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Broken Trust

'Offensive' comments, accusations of dishonesty fracture relationship between Planning Commission and local tribes

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A months-long dispute over a stop-work order issued on the construction of a prominent local developer's private home bubbled into public view at the Aug. 18 Humboldt County Planning Commission meeting. From the dais, commission Chair Alan Bongio said he's "lost all trust" in two local tribal governments, while making some far-reaching comments about "Indians" that tribal leaders found "inappropriate" and "offensive."

The dispute centers around local developer Travis Schneider's construction of his family home at the end of Walker Point Road near Fay Slough, south of the Indianola Cutoff and east of U.S. Highway 101. Late last year, it was determined the 8,000-square-foot house already under construction has a slightly different footprint than what had been listed on an approved building permit plan, that Schneider had cleared brush in areas deemed ecologically and culturally sensitive, including one identified more than a century ago as a historical Wiyot village site, and cut an unpermitted temporary construction road on the property, all in violation of his coastal development permit. After a stop work order was issued, the county brought in three Wiyot area tribes — the Blue Lake Rancheria, the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria and the Wiyot Tribe — to try to chart a path forward.

It appears the parties were working in that direction after an Aug. 2 meeting that included representatives of Schneider, the three tribes, the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department and the California Coastal Commission. But it seems a consensus reportedly reached at the meeting was viewed in starkly different terms, with Schneider and county staff seeing it as a formal agreement, and the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria viewing it as a framework, the details of which still needed to be negotiated and finalized.

That apparent disconnect exploded at the Aug. 18 meeting, with a representative of Schneider's saying the tribes had "lied" and Bongio decrying the two tribes and the California Coastal Commission for going "after one individual," accusing the tribes of playing games, saying his trust in the tribes had been lost while intoning they were extorting Schneider. Bongio also warned the situation would set a precedent "like you wouldn't believe."

"Nothing will happen in Humboldt County," Bongio said during the meeting, calling the situation "the most egregious thing" he's seen in 11 years on the commission. "You already do have to go before the Indians but it's just going to have to be a whole new thing that everyone has to go through every time there's a project — you name it, whatever it is. You'll have to go before them and the Coastal Commission. This has went way too far."

Wiyot Tribal Chair and Cultural Director Ted Hernandez said his tribe has had a strong, respectful working relationship with the county Planning Department but he found Bongio's comments deeply offensive and openly wondered how the two governments could chart a path forward.

"I think I've lost faith in the Humboldt County Planning Commission," Hernandez said. "I'm still very upset and extremely ticked off at how the chairman handled his business. They forget they're guests on Wiyot Land, it's still Wiyot territory and we've never given up our rights on Wiyot land. ... How do we heal this wound now? It's a deep wound. To call the people of these lands 'Indians?' I'm sorry, we are the true citizens of this land and we have a name."

The Stop Work Order

Schneider did not attend the Aug. 18 meeting, as he was away on a family vacation on the East Coast, but had Tina Christiansen, a local Realtor and member of the Humboldt Association of Realtors Board of Directors, read a letter on his behalf. In it, Schneider explained that he and his wife, both born and raised in Humboldt County, have a love and affinity for the area, have made their lives here and are simply looking to build a home for their family.

Having begun investing in real estate at the age of 19, when he "purchased his first four-plex in Eureka," according to a proposal submitted to build an RV park in 2017, the Schneiders at the time owned a civil engineering firm, as well as construction and property management companies, with a portfolio that then included "several" commercial buildings, three RV parks, 90 apartment units and "a land inventory in place to develop another 120 units."

In August of 2017, the county approved the couple's plans to build an 8,000-square-foot home, with a four-car garage and attached 1,000-square-foot cellar on the 3.5-acre parcel on Walker Point Road. The plans were conditioned on requirements that the project retain native blackberry thickets on the parcel, limit construction to areas on the property above a 40-foot threshold and prohibit removal of vegetation within a designated wetland protection area. The Schneiders obtained what's known as an alternate owner building permit — a special permit that allows property owners to build homes with less stringent oversight if they plan to occupy them.

It's unclear from the record when the Schneiders broke ground on the house, but the project was well underway in December when, according to a staff report, "it was brought to the attention" of the Planning Department that grading and ground disturbance had occurred in prohibited areas, potentially damaging "a known tribal cultural resource." The county issued a stop work order Dec. 27, though work continued at the site for several weeks. In the letter read by Christiansen, Schneider said this was because he was out of town when the initial order was posted and then decided to continue construction work while he "sought clarity from the county," despite having received six more certified stop work orders on Jan. 3. He said he eventually reached a "mutual agreement" with Planning Director John Ford that "we could continue work and meet in early February." It's unclear from the record when work actually stopped at the site, and Ford conceded at the Aug. 18 meeting that he believes the fact the initial order "wasn't immediately followed" has "created some heartache."

In his Aug. 18 staff report, Planner Cliff Johnson said the permit and condition violations had resulted in the removal of 440 square feet of native California blackberry from a single parameter wetland, with more than 52,000 square feet of native blackberry removal overall, as well as the removal of 1,250 square feet of "sensitive" habitat and multiple small trees. An archeologist brought in to assess impacts to the cultural site due to the use of heavy machinery to remove vegetation, however, found no impact to the integrity of the site's scientific value or evidence any cultural material was damaged.

The question then became how to correct the damage and make sure similar violations didn't occur in the future.

The Consultations

According to Johnson's presentation, the tribes jointly visited the construction site in February to assess the damage and begin the consultation process, which ultimately stretched months as various assessments were studied and the Blue Lake Rancheria asked for several time extensions, until July 26, when it and the Wiyot Tribe submitted a joint letter outlining various conditions for approving the project. The letter itself has not been made public, as it contains detailed information about the location of sensitive cultural sites, but a county staff report indicates it recommended at least nine mitigation measures.

These included establishing a new (and marked) wetland setback area, increased consultations with tribes, tribal approval of a wetland restoration plan, installation of a fence to block off sensitive areas with a tribal monitor on site for construction, submittal of a site drainage plan and the presence of a tribal monitor during removal of the unpermitted access road cut into the site. Further, they requested the three Wiyot area tribes be given a conservation easement encompassing the archeological site and "associated wetland habitat" and that, at Schneider's expense, a "controlled excavation and archeological data recovery" be conducted on a two-cubic meter portion of the archeological site at a maximum cost of $38,000. (The two tribes said this was requested "due to the fact" that an archeological damage assessment conducted at the site exposed a small portion of it to "erosional factors." It's also worth noting here that the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria did not agree with this last request.)

When the parties met virtually Aug. 2, the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria reportedly did not agree to the excavation request, asking instead that the site simply be capped to prevent any future damage.

Brad Johnson, a lawyer representing Schneider, said he then discussed the requests with his client, who agreed each of the requests was appropriate, after which he then penned a letter to Ford on Aug. 5 indicating Schneider would accept all the mitigation measures suggested in the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria's joint letter. County staff then assumed there was an accord and prepared a staff report for the Aug. 18 meeting that recommended the Planning Commission lift the stop work order after the mitigation measures requested by the tribes were implemented.

But when the tribes saw the staff report and recommendations, they all felt more work needed to be done and submitted comments to that effect. The Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria suggested it was on board with all proposed mitigation measures except the last one, asking that the $38,000 simply be put into an account while the tribes work together to determine the best course.

The Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria, however, expressed deeper concerns in letters submitted shortly before the commission's noon comment deadline on Aug. 17, saying the mitigation measures had hosts of details that still needed to be finalized. Specifically, they raised questions about who would fund monitoring efforts, how tribal input into restoration plans would be facilitated and incorporated, and exactly how the conservation easement would work and who exactly would hold it.

"The Wiyot Tribe and other affected tribes recommended nine mitigation measures, which staff concludes would be implemented in several conditions of approval," Wiyot Tribal Administrator Michelle Vassel wrote in the tribe's comment letter. "The description of conditions, however, is at such a high level of generality so as to make monitoring and enforcement of these conditions problematic. ... These problems underscore the need for additional consultation as necessary to clarify these ambiguities and to ensure that the tribally-endorsed mitigation measures are in fact fully implemented."

The Blue Lake Rancheria commented similarly: "It remains unclear how the revised conditions will be implemented, monitored and, if necessary, enforced. It is insufficient to defer the details of the conditions, and processes by which these revised conditions will be deployed, given the history of non-compliance and lack of oversight in this situation."

The Coastal Commission also weighed in shortly before the comment deadline came to a close, saying it remains concerned both permit violations and unpermitted development at the property are not "adequately resolved" by staff's recommendation, concluding: "We look forward to continuing our collaboration in order to achieve complete resolution of these egregious violations."

The Meeting

Early in the Aug. 18 meeting, Bongio indicated he was using his discretion to move the issue of Schneider's home construction up the agenda, ahead of a permit amendment for Friends of the Dunes trail and habitat restoration work that has been pending for years (and was subsequently bumped to a future meeting) because Schneider was on a family vacation in New York and it would be earlier in the evening if he chose to participate (he did not) and at-large Commissioner Melanie McCavour would be joining the meeting from Montreal, Canada, and also facing a significant time change.

What Bongio did not mention then but quickly became apparent was that McCavour would not be participating in the meeting as a commissioner and would soon recuse herself, as she works as the historic preservation officer for the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, and later addressed the commission during public comment in that capacity. The Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria submitted written comments on the matter earlier that day (after the noon Aug. 17 deadline) she said, but it appeared they were accepted into the record anyway. McCavour's relatively brief comments noted that the Rancheria "were not the initiators" of the matter pending before the commission, but agreed with most of the mitigation measures, the lone exception being the one to excavate a portion of the cultural site.

After McCavour's comments, Bongio asked her why the Wiyot Tribe, the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Coastal Commission all submitted comment letters shortly before the Aug. 17 deadline, while Bear River did not have a letter until the following day, saying it was "puzzling" to him.

"They'd made this agreement and then, all of a sudden at the 11th hour, these three letters show up. I mean, it can't be coincidence. I'm sorry, I'm just going to say it the way it is," Bongio said. "But what I don't understand is if there are three Wiyot tribes that are having say in this, how come we get Bear River's today? It just seemed odd to me."

McCavour responded that the tribe hadn't been aware of the other letters.

Hernandez and Vassel later told the Journal they took issue with the whole exchange, saying it seemed to some how impugn comments submitted prior to the commission's deadline while giving preferential status to others filed late, with Vassel saying, "Her voice was lifted and ours suppressed."

Immediately after the exchange between Bongio and McCavour, Third District Commissioner Noah Levy made one of numerous comments from commissioners asserting that no one from the Wiyot Tribe or Blue Lake Rancheria was attending the meeting. Vassel says she attended the meeting virtually, as did two other tribal staffers and John Ramos from the Blue Lake Rancheria. She said she tried to raise her virtual hand multiple times to indicate to the commission that she was present on behalf of the Wiyot Tribe, but got no response until nearly three hours into the meeting, when Ford emailed her to say he saw her and ask if she wished to address the commission. She responded 30 minutes later indicating she simply wanted the commission to know the tribes were present but the Wiyot Tribe had "submitted our comments via paper because this is our right." (Vassel provided copies of the exchange to the Journal.)

It's unclear why the entire commission seemed under the impression no one from the Wiyot Tribe or Blue lake Rancheria was in attendance. (Bongio declined a request to be interviewed for this story and McCavour did not respond to a Journal email.)

Already off to an atypical start, rhetoric at the meeting really ramped up when Christensen addressed the commission on behalf of Schneider during public comment, accusing the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria of having lied during the Aug. 2 meeting before reading the letter for Schneider.

In the letter, Schneider concedes he's "not innocent in this matter," but said he'd agreed to each and every mitigation request from the multiple tribes involved, other than declining to issue a formal apology. He said he was relieved when his attorney presented a formal agreement Aug. 5, thinking it put an end to the matter, saying he was "gutted" when he saw the "coordinated emails" submitted Aug. 17 and watched tears roll down his children's faces "at the realization they won't have their new house." He later intoned that certain parties involved in the issue want to see "our house demolished." Having finished reading Schneider's letter, Christensen doubled down on her previous assertion the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria had reneged on a promise.

"We were told one thing and lied — it was lied to us," she said.

Fifth District Commissioner Peggy O'Neill then chimed in to say she was offended that Christensen would call people liars, pointing out that the people representing tribes at the Aug. 2 meeting likely didn't have full decision making autonomy, and could well have felt the agreement was solid only to have their elected superiors disagree.

"To call them liars or deceivers or whatever is really unfair, because they are employees and consultants, and they're going to do the best job they can, but they don't speak for their elected officials," O'Neill said.

Bongio countered that he'd been "following this thing very closely since it first happened."

"I don't like using that word 'liar' either but sometimes the word fits and there may be some places in this that that word does fit," Bongio said. "They came to an agreement — everyone came to an agreement — and then, using the word someone else used, reneged. I have a different term for it, but whatever. ... This is very troubling to me. ... I've lost all trust in the tribes in what I've watched. It's going to take a lot to rebuild that for me."

Bongio later said he believes what happened is the tribes "never thought that Mr. Schneider would agree with all the 11 things that they asked."

"And when he did, they went, 'Oh my God, we could have gotten more,'" he said, later expressing frustration commissioners couldn't see the tribes' July 26 letter that contained sensitive information about the locations of cultural artifacts "because that's how the Indians play that game."

A motion to approve staff's recommendation failed 3-3, with Bongio, Fourth District Commissioner Mike Newman and Second District Commissioner Thomas Mulder voting in favor.

Levy then pointed out that there appeared to be unresolved questions in the agreement sitting before the commission, pointing to which tribe would hold the conservation easement as a good example. Additionally, he suggested that if the Coastal Commission — the entity that could hear an appeal of the matter — was asking for more time to work out details, it might behoove the applicant and his project to give the parties involved more time to do that.

At-large Commissioner Brian Mitchell offered a similar take, saying he feels Schneider has "shown true remorse" and that he'd like to help him get the project finished, but made clear some of the rhetoric on display at the meeting made him uncomfortable.

"I personally am having a hard time getting on board with some of the language and comments that are being made toward our partners and trust agencies with which we have to work," he said. Mitchell added that he's witnessed "first-hand the folly of thinking you can ignore a Coastal Commission letter and just try and go do what you think is best. I've never seen it work out."

The commission ultimately voted 5-1, with Bongio dissenting, to continue the matter for two weeks with the hopes of giving Schneider, the Wiyot Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria more time to reach a final accord.

A few minutes later, as the meeting adjourned and its cameras cut away, one of Access Humboldt's microphones picked up Bongio saying in a hushed voice, "That was a waste of my fucking time."

The 'More Difficult' Path

Speaking to the Journal days after the Planning Commission meeting, Vassel said she was completely shocked at the tribe's treatment, saying it felt like "a show" and as though there was an effort to pit tribes against one another.

Asked for comment, the Blue Lake Rancheria issued a brief statement asserting that the "core issue here is noncompliance with terms and conditions of building permits and other regulations," and that the Rancheria was working in good faith to resolve the matter.

"However, the rush to approval of inadequately detailed revised permit conditions, and inappropriate comments by members of the Planning Commission [in the Aug. 18 meeting], particularly the Chair Alan Bongio, leaves the tribe with a much lower confidence in the Planning Commission to adequately overcome its interests in this case and come to a fair, impartial resolution," the Rancheria stated, adding it was still considering options but leaning "toward appeal of this matter to the California Coastal Commission."

For their part, Vassel and Hernandez said they will have to turn to the Wiyot Tribal Council for direction, but both made clear they felt the Aug. 18 meeting had deeply hurt the relationship between the Planning Commission and the Wiyot Tribe.

"If you hit someone in the face, they don't want to play with you anymore," Vassel said. "And I felt like that in the meeting, like, 'Wow, they're throwing punches.'"

Hernandez was a bit more plain, saying he feels Bongio may have harmed the interests he was seemingly fighting for.

"This chair, I feel he might have hurt discussions," Hernandez said. "It's very offensive what he said. I think the way the chair acted, it's going to make this a lot more difficult."

As to Bongio's notion that there's now some precedent set that development will have to go through local tribes for approval, well, there Hernandez doesn't entirely disagree.

"Yeah, it's our land," he said. "It's our territory. But we'll work with you."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal’s news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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