The Humboldt County Community Development Department’s handling of Forster Gill Development
– As seen Through the Eyes of the Humboldt Grand Jury –
by Tina Christensen
In response to numerous complaints, the Humboldt County Grand Jury (Jury) investigated the activities of the Humboldt County Community Development Services Department (CDS) in support of a particular project. While most landowners do not find much support for their projects in the CDS, the Forster/Gill (F/G) project is one that the CDS has promoted with a favorable bias. F/G is a development proposed on 386 acres in the Ridgewood area, just outside the limits of the City of Eureka. F/G proposes to build 1442 residences and over 325,000 square feet of commercial space in 7 phases over the next 10-25 years.
Based on complaints from the public, the Jury interviewed residents, Planning Commissioners and representatives of the City of Eureka, Cal/Trans, Humboldt County Fire District#1, Department of Fish and Game and the Humboldt County Public Works Department as well as the CDS.
The Planning Commissioners stated that they were deprived of information needed to properly consider the merits and impacts of the development in a variety of ways. They testified that they were not given proper notice of meetings, were quite often not given a meeting agenda or staff report until minutes before some meetings, making it impossible to be prepared for the meeting. More than once, their requests to CDS Staff for information was met with the response “You don’t need this as it is not relevant.” The Jury cited Government Code section 54950: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good to know”
After the applicant contested a negative Planning Commission decision on the project, the Commissioners sought an opportunity to present their rejection reasons to the Board of Supervisors during the appeal hearing. Their request was denied by the CDS Staff, with the acquiescence of the Board, because “This is the way it’s always been done”-only the applicant, the Director and the staff of the Department are allowed to speak to or answer questions from the Supervisors.
Projects requiring California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review are required to comply strictly with all of its guidelines, but in the case of F/G, the CDS decided that the rules did not necessarily apply to them. The developer and the CDS indicated to the public that the project was on hold due to economic restraints, while at the same time the CDS staff proceeded with the preparation of the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). The DEIR was completed without involving many affected parties or agencies such as the City of Eureka, Cal/Trans, and Humboldt County, Fire District #1, the Department of Fish and Game and the Humboldt County Public Works Department.
The DEIR utilized outdated growth calculations developed in 1995 to determine the assessment value of each parcel for proportioning out the cost of the utilities infrastructure. These erroneous costs quite probably would have been discovered by one of the agencies not consulted in the DEIR process. Utilizing these outdated numbers would have resulted in having the taxpayers pay for development costs that should be the responsibility of the project. The DEIR led one to believe that the agencies listed above agreed with the DEIR, even though the CDS excluded their required participation.
The CDS did not form a Citizen’s Advisory Group, as provided for in CEQA, to address the concerns of the Community related to issues such as access, infrastructure, the Martin Slough ecosystem, endangered species, plants and animals, and a potential negative economic impact on the City of Eureka. All of these issues should have been meaningfully discussed and addressed in the DEIR.
An adjoining homeowner with threatened with the possible use of the Eminent Domain process to acquire a portion of the adjoining owners property for ingress and egress to the F/G project.
One important aspect of this abuse of power, which is not dealt with in the Jury’s report, is the involvement of the Humboldt County Counsel’s Office. Attorneys with that office work closely with the CDS in all that they do. County Counsel’s participation in the F/G project is unquestionable. They advised the CDS in all aspects of the project, including the preparation and appropriateness of the DEIR. They are required to advise each County department in the lawful performance of its duties, and to prevent this type of abuse. It seems in this case, they did the opposite.
The Jury charges the CDS with numerous violations of the Humboldt County General Plan, the Brown Act, CEQA, the Government Code, and the Public Resources Code.
Landowners who submit projects to the CDS for approval customarily encounter a process that is not friendly or lenient to their rights. The CDS has a record of putting roadblocks in the path of most development projects. These roadblocks consist of imposing a variety of expensive and time-consuming development standards, many of which are not required by State law or County codes and regulations. Changing requirements throughout the process and thus increasing the time and cost of the project is an oft-used method of frustrating the legitimate rights of many landowners.
If the Board of Supervisors do not hold the CDS Director and Staff involved in the irregularities evident in the F/G project, as well as the County Counsel Attorney, then they will only be emboldened to continue these practices upon additional landowners and citizens of Humboldt County. It is time for the Supervisors to do their job, and for these “public servants” to find out that the law applies to everyone. Demand this of your Supervisor today. Make them accountable and responsible for their oath of office and tell them to fix the abusive situation that has developed at the Humboldt County Community Development Services Department.
A full copy of the Grand Jury Report can be found here: Grand Jury: Ridgewood