Stuart Altschuler, a psychotherapist who moved to Ferndale from West Hollywood last May, recently found out the hard way that in this small town, being a gay man who's spent the greater part of his life counseling others about AIDS/HIV and issues of sexuality isn't something to boast about. It's reason for your neighbors to be concerned.
Altschuler hoped to run a part-time marriage and family counseling office out of his house in a sleepy neighborhood on A Street. His real estate agent assured him that obtaining a home occupation permit would be a piece of cake. After all, there was another psychotherapist's office in a residential zone on Main Street, and there's a seamstress and an architect who both work from their homes within walking distance of Altschuler's residence. As far as Ferndale City Planner Nancy Kaytis-Slocum knows, Ferndale's Planning Commission hasn't denied a home occupation permit since she computerized the city's records in 2003.
In other words, there was no way for Altschuler — a quiet, well-kempt New Yorker who works part time as a counselor at College of the Redwoods and serves on the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission — to guess that his application, for what he thought was an uncontroversial permit, would eventually be denied. Nor that his case would tear the fabric of this Victorian town of 1,400 in two.
In September, as expected, Ferndale's Planning Commission voted 2-1 in favor of granting Altschuler his home occupation permit. But the next day, Altschuler's neighbor, Shannon Leonardo, appealed the commission's decision. Leonardo said he believed that allowing offices in Ferndale's residential neighborhoods will have a disruptive effect.
On Oct. 8, Altschuler and some concerned citizens, including Shannon Leonardo and his uncle Rich Leonardo, at the time Ferndale's fire chief, showed up at the City Council's meeting. When the council opened the floor to public comment, the situation quickly turned from cordial to surreal: In subsequent letters to the editor of The Ferndale Enterprise, one resident described what happened that night as "defamation by innuendo." Another called it a "verbal mob lynching." Still, others insist that nothing at all offensive was said.
As for Altschuler, he later described it as "the worst experience of my life."
At that meeting Rich Leonardo, a stout, jocular man, stood up and asked Altschuler a few questions. (Leonardo has since resigned as Ferndale's fire chief amid controversy over the comments he made that night.)
In his hands, Leonardo held a sheaf of papers he consulted while he spoke. At first, his questions seemed germane enough. He asked Altschuler if he was able to prescribe medication to his patients. Altschuler, who is not a psychiatrist, said no. Leonardo then asked him about the amount of traffic that his practice would cause. Altschuler had already been through all of this with the planning commission. His practice, the commission determined, was part-time, and would not adversely affect the neighborhood.
But then the nature of Leonardo's questions changed.
"You're treating a multitude of types of medical problems," he began. Then he consulted his notes, culled from Altschuler's personal webpage: "Attention Deficit Disorder, AIDS/HIV, addiction and compulsive behaviors, intimacy and relationships — well heck I could probably come see that [members of the audience laughed] — depression, grief and loss, sexual identity, sexuality, and sexual orientation, communication skills and relationships — well, there you go again [more laughter] ... so you pretty much cover the gauntlet of treatments.
"What I'm addressing here, honorable mayor, is, is this appropriate to have in the neighborhood, in a family setting? ... Kids are running around ... I don't really see that this is appropriate for that type of neighborhood. It's a good neighborhood down here. There are a lot of good people down there."
Leonardo then brought up the "issue" of Altschuler having founded the now-defunct International Project for AIDS, after which he added, "I've got just one more policy question, honorable mayor, the issue of you [Altschuler] being a minister in the Universal Life Church?"
"There are a few million of us around," Altschuler said, referring to the over 20 million people globally who have become ordained ministers through the Universal Life Church (ULC), according to the church's website. The ULC is a non-denominational religious organization whose ordination process is less stringent than that of other religious faiths. As a ULC minister, Altschuler had officiated a handful of marriages for friends.
"And let me ask you another question," Leonardo said, "I'm not homophobic or whatever you call it — was it a same sex marriage?"
Altschuler, controlling his emotions, answered the question politely. Yes, he said, he had married same-sex couples before.
At no point during Leonardo's and Altschuler's interchange did Ferndale Mayor Jeff Farley or anyone else on the council intercede.
"The lynch mentality was the City Council," Altschuler said later. "They let it go on and they never gaveled it."
That same evening, Shannon Leonardo voiced his concerns: "I'm also a little bit more concerned about other information that's gone on here." he said, "The twelve kids who run around the neighborhood, people that will be going in and out [of Altschuler's practice] that have the tendencies for ... I'm not even going to go there ..."
Reflecting back on that night, Altschuler said he thought the comments he heard were "meant to generate enough hysteria in this community to think that child molesters and people with AIDS with Kaposi's spots all over their bodies would start roaming into my house and their neighborhood."
That evening, the council decided to table their decision until Nov. 13.
In the meantime, Ferndale was rent in two. Caroline Titus, editor of The Ferndale Enterprise, learned the consequences of calling to task a pillar of the Ferndale community. According to Titus, she was harassed and intimidated by Rich Leonardo after running editorials and letters to the editor that pointed out the bigoted nature of his comments at the Oct. 8 meeting. Only after Titus' lawyer sent Leonardo a letter threatening to obtain a restraining order against him did the attacks stop.
Last Tuesday, when Ferndale's City Council met again, there was no mention of what had transpired on Oct. 8, except that Altschuler's lawyer referred to the offensive nature of some of the public comment at the last meeting. However, the council did change its protocol as a result of the Oct. 8 meeting. Tuesday's meeting was markedly organized: Germane public comment was delivered from a podium at the front of the room and speakers, after first introducing themselves for the record, addressed the council rather than individuals in the audience.
Still, Mayor Farley — with a bushy mustache and a wave combed into his slick pompadour — chewed gum as he presided over that evening's meeting, sometimes leaning back casually in his chair and cracking jokes.
The meeting was a victory for the Leonardos. In a 3-2 vote, the council denied Altschuler his permit. Farley commented under his breath to the two other council members who voted with him: "You can't get scared just 'cause of attorneys." The Leonardos cheered the decision.
Standing outside Ferndale's beautiful old City Hall building in the chilly evening air, a shell-shocked Altschuler conferred with his lawyer.
Then Rich Leonardo came up to Altschuler, put his hand on his shoulder and apologized. "I'm not a bigot," he explained. "I'm not an educated person. A lot of the time I'm not politically correct."
Altschuler still hasn't decided whether or not to sue the city. But one thing is for sure: He doesn't plan to leave. He's been impressed throughout this whole ordeal at the number of Ferndale residents who have come to his defense. "This is an incredible community," he said. "I love it here. It's home. And every home is a dysfunctional family."