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COVER STORY  |  CALENDAR

Jan. 2, 2003

Timing is everything:
Media frenzy fuels the selling of Bridgeville on Ebay

Workers again sue Eel River Sawmills

The 'new' zoo takes shape

Wet and wetter

Target EIR challenged

Tuttle's replacement named

Christmas tragedy

Berg's appointments

Skullduggery

Consumer protection kicks in

Dredging the Salt

Check-mate

Money for kids' books


Timing is everything:
Media frenzy fuels the selling of Bridgeville on Ebay

by BOB DORAN

The town of Bridgeville, as everyone knows by now, sold for almost $1.8 million on eBay last week. Who bought the place remains a mystery, as the winning bid was submitted anonymously.

But as the media furor subsides, a couple of things are clear: The price didn't begin to skyrocket until the Associated Press broke the story on Christmas Eve; and residents who have worked hard over the years to improve the town are wondering what the new owner has in store for them.

Ebay screen shot showing Bridgeville listingThe price wouldn't have climbed so high without the Internet. After failed attempts to sell the property through ads in publications like the Wall Street Journal and Soldier of Fortune magazine, owner Elizabeth "Jo Anne" Lapple, an antique dealer, turned to eBay, the Internet auction site. On Nov. 27, she put up nine parcels along the Van Duzen River, 82 acres total, for a 30-day auction. Described as a "power seller," she included this teaser: "Own the entire rustic town of Bridgeville."

Bidding began at $5,000; in a week it jumped to $125,000; by Dec. 24, the price had reached $357,300. That's when a story by Bay Area journalist Michelle Locke hit the streets.

"In the still of approaching winter, what used to be the town center of Bridgeville is wrapped in a silence broken only by the sibilant rush of the rain-swollen Van Duzen River," she began. "And yet, amid the bucolic calm, something is stirring as modern as a mouse: point and click, point and click"

The story's hook, using the Internet to sell a "rustic town," proved irresistible to news editors around the country, in part because of the timing. The holidays make for slow news days since reporters and their sources take time off and readers aren't looking for anything too heavy. Locke's little tale filled a need -- and column inches -- in papers from the New York Times to the Sydney Morning Herald.

A cemetery and a backhoe

Based on Lapple's description, the town included 10 houses and four cabins -- plus a cemetery and a backhoe. Locke included a hint of warning to prospective buyers, pointing out that the backhoe was "not just for show," and that "the county has deemed some of the houses uninhabitable."

Septic system failures due to a high water table and impervious clay soil led to condemnation of all four cabins and one of the houses. Similar problems exist for the restaurant and gas station/general store that closed a few years back.

The description on eBay put it this way: "Many of the structures included with the town could be described as fixer-uppers, so be prepared to do a lot of work to get the town into sparkling condition."

Lapple's mother, whose name is also Elizabeth, bought the property in 1972, then sold it in 1977 to a group from Fremont called the Pentecostal Faith Challengers. There were plans for a Christian senior citizens' retirement community that never came to fruition. The church group's major accomplishment was alienating the truck drivers and locals who frequented the gas station by ending sales of tobacco and alcohol.

With no money coming in, the group fell behind on mortgage payments. In 1979, Don Houston and his church group, Vision for Missions, stepped in, but before long there was $50,000 in back property taxes due. The Lapple family paid the taxes and began a foreclosure process that took more than seven years, according to Christine Larsen of Sunset Real Estate, the Arcata firm handling the sale.

The media buzz created by the AP story caught Larsen and Realtor Denise Stuart off guard. "We really had no clue that this was going to happen," said Larsen. She and Stuart have been fielding calls from newspapers and radio stations around the world since Christmas Day. Of course, it should be worth their trouble -- assuming that the sale goes through, Sunset Real Estate's six percent commission will be $106,662.

As the story grew, the tide started to turn online: 30 bids on Christmas Eve took the price to $521,400 -- still far below the Lapple's minimum "reserve" price of $775,000. But since Christmas day is even slower news-wise, the media momentum continued. By day's end, as thousands of mouse clicks steered the curious to the eBay listing, the bid more than doubled to $1.6 million, and that too became a story.

By the time the sale closed just before 10 a.m. on Dec. 27, the story was hot as a firecracker, with National Public Radio, the BBC, MSNBC, CNN and countless TV news outlets jumping onto the bandwagon. The crescendo came on the day of the sale, when Stuart and Elizabeth's brother, Ed Lapple, appeared on the "Today" show.

As anyone with eBay experience knows, the final minute of an auction is what counts. In the last hour before deadline the bidding jumped over $100,000, and the winning bid was entered mere seconds before the deadline by an anonymous buyer.

Bought unseen

highway sign at Bridgville, with bridge and river in backgroundSo far, Lapple and real estate agents have only told reporters that he comes from somewhere on the West Coast and that his name is Bill.

The buyer has apparently not seen Bridgeville yet. He reportedly will be here sometime soon, and according to Larsen there will be a two-week inspection period before the deal goes into escrow.

One thing is certain: Bridgeville residents are eager to meet him and find out what he has in mind, and not just those who have been paying Lapple $450 to $550 a month rent.

Michael Guerriero considers himself a Bridgeville resident even though his home is far from the bridge that forms the center of town.

"Bridgeville is a community that encompasses 10 or 15 miles up and down the highway all the way out to Buck Mountain and down to Grizzly Creek," said Guerriero, a silkscreen artist who has lived in the area for more than 20 years.

Guerriero has spent most of the last decade working with other Bridgeville residents to enhance the community. With help from a $400,000 "Healthy Start" grant from the state, the Bridgeville Community Center Board coordinates services for families in the area, including health care and a senior lunch program, offered at Bridgeville Elementary, the grounds of which are surrounded by Lapple's property.

The group also provides transportation for those who need to go to Fortuna or Eureka for doctor visits or for social services. They also organize BridgeFest, an annual community pride celebration in August that includes an arts and crafts fair and a contest for the best flying saucer.

"A lot of us who live in outlying areas have pumped a lot of energy into making it a center for the community," said Guerriero. "We haven't seen much come of it aside from what we've done at the school, and one reason is because of the lack of interest or support shown by the owners of the town."

In recent months a group of residents has been working with the county on a community plan. Last week as part of the process, Bridgeville residents got a survey from the planning department in the mail. "It asks people what they think the future holds for Bridgeville and the community," said Guerriero.

There has been talk about businesses they would like to see in town and even discussion of a plan where the residents would buy Lapple's property. "Of course that's obsolete at this point," said Guerriero. He hopes that the new owner will be ready to work with his neighbors to improve Bridgeville -- and that he hasn't spent his whole bankroll on the purchase.

"There's the potential to offer some services for those in the surrounding community and for the tourists who come through. But it will probably mean investing another million dollars to do it," he concluded.


Workers again sue Eel River Sawmills

by EMILY GURNON

Former lumber workers have once again filed a $25 million suit against Eel River Sawmills, charging their one-time bosses with gross mismanagement that they say drove the company into the ground and made their employee stock nearly worthless.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 23 in Humboldt County Superior Court, alleges that the company reneged on a written promise that employees would own a majority of the stock, thereby enabling them to bring in new management if they chose. The suit also charges company president Dennis Scott and his associates with hiding the existence of a Barbados subsidiary, buying a lavish home for officials' use and spending the company's money to settle claims of sexual harassment after doing nothing to stop the behavior.

"It seems entirely unfair to me that these hardworking sawmill workers could be promised so much and receive so little . . . while others at the top have come out very prosperously," said Bill Bertain, the Eureka attorney representing the plaintiffs. "I find it appalling that the people who made this company a success can be treated so harshly and with such contempt."

Scott said Monday that the mismanagement charges were "bullshit."

"If we had the logs we had before, this company would still be running," he said. "That's what's so ridiculous about some of the claims. [All the small mills] are just barely hanging on."

Dean Blake, 61, worked for more than 20 years at the company, most recently as a forklift operator. He was laid off in 2001. More than 300 other employees also lost their jobs when the company's mills shut down.

One of three plaintiffs in the case, Blake said he and his co-workers were misled about Eel River's prospects and their stake in it.

"We were cheated out of our retirement. We were cheated out of our jobs," Blake said. "They kept promising us that things were gonna straighten out, that we were gonna be on top of the world. We were gonna own the sawmill." Instead, he said, "It went down the tubes."

If they had known what was to come, many of them would have looked for new jobs years earlier, Blake said. Their stock, once valued at about $35 a share, is now virtually worthless.

The lawsuit is related to another filed in probate court earlier in December which asks the court to investigate the actions of the trustees in charge of a trust set up by Eel River Sawmills founder Mel McLean, who died in 1999.

Eel River Sawmills, based outside Fortuna, was one of California's leading lumber producers in the 1980s and 1990s. The once-thriving operation, which consists of two mills, a chipping plant, a reprocessing plant, about 25,000-acres of timberland and the Fairhaven power plant, employed more than 550 employees at its peak in the late 1980s.

It continues to operate the power plant with about 24 employees.

Company president Scott has said that declining lumber prices and environmental restrictions, such as land declared off-limits for the spotted owl, caused the financial problems.

Now, Eel River is considering the latest in a series of purchase offers. Several other deals have fallen through.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Industrial Relations announced last week that a self-insurers' security fund was taking over Eel River Sawmills' payments on $7 million worth of workers' compensation claims after the company defaulted on the payments.


The 'new' zoo takes shape

by ANDREW EDWARDS

OUT ON W STREET IN EUREKA, IN THE SHADE of redwood trees in Sequoia Park, a hulking barn-like building is being built to last. The structure is tall, nearly three stories rising to the top of its peaked tower; and broad, encompassing 4,000 square feet in all.

It's the Sequoia Zoo's new petting zoo, the latest addition in a spate of zoo development, much of it made possible by a large but not officially disclosed amount (read $2 million) of money donated by local philanthropists Rob and Cherie Arkley.

architectural rendering of the new zoo barnThe building itself is merely a prelude to what's to come: a multi-purpose entrance pavilion, including a new gift shop and cafe an interpretive center and lecture hall.

The Sequoia Zoological Society has been planning this project for years. In 1993 the Eureka Parks and Recreation Department drew up the Sequoia Park and Zoo Master Plan, outlining improvements they envisioned would be put in place over the next 20 years. The estimated cost was $5.5 million.

The problem was the money.

Over the last few years the zoo has received more than $100,000 in grants from the McLean Foundation, Schmidbauer Lumber and the Humboldt Area Foundation, as well as support from numerous private donors and the zoological society. But it all fell far short of the estimated cost for even the first phase of development: $1.8 million.

"That [the 1993 report] was like pie-in-the sky; it was a wild dream. If we had all the money in the world this is what we would do, and of course we didn't," said Robert Taborski, president of the zoological society and a member of the committee that produced the plan.

But in September 2001 everything changed. A new, ostensibly anonymous donor stepped forward, offering to finance several new capital improvements on the condition that they, and not the zoological society, would head up management of the project.

The anonymity didn't last. The Journal broke the story last May when, in an interview, Cherie Arkley indirectly revealed that she and her husband had given the zoo $2 million.

The Arkleys made clear that the money should go toward the completion of the entrance pavilion. That wasn't the first priority on the 1993 master plan, but money changes things.

"The priorities in [the `93 report] became superfluous. If you have anyone coming forward to give you money for a project that, of course, becomes the priority," Taborski said.

But, when looking at what would have to be done to build the pavilion, someone noticed that the old petting zoo barn, a popular attraction for nearly 20 years, would have to be demolished.

To avoid any public backlash, zoo officials decided to first build an improved petting zoo before beginning any demolition.

The new structure is the result, for an estimated cost of $600,000, or $150 per square foot.

Exhibits tentatively planned for the structure include a real barn owl situated in a rafter aviary, a barn mice exhibit in one of the beams, an outside "contact area" (where the actual petting will take place) and a beehive in one of the walls. The structure will also contain several stalls for the animals and a quarantine area for sick animals.

The structure is scheduled for completion in the next couple of months, depending on the weather. Work is then supposed to begin on the entrance pavilion.

Taborski said the zoo is extraordinary for a city this size.

Built in 1907, the Sequoia Park Zoo is the oldest zoo in the state of California, and the smallest accredited zoo in the nation.

The zoo contains around 100 animals on 5 acres and has an annual operating budget of $340,000. More than 100,000 people visit each year.

The animals include a chimpanzee named Bill, who, at 57, is the oldest living captive great ape (he's just two years away from a Guinness world record).

The zoological society is seeking to promote the zoo as a local gem that everyone in the county, not just those in Eureka, can benefit from.

Plans include a membership drive to increase the society's ranks, which includes only 200 people. Taborski said that in Merced, Calif., his former home, 30,000 people out of the city of 100,000 were members of the zoological society.

Zoo officials said they are not worried that such a sizeable expansion will be unsustainable in the fiscal situation that local governments are finding themselves in.

Taborski pointed out that the city of Eureka has committed to increased staffing levels for the new buildings.

"We will not develop anything we cannot maintain," said David McGinty, director of Eureka's community services department, which manages the zoo.

Or, as Taborski put it, "The people of Eureka wouldn't allow the zoo to shut down. It's a treasure."


Wet and wetter

The North Coast again went toe-to-toe with nature's fury last weekend, as another drenching winter storm left flooding -- and new rainfall records -- in its wake.

Last Friday was the wettest day ever recorded in Eureka. A whopping 6.79 inches fell, shattering the previous record of 5.04 inches set on Oct. 29, 1950.

Additionally, this was the wettest December known. The previous high of 21.26 inches, set in 1996, was surpassed by half an inch (21.76 inches) as of Monday afternoon, with a day and a half to go.

The bulk of the rain came in two giant storms, the one last weekend and the tail end of a typhoon that struck the area mid-month.

Nearly every creek in Arcata was flooded at one point or another during last weekend's deluge, with Janes, Jolly Giant and Jacoby all jumping their banks. To no one's surprise, Elk and Freshwater creeks -- which flow down out of heavily cut timberlands owned by the Pacific Lumber Co. -- also inundated surrounding areas.

The Eel and Mad rivers, already swollen from previous storms, went to flood level as well, with the Eel topping off at 21.1 feet on Sunday afternoon and the Mad rising to 22.1 feet late Friday night and Saturday morning.

The heavy rain also brought on its share of transportation troubles with water flooding Highway 101 at the base of Tompkins Hill between Eureka and Fortuna on Saturday. The water slowed but did not halt motorists.

The golf course in Eureka was turned into a giant lake, closing F Street. H Street was also overrun, as were other streets, as storm drains clogged. Elk River Road, southeast of Eureka, was underwater at several points.

Monday night redwoods were blown down at the corner of M and Manzanita streets in Eureka, damaging the road and underground water pipes.

Rain is forecast at least into Saturday of this week. Translation: the worst could be yet to come.



Target EIR challenged

Two weeks after the Eureka City Council voted unanimously to allow the Target Corp. to build a new 139,000-square-foot store and garden center at the north end of Eureka, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) in Garberville has raised concerns about construction runoff into the Eureka Slough and the building's proximity to Humboldt Bay.

EPIC took its appeal to the California Coastal Commission. However, the board is not expected to consider reviewing the appeal until February at the earliest. The process could add months to Target's demolition and construction schedule for the new store.

If the Coastal Commission accepts EPIC's appeal, the board will have to hold public hearings and review all documentation associated with the project. But Target will not have to complete a new environmental impact report, said Lisa Shikany, a Eureka city planner.

"But that's based on [the Coastal Commission] accepting the appeal," she said.

Target Corp. has been working for almost two years to demolish the existing 80,000-square-foot Montgomery Ward store.

Christine Ambrose of EPIC said in a letter that the new store planned for the 11-acre site should be at least 100 feet from the bay, as required by the city's general plan.

The current plans for the store show a range of setbacks (the distance from the slough to the pavement) between 40 feet up to 250 feet. The average, however, is around 100 feet.

The city's general plan doesn't strictly require a 100-foot setback, Shikany said.

Among other things, Target's plan includes planting vegetation to act as a buffer.

Target would not be the first business to use landscaping in place of a buffer. The new Chevron gas station on Broadway, Gold Rush Coffee Roasting at Broadway and Henderson Street, Applebee's on Broadway and the Old Town boardwalk, have all used landscaping or other mitigations instead of creating a 100-foot buffer, Shikany said.

Target has also proposed removing 1.4 acres of pavement and replacing it with native vegetation, Shikany said.

The buffer will not alleviate concerns about runoff into the slough, Shikany said.

There will be a water filtration system to prevent chemicals from flowing into the slough. Target will also avoid using pesticides and herbicides on the landscaping, Shikany said.

Target plans to open the new store in 2004. But the company has yet to obtain its demolition or building permits.


Tuttle's replacement named

Adam Forbes, a botanist with the Pacific Lumber Co., will take over for the retiring Don Tuttle as Humboldt County's Environmental Services Manager.

Forbes earned his B.A. degree in rangeland resource science from Humboldt State University in 1997. He earned a Masters of Arts degree in range management from New Mexico State University and has a background in natural resource protection, Tuttle said.

"He handled CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) documents for other counties," Tuttle said.

Aside from PL, Forbes, 31, worked for an environmental consulting firm in the Central Valley.

His hiring was kept a close secret by Tuttle until Monday.

"Hopefully [Forbes will] carry on the tradition I've installed in that position," Tuttle said.

Tuttle had been with the county since 1971. His wife, Andrea Tuttle, is the head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.


Christmas tragedy

A Christmas morning house fire that claimed the lives of three Blue Lake children appears to have been an accident.

The damage to the Larson Heights Road home was so extensive, fire investigators may be unable to determine the exact cause of the fire.

Assistant Chief Ralph Altizer of the Arcata Fire Department said the fire started in the kitchen and spread throughout the single-story wood frame house.

Killed in the fire were Faustino Medina, 8, Hoyce Medina, 6, and Rico Medina, 5.

Tynnese Menniweather, 21, Jennifer Medina, 28, and her 3-year-old son were able to escape through a back window.


Berg's appointments

Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, has been appointed vice chair of the Assembly's Aging and Long-term Care Committee and will sit on the agriculture, appropriations and higher education committees.

Berg has a background in senior citizens issues. Additionally, being named to the appropriations committee means Berg will have a front-row seat during the Assembly's budget hearings.

Berg will also sit on the transportation, and water, parks and wildlife committees.

In November, Berg beat Republican Rob Brown and Green Party candidate Doug Thron in the race for the state's 1st Assembly District.



Skullduggery

A rash of vandalism and thefts hit Ferndale schools over the Christmas break, leaving behind smashed windows, damaged offices and a missing skull.

On Dec. 23, someone broke into the high school gym and took candy bars from the snack stand. The men's and women's locker rooms were also ransacked. The suspects also vandalized a coaches' desk before smashing a window and forcing their way into a science room. Missing from the room are a skull and a triple beam scale -- commonly used by drug dealers.

A guitar was also reported missing from the special education room.

On Christmas Day vandals damaged two computers and ransacked a classroom inside Ferndale Elementary.

In a separate burglary, Ferndale Police have identified three suspects who allegedly broke into the youth football storage shed at Ferndale High. Two ice chests and about $30 in candy were taken. Another juvenile was arrested on suspicion of breaking into the high school wood shop in the early fall.

Ferndale Police have turned over the names of all the suspects to the Humboldt County District Attorney's office.


Consumer protection kicks in

Among the myriad laws going into effect this month are new consumer laws impacting Internet service providers (ISPs), refunds from purchases made through the Internet or mail-order, and mail-in product warranty cards.

Senate Bill 772 requires ISPs to give at least 30 days notice before the company plans to shut off service. Companies not complying with the new law can be fined up to $1,000 per violation.

The law is similar to one requiring utility companies to give at least 10 days notice before shutting off service, cable television companies to provide at least 15 days notice before discontinuing service and long distance telephone companies to provide a minimum of 30 days notice.

The law is aimed at preventing ISPs from abruptly disconnecting customers, leaving them without access to e-mail and web pages stored on a company's server.

A good example is the recent closure of Northcoast Internet and Tidepool Internet, two Arcata companies that shut down on Dec. 19. Some businesses were left scrambling to find a new ISP days before Christmas. Had SB 772 been in place, subscribers would have been notified in mid-November the two companies were shutting down.

SB 1872 will help consumers get refunds from Internet and mail-order companies in a timely manner. Credit card purchases would have to be refunded if the item is returned within seven business days. If a purchase was made by cash, check or money order, a company would have 30 days to refund the customer's money.

Some Internet companies often take up to three months to refund or credit charge accounts, said state Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Redondo Beach, the author of the consumer bills.

SB 1765 bans companies from requiring consumers to return product registration cards. Often those cards are marked as warranty cards leading consumers to believe that if they don't return the card their purchase won't be covered by the company's warranty. Bowen said companies sell the cards to marketing companies who in turn sell the customer's name to junk mail lists.

The new law requires manufacturers to clearly state on the registration or warranty cards that neither has to be returned in order for the warranty to be effective.



Dredging the Salt

A plan to restore two miles of the Salt River, between the Port Kenyon Bridge and where the Salt and Eel Rivers meet, could cost as much as $6 million and would require the purchase of 53 acres of private property around Ferndale.

The project cost would include a local match of $2 million that could come from state, county and local entities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study showed the problem in the Salt River has existed for almost 100 years.

Over that time the width and depth of the shipping channel at Port Kenyon has shrunk from 200 feet across and 15 feet deep to 20 feet across and 3 feet deep.

A variety of natural and man-made causes have eroded the channel, including natural erosion in the Salt River watershed, rapid growth of vegetation in the stream channel, seismic activity, as well as timber harvesting, road construction and mining, and flood control activities such as dams and tidegates.

Ferndale officials believe that dredging the Salt River will prevent flooding problems in town and in farmland. Presently, the clogged waterway prevents flow from Francis Creek from getting past the city's sewage treatment plant.

The project would also benefit several endangered species, including the brown pelican, peregrine falcon and steelhead trout -- all found in the Eel River estuary.


Check-mate

Four people were arrested Friday by Humboldt County Sheriff's deputies and the FBI on suspicion of passing stolen traveler's checks at the Cher-Ae Heights and Blue Lake casinos.

Two others were arrested in Eureka on suspicion of possession of stolen traveler's checks and possession of methamphetamine.

Terry Michael Robinson, Jr., 20, and Terry Raphael Robinson, Sr., 46, both of Eureka, were arrested Friday morning at the Trinidad casino. During a search of the Robinsons' vehicle, deputies found a loaded 9 mm semi-automatic handgun. Terry M. Robinson was charged with possession of a loaded firearm and Terry R. Robinson was charged with possession of methamphetamine.

Earlier on Friday, Amber Dawn Soderholm, 22, and James Joseph Soderholm, 24, both of Union City, were arrested at the Blue Lake Casino for possession of stolen property and passing fraudulent checks.

Leilani Noniela Castro, 20, and Thong Tom Ding Nguyen, 24, both of Union City, were arrested at a Eureka motel on suspicion of possession of stolen traveler's checks and possession of methamphetamine.

The traveler's checks were reported stolen from a San Francisco Wells Fargo Bank in October.


Money for kids' books

The Humboldt County Library received a $25,000 grant from the county's Children and Families Commission to purchase new children's books.

The grant will also go toward developing a family literacy program to help parents and their children improve their reading skills together.

Altogether, the commission handed out $82,000 in grants. In addition to the library, other recipients include: United Indian Health Services, Humboldt Child Care Council and the College of the Redwoods.

United Indian Health Services got $24,000 for a new child care center at the Potawot Health Village in Arcata.

A $20,000 grant will go to the Humboldt Child Care Council to expand Special Needs Connection, a parent-to-parent monitoring program.

College of the Redwoods will get $12,000 for its Child Development Center and Early Education Program. The funds will help train staff and students to create a friendlier learning space.

 


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