As Eureka continues to re-envision its waterfront, making incremental improvements, a power player is emerging: The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. An often quiet elected body, the district rose into the public spotlight several times in the last few years when it took ownership of the Samoa Pulp Mill, spurring a cleanup of the caustic materials left behind.
That purge continues — the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on the site since last year, first trucking the toxic liquors left at the mill to Washington and then beginning the process of dismantling the tanks that housed them. Now, according to Harbor District CEO Jack Crider, only the three tall tanks remain and, when it's all finished, the EPA will have hauled nearly 10,000 tons of material off of the pulp mill grounds.
The district is still negotiating with a company to purchase the mill's boiler, but little headway has been made. Meanwhile, the smokestack, one of the Eureka skyline's trademarks, is slated to be blown up by the military in a controlled demolition.
And when the military comes to demolish, the motto is "'P' for plenty," Crider said. "Lots of powder, lots of dynamite — there's a probability that we'll end up breaking some windows," and the district is working out how to handle that.
Another key part of the district's rising tide is the evolution of Woodley Island, the home of the district, Eureka's National Weather Service Station, a large public marina, a more than 40-acre wildlife area and the Café Marina restaurant.
Crider said plans are already in the works to add a second dining option to the scenic island, but the Harbor District, in a unanimous vote, also just asked the city of Eureka to consider changing the island to a more permissive land use designation — a plan that has raised some concern in the commercial fishing community.
In a letter to the city of Eureka, harbor commission board President Richard Marks asked the city to consider changing the zoning of 17.3 acres, comprising much of the developed area of the island, to waterfront commercial, the same designation as much of the south side of the bay, including the waterfront along Old Town. The majority of the island, nearly 45 acres, would remain a natural resource designation, and about 20 acres — the marina itself and the National Weather Service station — would remain public-quasi public. Currently, much of the island's developed area is public-quasi public and the city allows restricted types of development on the land.
The requested change represents a bit of a turning point, said Harbor Commissioner Mike Wilson. "When the general plan was last updated, there was a perception that there was this conflict between working waterfront activities and what attracts citizen tourists to the waterfront," he said. "But a lot of that's changed."
The city used to think there was a dichotomy between a "working waterfront" — where fishing and other industrial activities created a bustle of activity, including noise, smells and perceived eyesores — and a tourist-friendly waterfront. But now, more and more people are realizing that industry and recreation are not opposing forces; a working waterfront is a tourist draw.
Wilson said the district is trying to bring Woodley Island out of an operating deficit, and that a zoning change could "create more diversity in our revenue streams, ... create the vitality that supports the use of the marina."
And while the district's current land use designation on Woodley Island allows for many types of businesses — retail, restaurants, etc. — the land use changes would allow for a "mix of visitor serving, commercial and recreational fishing, and natural resource land uses," according to Marks' letter.
Some of those expansions have at least one fisherman worried. Ken Bates, in his May newsletter on commercial fishing, wrote that the harbor district hasn't mentioned the "hundreds of other non-water-dependent activities permitted under their proposed waterfront commercial zoning request."
Among those uses are Christmas tree sales lots, beauty shops, dentists offices, churches and more — businesses, Bates seems to suggest, that wouldn't directly benefit the fishing industry.
Bates also warned that the waterfront commercial designation would permit fishing fleet activities but that "these activities can be restricted because of 'heavy truck traffic, noise, air or water bone odors, dust, dirt, elimination, smoke, glare, vibrations, exhaust or other objectionable influences by industry.'"
Perhaps responding to these concerns, Wilson proposed a right-to-fish ordinance, which, if adopted, would protect fishing operations from the complaints of nearby tenants.
Crider said these types of ordinances aren't uncommon in other areas — imagine the concerns of fishing boat operators if new condominiums were being developed next to the marina. But, Crider said, it's less of an issue if the tenants — fishing boats and whatever retail, restaurant or office space might set up on Woodley Island — all rent from one landlord: the Harbor District.
"Plus," Crider said, "people come to the island to see the activity. They enjoy the commercial activity and what [the fishing boats] do. They're actually an attraction."
At last month's harbor district meeting, Commissioner Aaron Newman said the ordinance would clear up the "angst of the fishermen" and Marks said it shows the district's commitment to the industry, according to the meeting's minutes.
In an email, Eureka Community Development Director Robert Holmlund said the city — under council direction — is looking at expanding commercial use on the island based on the harbor district's request and "well-coordinated" land use and zoning regulations in similar marinas in Fort Bragg and Crescent City. Commercial fishing, Holmlund emphasized, will remain a priority.
"Under all scenarios, the marina portion of Woodley Island will continue to be primarily dedicated to ensuring a thriving fishing industry," he wrote. He said he hasn't received any complaints from the public regarding the land use designation change.
Movement is underway off of Woodley Island as well. Holmlund referred to an extension of the Hikshari' trail, slated to break ground in 2016, that will reach north past Target and inland to Open Door Community Health Center. And, earlier this month, the Eureka City Council awarded architect Kash Boodjeh $30,000 to come up with a design charrette for the long-dead stretch of waterfront property between F and C streets.
Back on Woodley Island, Crider is excited about a new oyster restaurant he's proposing for the recently cleaned up storage yard on the western end of the island. The district is coming up with preliminary designs and looking for an operator for a restaurant that Crider says will be part oyster bar and part East Coast clam bake, where people can rent a grill and barbecue their own oysters.
He says a couple of bivalve businesses — Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Hog Island Oyster Co. — have expressed interest in operating a Humboldt Bay bar.
As Eureka staff analyzes the possible effects of land use designation changes on Woodley Island, the harbor district pushes along. Smokestacks fall, restaurants rise — if the district's able to continue on its path, will Eureka's mainland be able to keep up?
EDITOR'S NOTES: After this story was published, Community Development Director Robert Holmlund told the Journal that he "personally received two comments in which people are concerned about potential land use changes on Woodley Island."
When first published, this story misidentified the ending point of the waterfront trail expansion.