With the Internet and long-distance telephony down and the first big storm of the season brewing offshore, on Tuesday morning the Journal staff brewed up mugs of hot chocolate and huddled ’round our little television to watch the most contentious Board of Supervisors meeting in ages. What a treat! If you’ve got a head for it, the gears of democracy in action can sometimes deliver unparalleled drama, and Tuesday’s supes meeting was a fine example of the genre. It went on for four hours, and I don’t think I was bored once.
The question at hand was an emergency action to temporarily ban all new construction on all county lands zoned for timber production for 45 days. The subtext was that the Pacific Lumber Co. had last week submitted its plan to drag itself out of bankruptcy; in papers filed with the Corpus Christi, Texas, court overseeing the bankruptcy case, it proposed to sell off some 28,000 acres of land, 22,000 of which would be parceled out into 160-acre mini-estates. To address this unpopular plan, Supervisors Bonnie Neelyand Jill Geist and members of the county’s legal department crafted and brought forward the emergency building moratorium. Because it was an emergency item, brought forward before the public could be properly noticed, it would need a 4/5 majority of the board to pass.
By now, most of you will know what happened. The moratorium passed. But to me, anyway, that outcome wasn’t certain until right before the votes were counted. And because there was so much on the line, and because a whole lot of very passionate and very smart people showed out both to support and to oppose the emergency moratorium, this was gripping theater. It didn’t hurt that there was a Kabuki element to the proceedings. For legal and political reasons, the backers of the moratorium could never out and say what it was they hoped to accomplish. Some of the moratorium opponents were aware of the hidden motive, some weren’t.
To set the stage: It’s now universally acknowledged that the Maxxam Corp., the Houston-based entity headed by an old-school robber baron named Charles Hurwitz, more or less set out to run the Pacific Lumber Co. into the ground when it took over the company in 1985. Hurwitz loaded nearly a billion dollars of debt onto Humboldt County assets in order to finance his takeover, and he never really paid that debt down. He started liquidating the old company’s holdings as quickly as he could, pocketing the profits. These facts are no longer significantly in dispute. When the company declared bankruptcy this past January, it was assumed that the company would seek to “recover” by selling off yet more of its assets. Still, the recovery plan filed last week, which must be approved by the court and the company’s various stakeholders, surprised even veteran Maxxam-watchers in its audacity. In addition to the 130 or so trophy ranchettes, which would theoretically sell for over $5 million each and would together form a sort of gated mega-community stretching from Fortuna up the hill to Kneeland, the company foresees selling its remaining 6,600 acres of old-growth redwood for something like $300 million, presumably to the public.
County government has been actively fighting subdivision of local timber lands. In recent years, it has been county policy that keeping large landholdings together is important not only for the county’s economy but for its sense of place. So when it came out in the papers last week, Maxxam’s proposed big subdivision hit county officials like a slap across the face. The moratorium on the table Tuesday was the county returning the slap, twice as hard.
Why was it an “emergency”? Why couldn’t it wait until next week, or the week after? Because the point of the proposed moratorium wasn’t to stop Maxxam from building its estates. Not directly. Even if Maxxam gets its way with the bankruptcy court, the estates couldn’t possibly break ground for several years. The point of the proposed moratorium was to make sure that Maxxam wouldn’t get its way with the bankruptcy court — to send a message to Judge Richard S. Schmidt that the county of Humboldt, the agency that must ultimately permit or deny such a development, would never accept it. Maxxam’s recovery plan, the county wished to say, is impossible — a lie, really — and should not be countenanced. The point of the proposed moratorium was to drive a wooden stake into Maxxam’s heart at a time when the company is most vulnerable.
To a habitual vote-counter such as myself, the question was: How would Supervisor Jimmy Smith vote? Maybe someone already knew, but I didn’t. Smith’s vote would be the crucial one, the deal-breaker, and I couldn’t foresee what he would do. This only deepened when several people got up to express their concern about the moratorium, and many of them made excellent and moving points. There were plenty of people there to support the moratorium, and Pacific Lumber CEO George O’Brien and attorney Frank Bacik were there to argue the company’s case. (Basically, that the action was premature. Why now? The question must have been disingenuous.) Several other landowners — developers and other timber companies — said that even a temporary moratorium would have a chilling effect on land values. Bill Barnum, co-owner of Barnum Timber, said that his company relied on the ability to sell off 160 acres to a homesteader from time to time, just to make ends meet when the trees aren’t ready for harvest. Why would anyone buy such a piece if they couldn’t be sure whether or not the county would take away their ability to build?
But the most compelling testimony, to my mind and probably to the supervisors, was from those people who had recently bought small pieces of land zoned for timber production whose whole plans would be thrown into disorder. A young couple, clearly not political by nature, said that they had just purchased a piece and had intended to apply for permits very soon; now they were worried that their bank financing would be at risk. A few other people said that they had owned timber production land for some time now, intending to build a house on it someday. They weren’t ready to trust that the moratorium would indeed be temoporary.
When it came back to the board for a vote, Geist was the first to speak. And it became clear that she’d taken to heart the personal testimonials of people who were building or had hopes to build their own homes in the timber zone. She checked with the county’s attorney about possible changes to the moratorium. Eventually, they worked out that an exemption could be made for people who had already turned in their application to the building department, and for people who had unspecified “hardships,” the specifics of which could be worked out later. Then Supervisor John Woolley made a strong statement in support of the moratorium, saying that Pacific Lumber seemed to expect the county to rescue it from its own poor management. Neely was in favor. Surprising no one, Supervisor Roger Rodoni was opposed.
When it came time for Smith to speak, he made it clear right away that despite his reservations he was going to vote for the moratorium. An inveterately decent man, he seemed loathe to take an action that would cause an ordinary citizen harm. Still, he felt comfortable with Geist’s amendments, and he seemed absolutely insulted by Maxxam’s presumption in the matter. He said it was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make as a supervisor.
To be honest, I think I would have enjoyed Tuesday’s drama just as much if things had gone the other way, if Supervisor Smith had found that he couldn’t countenance the potential unintended consequences of the board’s action. Even if the county, our local public government, had not elected to use its power at a time when it mattered most, I would have been happy to have been reminded that that power was there. It was thrilling to know that for a moment, anyway, a small room full of people in Eureka had the power to sway historical events, and that all voices were heard and respected before a decision was made, even if they didn’t all get their way.
Really, it was thrilling.