka area and formation of an ad hoc committee to analyze planning staff conduct.

Sundberg said that if the commission takes up items that aren’t within its per view according to government code, public information such as staff reports are lacking and there’s a perception of board-directed policymaking.

“I had some people ask me why we were putting a [medical marijuana] manufacturing moratorium on the agenda and I said, ‘We didn’t have anything to do with it.’ So it makes it look like it’s coming from us even if it’s not,” he continued.

The commission’s consideration of the moratorium resulted in a majority vote not to recommend it. Its appearance on the commission’s agenda was particularly confusing because supervisors had already approved a commercial medical marijuana ordinance that allows manufacturing.

Supervisor Estelle Fennell said that she also fielded questions about it.

“It would have been a good thing to have been informed that people were approaching the Planning Commission to address that issue so that we could actually task them with doing that, if that’s the process,” she continued. “I didn’t have anybody coming to me asking that the Planning Commission review that, or that we review it.”

Planning Commissioner Ben Shepherd, who is Sundberg’s appointee to the commission, told supervisors that the moratorium item attracted many meeting attendees and was continued multiple times.

The traffic impact fee also attracted public attention, he continued, but both items were technically ineligible for commission action.

Shepherd said such practices lead residents to assume that policy changes may be afoot.

“The most important thing to me is clear communication with the public understanding where this is coming from and what authority we have to act on it,” he continued. “Because it’s really a disservice to the public to make them come to a meeting and feel that we have the ability to change something when we really can’t do it.”

Supervisor Rex Bohn supported giving the commission leeway, however. He said government code can be interpreted to include the type of agenda items in question and he pointed out that the Board of Supervisors is the ultimate decision-maker on them.

Asked for analysis, County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck said that if the commission is taking initiatives that planning staff hasn’t developed reports or recommendations for, “Then who’s actually going to literally draft that letter and send it up saying it’s a recommendation from the commission — they don’t have support staff.”

Sundberg made a motion that he work with the County Administrative Officer, the Interim Planning Director and Blanck in writing a letter to the commission clarifying the limits on agendizing items “outside of the normal regulatory procedures.”

Bohn was the only supervisor to vote against drafting the letter, which will come back to the board for final approval.

The meeting began on a solemn note, as Board Chair Mark Lovelace announced the previous night’s death of former county Supervisor Jimmy Smith at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Eureka.

Smith was 67 years old and was supervisor from 2001 to 2012. He also served as a Harbor District commissioner and was well-respected for his work on fisheries and watershed projects.

Smith had dealt with cancer for many years and resigned from the board in 2012 to undergo treatment for it.