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'Never, Ever, Ever' Again

New Schneider permit problems prompt query into planning staff's handling of project

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It appears Travis Schneider's permit problems may have just doubled in size and gotten decidedly dirtier.

The local developer's efforts to get a permit and permit amendments necessary to lift a county stop work order and resume construction of his family home on Walker Point Road south of the Indianola Cutoff had already been complicated by concerns over the permitted size of the structure. But revelations in the last week — including that the home currently under construction is more than twice the permitted size and that Schneider hauled in 10 times more fill dirt to the property than his coastal development permit allowed — seem to bring serious ramifications for the project itself, while raising a host of questions about whether Schneider may have received preferential treatment from county staff.

Humboldt County Planning and Building Director John Ford confirmed to the Journal this past week that the actual building area of the structure is 20,817 square feet spread over two stories — far larger than the 8,000 square feet with a 1,000-square-foot natural light cellar that Schneider had listed on his coastal development permit application, an estimate that has been repeated in county staff reports and Planning Commission discussions.

Ford, whose department looked into both matters after a Sept. 9 Journal inquiry as to whether the often-repeated numbers were accurate, said there will likely be some discussion about how much of the square footage of the house is living space but there is no question the structure is far larger than what was initially permitted.

"It's really a 20,000-square-foot house," Ford said. "I would find it hard to call it anything else. ... Obviously, on the original permit that was approved it was an 8,000-square-foot house and it's not in compliance with that."

Ford said the house is, however, being built in accordance with building plans submitted to the county after Schneider received the coastal development permit.

"The plans show a bigger house," he said, adding that he doesn't know why plans obviously out of step with the permit would have been approved by the county, explaining the planner who approved them has since retired. "They should have been reviewed by staff. He is building what was on the construction plans. They were approved. They were signed off on."

The situation parallels the issues surrounding Schneider's use of fill dirt on the property. According to Ford, the project's coastal development permit allowed Schneider to bring in 1,500 cubic yards of fill dirt to the property but planning staff inexplicably approved a grading permit allowing 15,000 cubic yards of soil.

"The grading permit is not in conformance with the (coastal development permit)," Ford said. "I don't know what happened there. That's a pretty glaring inconsistency. An extra zero is meaningful."

Revelations that county staff approved plans and issued a grading permit in violation of the coastal development permit — which is designed to be a project's guiding document — come after news earlier this month that staff had approved a building permit before Schneider had secured a septic permit, also a condition of the coastal development permit. That makes three times staff permitted or approved things out of conformance with the initial permit.

Together, the new permitting problems seem to significantly complicate the project's path forward, while also raising a host of questions about the county's handling of the project — questions that are now the subject of an internal planning department investigation.

"There seem to have been some decisions that were made that I have not found the logic or the paper trail to justify," he said. "But we're working on it."

Asked if his investigation has determined whether Schneider was given preferential treatment by planning staff, Ford said that's still unclear.

"That is a concern that I have," he said. "I would like to think that it's not true but the mere fact that you come up with that on your own and ask the question is the same thing that occurs to me. It's like, 'What the heck happened?' Because something obviously was not right."

Ford said his query has been complicated by the fact that at least two of the planners who worked on the project in its early stages have retired and are no longer with the department. While his internal investigation is ongoing, Ford said he's already spoken with the person in his department responsible for ensuring permits are in compliance about implementing additional checks and balances.

"This can never, ever, ever happen again," Ford said. "She's working on safeguards to make sure numbers get checked and double checked, and numbers get reconciled before permits are issued."

Coastal Commission North Coast District Manager Melissa Kraemer, meanwhile, said she would hesitate to put any ultimate blame for Schneider's predicament on the county, saying the developer knew — or should have known — the provisions of the coastal development permit, the governing document for the project, and not submitted plans and applications that overstepped its bounds. Kraemer also noted that had Schneider initially applied for a coastal development permit to build a 20,000-square-foot house and bring in 15,000 cubic yards of fill dirt to the property, it would have almost certainly have gone to a public hearing, if not denied outright.

For his part, Schneider wrote in an email to the Journal that he does not believe county staff "set out to make mistakes permitting any more than (he) set out to make mistakes in the field."

"Life is full of mistakes," he said. "My wife and I have built over 125 homes for Humboldt County families, and I wish I could say every single time we did it without challenges. I tell our kids, we can't always play error-free baseball — our ability as humans to mitigate mistakes and make something better out of the mess is what defines our character."

As to the size of the house, Schneider pushed back on Ford's figures in an email to the Journal, saying the "habitable" home is 7,817 square feet spread across a single ground-level, though there's a "basement portion" of the structure that covers the same footprint and includes various things — mechanical space, storage, a garage, a "rainy day rec room" for his kids, a cellar and covered patio — that would have otherwise been built in different structures or increased the footprint of the house.

"We consolidated the visual disturbance footprint into one structure that is largely subsurface, and not easily discernible from most vantage points, specifically Highway 101," Schneider wrote.

He did not respond to subsequent emails seeking further clarification.

Whether dubbed mistakes or attempts by Schneider or county staff to willfully manipulate the process, this week's revelations are significant.

As Ford made clear during the Planning Commission's Sept. 1 meeting, because Schneider violated the terms of his coastal development permit by building the house in a different location than approved by the county, which in turn caused the structure to encroach on a 100-foot-wetland buffer, the project is now in the appeal jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission. Schneider also violated the original permit conditions by clearing environmentally sensitive habitat and grading over a known Wiyot cultural site while cutting an unpermitted temporary construction road into the property.

In response to Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio's efforts to push Schneider's permits ahead Sept. 1, Ford told commissioners in no uncertain terms that he'd been in touch with multiple layers of California Coastal Commission staff leadership and they had expressed concerns about whether the house conforms with the local coastal plan.

"They're concerned with the size and the mass of the house in a very scenic location and whether or not that fits within the setting of the property," Ford said, later explaining that when Schneider moved the house's footprint closer to the Fay Slough Wildlife Area — violating the wetland setback requirement and putting the project in the Coastal Commission's jurisdiction — it also made it "more prominent, more visible," heightening Coastal Commission staff's concerns.

And that was when Ford, planning staff and the Coastal Commission all still apparently thought the house was 8,000 square feet with a 1,000-square-foot cellar.

Kraemer told the Journal concerns about the project go back years.

"I recall when the original permit went through in 2017 that we had concerns with the size of the structure and it being out of character for the area," she wrote in an email to the Journal, adding there were also concerns about its proximity to the adjacent wetland and the adequacy of an associated biological study.

But because the project was ultimately sited 100 feet back from the wetlands — and therefore not appealable to the Coastal Commission — Kraemer said staff simply recommended the county condition the permit to provide vegetative screening to limit the home's impact on the public viewscape. But with the house now located within that 100-foot setback, the project is in the Coastal Commission's jurisdiction and Kraemer said staff has again expressed concern about the house's size and that, given its new footprint, there "may be a greater visual impact than originally considered."

Informed the structure is actually more than 20,000 square feet — not the 8,000 that initially posed concerns — and asked if that exacerbates existing concerns about the project being out of character with the area and having a larger visual impact, Kraemer responded simply: "Yes and yes."

Kraemer pointed to a provision of the Humboldt Bay Area Plan as the guiding policy on the issue, including a provision that reads: "The scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas shall be considered and protected as a resource of public importance. Permitted development shall be sited and designed to protect views to and along the ocean and scenic coastal areas ... [and] to be visually compatible with the character of surrounding areas."

There are no clear objective standards, Kraemer said, so the county needs to evaluate whether the house as constructed and sited protects scenic qualities of the area and is in line with the surrounding area.

The subject of the project's compatibility with the surrounding area was discussed at the Sept. 1 Planning Commission meeting.

At that meeting, Bongio argued the project didn't strike him as incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

"There's multiple houses at the end of this subdivision that are above-average size," he said. "I can't tell you what the neighboring houses are, but I'm going to make a guess — and I'm a pretty good judge of looking at house, having built them for 40-something years — that everything that's at the end of that point is probably in the 4,000to6,000 [-square-foot] range."

Bongio then said the way Schneider's home is constructed — with a single story set over a "daylight basement" — minimizes its visual impact.

"I don't believe it's out of proportion to what's there," Bongio said. "Those were definitely executive-type lots that would have that size of house on them."

Driving down Walker Point Road to where it dead ends at the Schneider's property at the end of a knoll overlooking the Fay Slough Wildlife Area with views of the bay, it's clear the homes there have been subdivided and developed in stages. Closer to Indianola Cutoff, the homes are smaller and appear older, while the houses closer to the end of the road are clearly larger. But Bongio's estimates are off, according to the square footages listed for neighboring homes on various real estate websites.

The websites indicate neighboring homes generally fall between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet, with the largest — one specifically referenced by Bongio at the Sept. 1 meeting as appearing larger than Schneider's — coming in at just over 3,500.

Commissioner Brian Mitchell suggested at the meeting that the county conduct an analysis of recently built neighboring homes to help the commission judge whether Schneider's project is in line with the neighborhood, but Bongio pushed back, saying the "train left the station" when the house was permitted, and he didn't believe it appropriate to go back and do a "de-facto design review at this juncture."

Of course, it's now clear what was permitted is not what is being built. Bongio, who said multiple times over the two Planning Commission meetings that he's made numerous visits to the project site and is familiar with the building plans, did not immediately respond to a Journal email asking if he knew the home's actual square footage was more than double what was permitted and repeatedly referenced in planning documents and commission meetings and, if so, why he didn't take steps to address the discrepancy and correct the record.

As to the path forward, Ford said he met with Schneider and Coastal Commission staff separately Sept. 24 to discuss options, saying he presented several to Schneider and is waiting to hear back. Declining to get into specifics about exactly what was proposed, he said the options range from continuing forward with trying to get permit modifications, knowing they would be appealable to the Coastal Commission, to simply taking the structure down, removing the fill dirt and starting the permitting process from scratch.

Kraemer said the project is currently under the county's purview but she and her staff are standing by to help in any way they can, from providing input on the project's consistency with the local coastal program to offering up "an enforcement division that can assist," if needed. But Kraemer stressed her view is the structure is out of character for the area and it would consequently be very hard for the county to simply permit what's being built, finding it in conformance with its local coastal program.

"If they were going to do that with this 20,000-foot monstrosity, I just don't see how they'd be able to come up with the findings necessary," she said.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor of the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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