Things got heated in Supervisors Chambers at the courthouse during the Nov. 1 Humboldt County Planning Commission meeting.
For the second time this year, Mercer-Fraser Co., a well-known road construction company, aroused public alarm via a requested zoning change that some fear could endanger the drinking water of more than half of Humboldt County's population.
The company owns a parcel of land next to the Mad River intake wells of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which sells drinking water to 88,000 customers. Mercer-Fraser came to the forefront of public awareness in January when it requested a change in zoning from Agricultural-General to Heavy Industrial and applied for a permit to operate a cannabis extraction business on the site, which would have placed dangerous chemicals in close proximity to the intake wells. After furious public controversy — and the threat of a lawsuit — Mercer-Fraser withdrew the request for the permit. However, apparently the accompanying request for a zoning change to industrial use remained on the table (Mercer-Fraser CEO Justin Zabel told the Times-Standard
that plans for the cannabis extraction facility on the site are “off the table.”)
For the past 30 years, Mercer-Fraser has been using the riverside property to mine gravel from the Mad River and the two neighbors have gotten along with a minimum of friction. However, according to the current Humboldt County zoning regulations, the company is technically out of compliance with the agricultural zoning at the site.
The issue re-surfaced at the Nov. 1 County Planning Commission meeting, at which massive changes to the county's entire zoning ordinance were proposed. This included several proposed changes to other parcels located near the water district's wells.
Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District General Manager John Friedenbach and staff address the County Planning Commission in January with concerns about Mercer-Fraser Co.'s proposal.
Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District General Manager John Friedenbach expressed his opposition to the proposed re-zoning in the vicinity of the wells, adding that his concerns were shared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which stated that "industrial zoning is incompatible with the designated critical habitat for salmon, steelhead and Pacific eulachon."
"The staff report," Friedenbach continued, "does not include a discussion of how a sweeping rezone of parcels ... to the most environmentally intensive land use is in the public interest. ..... The location of heavy manufacturing adjacent to the Mad River was not part of the project described in the General Plan Environmental Impact Report and therefore was not analyzed or mitigated."
Mercer-Fraser did not get its coveted zoning change, which would have made the parcel near the intake wells zoned industrial. Instead it will stay zoned agricultural, at least for the time being, along with the other nearby parcels that were being considered for re-zoning.
It soon became obvious that as controversial as the Mercer-Fraser request was, it took a back seat to the dawning realization that hundreds, if not thousands, of property owners throughout Humboldt County had their zoning changed with almost no public notification.
According to Senior Planner John Miller, the zoning changes would impact about 13,000 parcels throughout the county. A little more than half of those, Miller said, had been zoned "unclassified," meaning they had never been precisely zoned.
In addition to the general revision of the zoning ordinance, the commission had a list of specific re-zoning requests to consider, including Mercer-Fraser's and several in Willow Creek, Glendale and the Blue Lake area.
The supervisor's chamber on the evening of Nov. 1 was filled with angry residents. Many were from Willow Creek, concerned that proposed zoning changes could threaten the drinking water supply from the Trinity River. Other Willow Creek residents were disturbed about zoning changes that could permit large cannabis operations in the heart of their community. Still others were from Glendale, where they worry that a whole series of zoning changes could forever alter the rural quality of their homes. Trinidad City Councilmember Dwight Miller worried that increasing the density of the land use outside the city limits would place an impossible demand on the town’s water supply.
Other residents were angry about the lack of public outreach. If you happened to read the legal notices in the Sept. 23 edition of the Times-Standard
, or if you subscribed to the County Administrative Officer's online newsletter, you knew about the meeting; otherwise you didn't. Many attendees complained that they had only learned of the changes by word-of-mouth.
Maps of the current land use designations as of 2017 are available online but they are not easy to use. In Willow Creek, the area's lack of broadband service made it near impossible to download the maps. Moreover, average people are unlikely to be familiar with the legion of acronyms that determine what they can and cannot do with their properties.
After nearly an hour of public testimony, the commissioners hammered out what to do next. Chair Robert Morris was adamant about wanting to approve all the proposed changes en masse, and move them forward to the board of supervisors for final approval. Commissioner Noah Levy took the opposite tack. With so many people expressing concerns, he said, the commission should take its time, do more outreach to the various communities and then make its decision. The other commissioners were somewhere in the middle.
"What's the rush?" Levy asked. "State law gives us two years to do this."
Some feel the rush may have something to do with the approaching new year, when Fifth District-Supervisor-elect Steve Madrone, who stated his opposition to many of the proposed changes, will take office, replacing current board Chair Ryan Sundberg.
Madrone made a fiery presentation to the commissioners after the public comment period had officially closed, with Morris yelling at him to sit down and Madrone replying that under Roberts Rules of Order he had a right to make a Point of Order at any time. Madrone charged that some of the commissioners have conflicts of interest and warned if they did not recuse themselves, he would file a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
The commissioners argued for nearly two hours, offering motions that at times seemed self-contradictory, and at one point got into a shouting match with the audience.
Finally, Commissioner Ben Shepherd made a lengthy motion to "adopt the addendum to the General Plan Environmental Impact Report prepared for this project; adopt a resolution recommending that the board of supervisors adopt an ordinance making the proposed changes to the zoning ordinance and zoning maps as identified in the proposed ordinance, and that does not include the specific re-zone requests." However, other commissioners added language to the motion that would exempt areas that were subject to community plans. This led to a lack of clarity in the exact wording of the motion, which was nonetheless passed 4-2, with Levy and Mitchell voting against it.
The decision must still be approved by the board of supervisors. It does not appear on the board's Nov. 6 agenda but will likely appear on one in the near future.
In response to a North Coast Journal
request for comment, Madrone issued a statement arguing that numerous planning commissioners have “legal financial conflicts of interest” as they own properties that “will benefit from the changes in zoning,” especially as those changes relate to the county’s cannabis land use ordinance.
"The majority of the people in the audience weren't feeling that they were being listened to and that the chairperson was not impartial,” Madrone said. “The chairperson would not let people have other opinions and every time somebody commented he would comment back and rebut them. Rather than having an open discussion that was fairly chaired, he chose to use his position to try to force this through and ultimately was successful in doing that.”
Editor's note: This post was updated with additional information from the Humboldt County Planning Department.