Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Backwoods Brawling



I never claimed to be omniscient.

The record will show that a speaker at the Oct. 9 Board of Supervisors’ meeting, at which the board voted to institute a moratorium on new homes in areas zoned for timber production, issued a warning. Don’t believe it, this person said. The county now says that they only want a 45-day moratorium, but there’s no way that it’ll be satisfied with only 45 days. They’ll want to take away our rights forever!

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to this fellow, whoever he was. (See “Town Dandy,” Oct. 11.) My assumption was that he simply didn’t understand what was at play. For me, it was clear that the county saw a political opening to achieve a goal desired by many — the end of the Maxxam Corp. in Humboldt County. By passing a moratorium, the county let the judge overseeing the bankruptcy of Maxxam subsidiary Pacific Lumber know that the company’s plan for recovery was a dead letter. There is no way, the county wished to say, that Pacific Lumber is going to crawl out of bankruptcy by subdividing 22,000 of its acres into trophy ranchettes for the ultra-rich.

Well, whoever that speaker was, I owe him an apology. The county’s message was, in fact, heard loud and clear in the Corpus Christi bankruptcy court overseeing the Pacific Lumber case. Though no decision has been made, the judge in that case referred extensively to the county’s action, and seemed to imply that it made Pacific Lumber’s proposal very weak. But now, somehow, the speaker’s warning has come true. Now, Pacific Lumber is beside the point. There is now a quickly moving proposal on the table to permanently change the rules about home-building in Humboldt County’s timber production zones. The consequences of such a change would be immense.

Here, in a nutshell, is a summary of the situation. Currently, and for the last 30 years, someone who wanted to build a home on land zoned for timber production (“TPZ land”) required only a building permit. The proposed change would require that people who wish to build on TPZ secure, in addition, a much more onerous permit that would require, among other things, that the proposed home is “necessary for the management of the timberland” — i.e., for timber harvesting. On the face of it, that would seem to equal something close to “never.”

Looked at from one angle, the proposal is perfectly consistent with the changes the county is making to its general plan, which should be updated sometime next year. A major goal of the general plan is to confine population growth to already populated areas, so as to prevent sprawl and to preserve working timber and agricultural lands from development. There’s plenty of arguments to be made that rural subdivision has major impacts on wildlife and watersheds. Environmentalists and smart growth advocates have lined up solidly behind the proposed changes.

On the other hand, there’s no questioning the fact that any change would have immediate and devastating effects on some 1,700 separate owners of TPZ lands, who together own about one million acres of Humboldt County land. Eureka attorney Bill Barnum, whose family’s company owns about 30,000 acres of land, estimates that the changes will wipe away $1 billion in Humboldt County property values — about $150,000 per TPZ parcel. Whether those figures are strictly accurate or not, the very agitated folks who have organized themselves to oppose the change certainly have plenty to fear.

There’s no question that it’s within the county’s power to impose the changes. Several neighboring counties — Trinity, Del Norte, Shasta — have similar rules in place, and have had for some time. (Others, like Mendocino County, have rules similar to Humboldt County’s current ones.) It’s startling, though, how reaction to the Pacific Lumber proposal seems to have precipitated this headlong rush to change things as quickly as possible, without the possibility of thorough study or debate. The result, inevitably, will be very nasty politics and very expensive lawsuits.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Board of Supervisors considered whether to extend the moratorium it passed last month. Eighty people signed up to address the board about the issue, and their testimony was still going on as the Journal went to press.

Regardless, the proposal to permanently change the TPZ rules will be moving forward. The county’s Forestry Review Committee is scheduled to hear the proposed changes at its meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. The planning commission is scheduled to hear it next week. It’s scheduled to work its way back to the Board of Supervisors for action on Dec. 11.

Ironies abounded at the Tuesday afternoon supervisors’ meeting. All the 80 or so speakers who signed up to speak to the extension of the TPZ building moratorium first sat through a curious hearing in which the board deliberated whether or not to issue an abatement order concerning a development on land out near Hoopa that once belonged to Eel River Sawmills. That land, which is still zoned for timber production, was once owned — and seems still to be owned, at least on paper — by a limited liability company called Vilica LLC.

If the county wanted to display a poster child for their case that the county needs to tighten up its regulation of timber production lands, there’s two possible ways it could go. On the one hand, it could point to the original casus bellifor this battle — Pacific Lumber’s proposal to divide a big tract of its land into 130 or so “kingdoms” for the mega-wealthy. On the other, it could point to Vilica LLC. According to documents submitted to the Board of Supervisors by the county’s Code Enforcement Unit, Vilica did all the following on its Hoopa land, all without the proper permits: built homes, put in roads and building pads, installed an illegal septic system and put in numerous buildings that were used in a large-scale marijuana growing operation. None of which immediately strikes one as land uses essential for the harvesting of timber.

Who is Vilica LLC? That question was never really answered at Tuesday’s hearing, but it had been established that one of the principals is Arcata attorney Steve Schectman. Yes, the same Steve Schectman who campaigned for district attorney in the 2004 DA recall election, and who subsequently appeared in court as a volunteer prosecutor for District Attorney Paul Gallegos. The same Steve Schectman, incidentally, who sued Pacific Lumber and its parent corporation, Maxxam Inc., on behalf of the residents of the Stafford area and again on behalf of the family of forest activist David “Gypsy” Chain.

Schectman didn’t appear at the hearing. Instead, a hired Vilica representative argued that the county had no standing to take action against Vilica, partly because Vilica had an agreement to sell the land to some other entity. But county staff retorted that Vilica still held title to the lands in question, and the supervisors voted unanimously to order the lands to be cleaned up by June of next year.

The irony? As it turns out, the last time Schectman appeared in these pages was back in February, when he was defending the Sacred Grounds coffee company against a lawsuit brought by Bayside Roasters. (See “Roasted,” Feb. 22.) His opposition in that case? None other than the aforementioned Bill Barnum, who sat through the board’s hearing on the Vilica case while he waited for the TPZ hearing to begin.

Hard to tell what Barnum was thinking during the hearing centered on his old foe. Did it ever occur to him that he, Maxxam and Schectman were, by all appearances, on the same side of the TPZ issue?

Do you havea computer?

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The Blogthing, which has been up for about a week now, is a work in progress. It’s meant to serve as a sort of sandbox where we here at the paper wrap our heads around the coming day when we all receive our infotainment through digital signals streamed directly into our brains. But it’s already got some cool stuff, including live and continuously updated links to the works of other Humboldt County blog-writers.

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