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One Eureka city official shrugged her shoulders and said, "It's the democratic process, I guess!"

Was it a proud moment of democracy in action or was it a case of a poorly informed City Council caving in to a small group of NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) neighbors?

Last week the council, surprising even its staff, killed a 20-unit housing project for low- and moderate-income families that had been in the works for several years. The item on the agenda was not a public hearing on the merits of the project -- for example, whether the housing density was compatible with the neighborhood. The council was only voting on a routine request from staff for the city to renew an "exclusive right to negotiate" agreement with the builder. In other words, staff was asking to continue working on a project that was finally showing promise.

So what happened?

In the last two city elections, 2000 and 2002, the voters elected an entirely new council and mayor. The previous council, however, had given staff consistent direction on this piece of city property. No, the council did not want to see an office complex on that land. That parcel was ideally suited and zoned for multiple-unit housing. It is on the bus line, walkable from downtown. It is adjacent to a beautiful park for children and the city trails system is easily accessible.

In 1999 city officials held preliminary talks with commercial builders about how to address affordable housing goals. In 2001 the city identified two parcels and issued a formal request for proposals from developers. There were problems with one parcel (on Tydd Street), but the city chose Danco Builders for the Myrtle Avenue and Seventh Street project.

There have been lengthy delays seeking the right combination of public money -- through grants and tax breaks -- and private funds to make the project feasible. There have been two extensions of the "exclusive right to negotiate" agreement in the last year or so. But the bottom line is Danco proceeded in good faith, completing preliminary traffic and biological studies, submitting information for the conditional use permit, and had every reason to believe the project was on track.

Why the delays? Danco project manager Cindy Guckenberger said the city itself took nearly a year to investigate whether the project could qualify for a tax credit because of its proximity to the redevelopment zone.

"We never got an answer. Then three months ago the city suggested we go after a HOME grant and bypass redevelopment."

City Manager David Tyson confidently wrote in a letter to Danco June 6, "Staff is preparing a request for a new Exclusive Right to Negotiate ..." to begin June 17 and run through Dec. 31 to allow for the HOME loan application "and hopefully notification of funding and successful completion of this project."

How was this meeting different? This time some neighbors showed up to speak against the project with a petition in hand. One area resident suggested that his property values would drop.

Tyson told the Journal after the council voted 5-0 against the extension last week that he was surprised by the vote.

So was Guckenberger, who said she didn't even go to the meeting because such approval had been routine in the past.

Last week's action does not mean multifamily housing will never be built on the parcel, but it does mean several years of work down the drain.

Tyson was philosophical.

"We did feel it was routine. But we, of course, are never surprised by the power of the council to react to public perception."

Guckenberger was a little more blunt.

"Anytime you build affordable housing, the neighbors don't want it. NIMBYISM is what shut down this project."




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