Supervisors Line Up With Realtors, OK Flood Plain Development

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

HUMBOLDT – Wary of approving a draft General Plan Update policy that would prohibit residential subdivisions in flood plains, a majority of the Board of Supervisors supports conditionally allowing them.

Supervisors reviewed the update’s Safety Element last Monday and debated a policy that bans new residential lot splits in areas that are entirely within 100-year flood plains. Those areas are identified in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) insurance maps.

The majority of the board is development-friendly and uncomfortable with update policies that block new construction opportunities. Supervisor Rex Bohn said the Arcata Bottoms is one area where people have told him they’re worried about not being able to do lot splits.

“There’s a lot of concern among those people and the last thing we want to do is deny …” he said, leaving the sentence hanging.

“When I look at the word ‘prohibit,’ I have it underlined several times,” said Supervisor Virginia Bass. “I wish we could use something that’s more like ‘discourage.’”

Supervisor Estelle Fennell called attention to written comments submitted by the Humboldt Association of Realtors that claim affordable housing construction will be impacted by a flood plain prohibition.

But Supervising Planner Martha Spencer said her department habitually recommends not allowing new residential parcels in flood plains to avoid exposing people and homes to risk. Board members strived for flexibility, however.

“If this said ‘discourage,’ how would that be implemented or interpreted by the Planning Commission?” asked Board Chairman Ryan Sundberg.

Spencer said an environmental impact review could include an “over-riding consideration” – a statement that declares a project’s public interest value outweighs the presence of unavoidable impacts.

Supervisor Mark Lovelace asked Spencer for an example of an “over-riding public interest” that would allow a new residential parcel in a flood plain.

“I can see where there might be a private interest,” he said. “But I really can’t figure what kind of findings would justify it.”

“If there wasn’t any, then you wouldn’t have to worry about it,” said Sundberg.

The approach that most supervisors supported took a somewhat different tack – when County Planner John Miller said that elevating a home can, in some instances, give protection from floods, a rewording of the policy was proposed.

But Lovelace said that he has “enough constituents who live in or near flood plains” who deal with flood problems “year after year after year” to convince him that subdividing those areas isn’t a viable idea.

Over Lovelace’s objections, the rest of the board approved a revised policy that allows flood plain construction if the Board of Supervisors finds that flood impacts can be “reduced to less than significant levels.”

There was more debate between Lovelace and the rest of the board when an implementation measure on limiting impervious cover in “flood-prone watersheds” was considered.

The measure had been proposed by the Healthy Humboldt Coalition, which Lovelace had represented before being elected, during the county Planning Commission’s review of the update. The commission was deadlocked on the proposal.

Noting that the measure is recommended by Healthy Humboldt and not staff, Supervisor Estelle Fennell said it’s “over-reaching” and “cost-prohibitive.”

Lovelace said the measure aims to prevent the watery nuisances that are a regular part of the lives of residents in the greater Arcata area. “In areas of Sunny Brae, when it gets a good rain, the ability of the stormwater system to handle it is just not there,” he continued.

The viability of the measure was debated without resolution and supervisors decided to reconsider it later, as part of a drainage ordinance in the Water Resources Element.

Supervisors finished their review of the Safety Element, which includes additional flood management policies and others on fire, earthquake and tsunami hazards. The board continues its review of the update on June 3, when afternoon and evening hearings will be held.


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