News

'Poke the Bear'

Once defiant, a local developer agrees to tear down his dream home

By

comment

It's January 19, 2022, and local developer Travis Schneider is getting ready to leave the county — and the country — in a matter of hours. He's also hoping he can put some permit violations identified during the construction of his family mansion on Walker Point Drive behind him quickly. The county had issued a stop-work order a few weeks earlier, on Dec. 27, 2021, after confirming a report from the Blue Lake Rancheria that Schneider had cleared environmentally sensitive habitat and disturbed a wetland, cut an unpermitted access road on the property and graded over a known culturally sensitive archeological site. But Schneider had kept his crews working. Defiantly.

A couple of weeks earlier, on Jan. 3, Humboldt County Chief Building Official Keith Ingersoll had emailed Schneider an official description of his permit violations with a list of five "corrective actions required," most notably that he hire an archeologist and biologist to assess the damage and submit a report documenting impacts of the violations and corrective measures before resuming construction. Schneider responded about an hour later, saying he was "happy to discuss" the matter and pleading ignorance to any knowledge of there being a wetland or cultural resources on the site.

"First and foremost, no identified wetland or archaeological/cultural resources have ever been identified to us," Schneider wrote to Ingersoll, cc'ing Planning Director John Ford, adding that the previous owner told him that tribal officials had indicated "there may be" cultural resources on the site but "would never identify anything to them."

It's worth noting here that not only would tribal officials later strongly dispute Schneider's contention, saying they had physically toured the site with him and pointed out the archeologically sensitive area, but the very conditions of Schneider's permit make clear there is a 100-foot wetland buffer that needs to be honored. Additionally, the building staff's analysis references an archeological site on the property that was to be protected by the "non-buildable" area identified on the project's recorded map. Nonetheless, Schneider protested any wrongdoing.

"We have been working/grading on the site for several years, so for this to come up now is a little late in the game," he wrote. "Once again, I appreciate the mechanisms of communication. As you should know by now, I'm always happy to meet and discuss matters, but posting something at my property at/on Christmas break is a little less than classy. I'm happy to work with the tribe and the county on the matters, but will not stop framing or further progress on our home."

On Jan. 19, 2022, Supervising Planner Cliff Johnson followed up by email, noting an official letter had also been posted at the property that afternoon and sent by mail. The letter advised Schneider that the county was aware he'd continued work on the property in defiance of the stop-work order. It also warned that failure to comply could result in "significant administrative penalties" and the revocation of the project's building and coastal development permits.

About an hour after Johnson's email notifying him of the official letters and the county's insistence that he abide by the stop work order issued several weeks earlier, Schneider reached out to Ford directly.

"I'm not sure why you guys are trying to poke the bear, but please call me ASAP," he wrote in a Jan. 19 email released to the Journal in response to a request under the California Public Records Act.

Thus kicked off a tense standoff between Schneider, three local tribes and the California Coastal Commission — with the county planning department caught in the middle — that would explode into public view at an Aug. 18, 2022 Humboldt County Planning Commission meeting. Advocating on behalf of Schneider's requested permit modifications that would allow the county to lift its stop work order, then commission chair Alan Bongio questioned the honesty and integrity of local tribes, making far-reaching comments about "Indians" and accusing them of trying to extort more concessions out of the developer while playing a "game" with cultural resources — comments that tribal officials found deeply offensive and racist.

Bongio's conduct at the meeting brought a new level of scrutiny to the project, leading to the discovery of a litany of additional permit violations. Six months later, Schneider has agreed to remove what's built of his 20,000-square-foot home, as well as some 15,000 cubic yards of fill material, and pledged to restore the property to its "natural grade."

Additionally, he has agreed to mitigate impacts the permit violation had on environmentally sensitive and wetland habitat on the property and to enter a portion of the property containing a culturally significant archeological site into an easement held by Wiyot area tribes and fence it off to prevent further disturbance.

Meanwhile, county code enforcement issued a notice of violation and a notice to abate a nuisance due to permit violations on the property April 11, paving the way for the county to begin imposing fines of $40,000 a day for up to 90 days, an amount that would total $3.6 million if fully imposed. Representatives of Schneider, the county planning department, area tribes, the California Coastal Commission and the Department of Fish and Wildlife reportedly met at the project site April 17 to discuss details of the agreement and chart a course forward.

It's a stunning turn of events for a project that seems to have evaded oversight and consequence for years. Email correspondences between county staff and Schneider last year, released to the Journal through a public records request, paint a picture of the rising tensions, and the frustrations and anger of a developer whose public statements appear counter to his conduct and the official record.

 

Schneider received a coastal development permit Sept. 7, 2017, to build a 8,000-square-foot single-family home with a 1,000-foot natural light cellar on a 3.5-acre property at the foot of Walker Point Road, a cul-de-sac overlooking the Fay Slough Wildlife Area off the Indianola Cutoff.

In addition to abutting wetlands and environmentally sensitive habitat, the property included a known and "uniquely well-preserved, pre-contact Wiyot village first documented" in 1918, according to a letter from Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Administrator Jason Ramos. The site, Ramos continued, has a high potential to include Wiyot house and fire pits, flaked and ground stone tools, and other artifacts that make it "eligible for inclusion in the California Register of Historical Resources." Further, the site is one of only a handful of the 100-plus documented to have survived development in the Humboldt Bay vicinity, Ramos wrote, thus "elevating" its "significance."

This was no secret. According to Ramos' letter, a tribal historic preservation officer from the Blue Lake Rancheria met county planning staff on site in April of 2017 to review the site and craft conditions of approval for the permit that would require Schneider to physically mark boundaries on the property beyond which he could not build or disturb soil. While on site, Ramos states, they "noted that grading for the driveway had occurred," which was documented by photos, even though no permits had been issued for the property, and the project's building permit wouldn't be issued until late 2019. Nine days later, on April 27, 2017, a historic preservation officer with the Bear River Rancheria met County Planner Michael Wheeler and Schneider at the property, and the developer "was shown the cultural site location and the site's significance to the Wiyot area tribes and site protections measures were discussed." Schneider has said repeatedly he was unaware of the cultural site and suggested in an email to county staff that the tribes "must not have cared much about this cultural site" because they hadn't pointed it out to him. Asked about this dispute and whether the planning department record indicates this April 27, 2017, site visit took place, Ford told the Journal, "I believe it did, yes."

But some of the recommended conditions from the tribes did not end up in the final conditions of Schneider's coastal development permit. Specifically, the recommendation that Schneider physically mark the archeologically sensitive area, that he notify tribes when starting work and that the tribes periodically monitor construction were all left off the permit conditions for reasons that aren't clear.

While Ramos contended Schneider began work on the property in 2017 with grading for the driveway, it apparently took Schneider some years to get his permits in order. Ford previously told the Journal a building inspector confirmed in March of 2019 that unpermitted work was underway on the home and Schneider was informed he did "not have a building permit and needed to obtain one."

Construction on the home continued, nonetheless, Ford said, despite the director describing it as "not allowed." Ford said he does not know whether the county considered issuing a stop-work order.

"I was not aware of this project at that time," Ford told the Journal previously. "There was a different chief building inspector at the time. Today, we would issue a stop-work order."

Instead, not only was Schneider allowed to continue work while he pursued a building permit, which was finally issued Nov. 27, 2019, but he was also granted an alternate-owner-builder permit, which is designed specifically for those personally building a house they are going to live in. As such, the permits come with significantly less stringent oversight than normal, drastically reducing the number of site inspections required. These permits were intended to help people build in difficult-to-access rural areas or those using "alternate" building methods, and as a means to promote affordable housing, but are also popular among developers and contractors like Schneider — he owns the civil engineering firm Pacific Affiliates, as well as construction and property management companies, with a portfolio that included several commercial buildings, three RV parks and 90 apartments, among other holdings — looking to build family homes with minimal red tape.

As such, it's unclear what — if any — oversight was conducted by county staff after Schneider finally received his building permit in November of 2019. But on Dec. 22, 2021, after what Ramos described as an "impromptu field inspection," a Blue Lake Rancheria historic preservation officer reported to the county that the culturally sensitive Wiyot site had been disturbed by heavy equipment and grading, an unpermitted access road had been carved across a no-build portion of the property and Schneider had removed hundreds of feet of native vegetation from the wetland setback buffer.

Ford said county staff took the report "extremely seriously" and, after confirming the allegations, issued the stop-work order five days later.

"At the time, people were really upset," Ford recalled. "And not to be misunderstood — they were understandably upset."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people would only grow more upset as Schneider continued construction activities for another 50 days after the county's issuance of a stop-work order.

 

From his emails to county staff, it's safe to say Schneider himself was among those upset.

"I'm en route to leaving the country," he responded to Johnson's Jan. 19, 2022, email, cc'ing First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, after firing off the "poke the bear" email to Ford. "Clearly this wasn't that critical to resolve or you would have responded to my email from Jan. 3."

When Johnson then asked if Schneider would allow county staff and representatives from the Wiyot area tribes to visit the site the following Monday, Schneider refused: "Let's just suffice to say the trust level with the county is quite low. Actually, it doesn't exist for me," he wrote. "You're not authorized on our lands under any circumstances until I'm present with my counsel. ... I strongly encourage you to ask John [Ford] to call me one on one."

Ford later broke out of a meeting to call Schneider. The developer would later say in a letter to the planning commission it was "mutually" agreed he could continue construction while the permit issues were resolved, Ford has been adamant he told Schneider he needed to halt construction or face potential fines and permit revocations, and the developer was clear he would not stop work on his family home. Schneider sent Ford an email after the conversation to further argue his case that the stop-work order was related to a "grading" issue and should not affect construction, which Ford previously said should make it "clear that I did not authorize work to continue."

On Feb. 14, 2022, Ford forwarded the letter from Ramos outlining the long-standing concerns of the Blue Lake Rancheria to Schneider, saying he "should be aware" of it and urging a prompt damage assessment. Schneider then suggested a meeting and Ford offered a time the following afternoon.

In a Feb. 16, 2022, email, Schneider told Ford, Johnson and Ingersoll that "per our meeting yesterday," he had redirected work crews from Walker Point Road and that he'd spoken to an archeologist recommended by the tribes to assess damage to the cultural site.

"I'm happy to work with the tribes and the selected archeologist to resolve this matter, protect the areas in question, help educate my peers about avoiding situations like this in the future and get our people back to work," he wrote. "The only thing I ask for is a little respect during the process. ... I'm truly not a bad guy."

Schneider followed up Feb. 17 to suggest that the county "extend an olive branch to Jason Ramos," noting "he had some strong words in his letter." Ford replied Feb. 25, saying he'd met with Ramos and Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson. After Schneider replied simply, "And??," the director said Blue Lake Rancheria was "extremely concerned about what has taken place."

Schneider replied: "There isn't much I can do about what has happened at this point other than agree to work with everyone, which is all I have done the past two weeks. Anyone that knows me knows that I wouldn't intentionally do this. Let's figure out a way that we can get it resolved in a civil manner ...."

Calls for civility would prove short-lived, however, as Schneider grew increasingly frustrated about the length of time it would take the county to get a contract approved with Bill Rich, the archeologist selected to do the damage assessment. On March 18, 2022, Johnson advised that Rich's contract was being sent to risk management and the auditor for review. Later that day, Schneider emailed Ford, cc'ing Bohn, Johnson, Bongio and local realtor Tina Christensen, saying he was "incredibly disappointed" Ford wouldn't return his phone calls.

"I held you in higher character than this and have never done you wrong," Schneider wrote. "I'd rather that you just told me to 'pound sand' and never contact you because you have no intention of talking to me than for you to treat me like this. ... Your inaction, non-communication, ignoring the matter will not help solve this problem. Housing is an obvious problem in this county, and I certainly hope you provide a better service to others in this community than myself."

Almost a month later, on April 14, 2022, Schneider asked if the county has Rich's report in hand. Johnson responded that the contract was still held up with risk management and the auditor, and being reviewed by the involved tribes. "Absolutely ridiculous, but not shocking," Schneider replied. Johnson then asked about a meeting to discuss a coastal development permit modification application for the access road that Schneider cut.

"Come on, let's cut the BS," Schneider responds. "Basically what has come to light here is that I'm just getting smoke blown up my ass. Making application for a CDP does nothing other than exercise a formality for you and me. ... Lies and bullshit. That's all I'm getting. You would get tired of it, too."

Johnson responded to ask if a 1 p.m. meeting the following day would work, noting Schneider's insistence that Ford, Ingersoll and Bohn be present at meetings made scheduling a challenge.

"I'm out of town looking for a place to move other than Humboldt County. I just want to get this resolved for sale purposes," Schneider responded. "Please provide anytime next week."

While it should be noted that the county's alternate-owner-builder ordinance requires the applicant to certify they intend to occupy the home they are constructing, no one brought this up with Schneider in the emails released by the county.

Three days later, Schneider wrote at 5:20 a.m. again asking if the contract was in place and if the tribes had offered feedback to a preliminary report, adding, "Every one of you should be embarrassed about how you're handling this. Covering your head, hiding in a corner, hoping this goes away is first grade behavior. Grow up."

Ford replied two hours later, apologizing for "the bureaucracy" and conceding they're having "internal struggles" getting the contract approved, adding he hoped approval would come that day and the county had already received feedback from tribes. The response did not quell Schneider's frustrations.

"The system is a joke, literally a big joke," he responded. "I just can't believe how poorly the county operates and treats people. I would never treat anyone like this, not even my worst enemy. I'd at least tell them to pound sand, etc. etc., and I have no obligation to even respond to them, whereas the county is funded by my tax dollars."

After learning the contract was approved the following day, on April 22, 2022, Schneider again fired off a group email, complimenting the "county folks" on their "nice work."

"You accomplished getting a contract signed in 2.5 months yet again couldn't get a meeting scheduled this week," he wrote. "No small wonder why there is a housing shortage and pricing problem. This is literally a five minute exercise that you're not willing to do. I don't think you even have the smallest inkling the residual [sic] of your actions for generations to come. What happens when people like myself pull out of town, but yet have all the developable property tied up and you need housing for funding. I'm not the first and I'm not the only one. You have pitted us (those that have the ability and wherewithal to get stuff done) against you (those who are inept and don't have the ability to wipe their rear)."

Christensen then chimed in, pleading, "Let's all work together to get this figured out and remedied so Travis can move forward with the construction of his home."

 

From there, Schneider's direct emails to county staff seem to have stopped, but his permit problems were just beginning. While Rich's report determined the Wiyot archeological site had not been damaged by the grading, county staff had unearthed more violations — and stickier ones to untangle — on the property.

Schneider built the house, county staff determined, on a footprint different than what had been approved so the structure itself encroached on the 100-foot wetland setback stipulated by his permit and in a no-build area of the property.

"We started really evaluating the full extent of the violation and where things were and recognized that the house was not built where it was shown on the building permit site plan, and recognized there are other implications to the house being built away from where the building permit showed," Ford said.

Perhaps most troubling for Schneider would be the fact that the house's encroachment on that wetland setback made the project's permits appealable to the California Coastal Commission, which had repeatedly expressed concerns about the permit violations and Schneider's initial defiance of the stop-work order.

In early August of 2022, representatives of Schneider, county staff, the three Wiyot area tribes and the California Coastal Commission met virtually to discuss the path forward, agreeing in principle to an 11-point plan that would remediate damage done and impose mitigation measures. County staff then rushed to get the matter heard by the planning commission Aug. 18, assuming there was an accord. But the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria, as well as the coastal commission, felt a host of details still needed to be ironed out regarding who would fund ongoing monitoring efforts and how tribal input into restoration plans would be facilitated and incorporated, as well as how exactly a conservation easement would work and who would hold it.

What followed played out in increasingly public fashion, with Bongio using racist language and accusing the tribes of operating in bad faith, while Christensen accused them of lying and a letter from Schneider cast him as the victim of a "coordinated" effort by parties who wanted to see "our house demolished." When the matter came back to the planning commission two weeks later, things had deteriorated further, with two of the involved tribes having withdrawn from the process, the California Coastal Commission having shared deepening concerns with Ford and indicating it wouldn't hesitate to intercede. The county's Division of Environmental Health had also weighed in to note that Schneider began construction without a necessary septic permit, a previously unknown violation of his coastal development permit.

Under threat of an appeal to the coastal commission and at Schneider's request, the commission sent the matter back to staff to once again try to reach a compromise that would allow Schneider to continue construction while addressing concerns of the tribes and the coastal commission.

In the ensuing weeks, an inquiry from the Journal led the planning department to confirm that the home under construction on Schneider's property was 20,817 square feet — more than twice the size allowable under his coastal development permit — and he'd brought in 15,000 cubic yards of fill, more than 10 times what the coastal development permit allowed. Also through the Journal's reporting and Schneider's confirmation, it was learned that Bongio had done concrete work on the project in 2019, raising questions of bias in the commission chair's handling of the matter. (Bongio, after being censured by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors in September, would step down from the commission in December to "focus on his family and business.")

In October, in an apparent effort at damage control, Schneider invited the Journal to tour the then-graying skeletal framing of his dream home on Walker Point Drive. He expressed hope and optimism that all the parties could not only find a path forward that would allow him to resume construction, but also learn from the mistakes made.

"I believe there's an amicable resolution," he said, repeating his insistence that he was unaware of the archeological site's location. "I hope I can be someone who can bring people together. ... It's an emotional subject because it does involve my dream home, but at the end of the day, I think there will be a lot of good that comes out of this. I'm optimistic that we'll come to a resolution — that's the American way, to listen and come to a positive resolution."

 

Things have been publicly quiet on the project since October, though county staff has been working to forge a final solution, primarily with Schneider and the coastal commission. That process came to a head in recent weeks, when Schneider's attorney sent a March 24 letter to Ford offering an agreement under which Schneider would agree to the mitigation measures previously proposed back in August — without, it should be noted, any of the additional detail requested by the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria — as well as "partial or complete removal of the residential structure ... if requested by the county and tribes, as part of the overall resolution."

Ford, apparently having reached a point of frustration, replied April 3 that the proposed agreement was "unexpected and not consistent" with prior conversations, noting the proposal referenced "alleged" violations when the violations are real, confirmed and severe.

Based on "verbal discussions," Ford wrote it was the county's understanding Schneider would agree to remove the structure and imported fill, restoring the site to a natural grade; mitigate the impacts to environmentally sensitive habitat and wetlands; set aside the archeological site to benefit local tribes, while fencing it off and providing them ongoing access to it; and pay "a penalty related to the violations cited above."

Schneider's proposal, Ford wrote, represented a step backward.

"These violations need to be resolved, and a public negotiation, after the prolonged time provided to the property owner to resolve this, is not an acceptable path to resolution," he wrote, adding that the department would move forward with scheduling a coastal development permit revocation hearing before the board of supervisors and then forward the property to the California Coastal Commission for enforcement action.

Two days later, Schneider's attorney responded to agree to Ford's terms. On April 11, the county served Schneider with a formal notice of violation and notice to abate a nuisance, beginning the process of imposing fines of $40,000 a day for up to 90 days.

"In order to really address this issue thoroughly, there's going to have to be remediation of what's been done on site, and I think there is also a need to assess penalties," Ford said. "And we can't assess penalties through the permitting process, thus we're pursuing a penalty process and a permitting process simultaneously."

Schneider told the Journal in an April 7 email that he was working with the county "toward a respectful and appropriate resolution," and he was "looking forward to putting this behind us," but did not respond to follow-up inquiries regarding the notice of abatement.

Ford said Schneider will be applying for permit modifications to carry out the agreed upon work, and the planning commission will need to sign off on those. He said he anticipates the matter could come before the planning commission in June, but stressed staff has erred by rushing this forward before and does not want to make that mistake again.

The notice of violation and abatement issued April 11 stipulates that after 10 days, the county will begin to impose daily fines of $40,000 for up to 90 days. But the terms of the notice make clear that doesn't necessarily mean Schneider will have to pay them.

Under the county's code enforcement program, parties can enter into a compliance agreement with the county to correct violations and, if conditions of the agreement are met, "then some and possibly the entire penalty could be dismissed."

Ford told the Journal it's not entirely clear how the process will work going forward, saying it's contingent on input from the various stakeholders and Schneider following through on the basic parameters he's agreed to. But the planning director said it's unlikely financial penalties will be waived in their entirety.

"I do believe there will be fines," Ford said.

Talking to the Journal by phone April 17, Ford said there's no question his department made mistakes in handling Schneider's permits. To recap, it somehow approved building plans for a structure twice the size allowable under the coastal development permit, issued a grading permit for 10 times more fill dirt than allowable, issued a building permit without a septic permit in place and failed to thoroughly incorporate do-not-disturb lines into all site plans.

The case, Ford said, necessitated a full review.

"Nobody went out of their way to do something wrong," he said. "I don't think any of it was done knowingly. But small decisions along the way were just off enough from the county's perspective that it allowed this situation to occur."

Moving forward, Ford said it's imperative that planning officials take full responsibility of the things they're signing off on, and make sure they "take the time to get them right."

"There's the need to make sure everyone is understanding everything that the plans say, and that they are in conformance with the coastal development permit that was approved," he said.

As an example, Ford noted that Schneider's coastal development permit includes the limit of disturbance line prohibiting construction in certain areas. That information was on the original permit and the original site plan, but was not noted on a subsequent site plan. But it was in the coastal development permit, the governing and guiding document for the project.

"There should have been no doubt but sometimes you have to tattoo things on people's eyeballs," he said.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

Add a comment