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Keeping up with the Rezoneses 

The county retooled its plan for siting multifamily housing but some folks are still dismayed

The cinnamon reek of portable toilets, ranked by color and brand on the north end of the lot, pervades each breeze. Staccato bursts of sharp sound punctuate the white noise of trash and recyclables being dropped off, sorted, crushed and baled. Crash, clatter, screech, scrape. Sniff deeper: diesel and rotting meat, bitter garden discards, sour booze dregs, sweet soda treacle. Dust. Listen again: bone-thrumming rumble of trucks and forklifts, cars and pickups.

With this sweet-foul noisy mix, Greg and Christine Cain, owners of Humboldt Sanitation & Recycling of McKinleyville, raised their kids, put them through college and lured them back home again to begin the cycle anew.

But now the Cains foresee a grumpy cloud gathering on the horizon that could upset their successful enterprise here on 12 acres alongside Central Avenue -- the horizon, actually, being right over there at the north edge of their property, by the battalion of portable toilets. Just over the grassy ditch and fence topped with razor wire, an empty lot has been scraped clean of vegetation. Something is about to happen there.

What could happen, under a new county rezoning program, is apartments. Oh, maybe they wouldn't sprout up immediately. But that lot -- 1.83 commercial-zoned acres owned by Ted Stodder -- is one of 75 parcels that Humboldt County planners have identified as candidates for rezoning to dense multifamily residential to accommodate the 980 new multifamily housing units that the state says the county will need between now and 2014. Some of these 75 parcels are commercial, some are single-family. If Stodder's parcel is rezoned and apartments do go up, well, Greg Cain says, he can hear the bellyaching now, drifting down from the future.

"Just picture a Saturday afternoon, people sitting on their porches trying to relax and having to listen to the noise of our operation," Cain said by phone one day last week. "A lot of people are home on Saturday, and that's our busiest day. But 365 days a year, seven days a week we're operating -- 15 trucks leaving and coming back every day, hauling garbage, recycling and portable toilets; more trucks coming in three to five days a week to pick up our recycling commodities; 100 to 250 cars a day -- twice that on Saturdays -- dropping off trash and recycling."

Soon, Cain said, he's planning to expand his operations; he's got a contract with Humboldt County to start doing curbside recycling, so there will be more trucks. And he plans to build a giant shed to house the garbage and recycling operations to get people out of the rain.

"I know people have to have a place to live," he said. "But multifamily housing is just not a compatible fit here. I don't want complaints about noises and trucks."

This is the second time that the county has brought a list of candidate rezone sites before the public. The county has set a firm deadline for finally resolving the matter: The planning commission is holding community workshops between now and June 30, when it will hold a public hearing on the rezone proposal. The hearing will continue on July 14. Then the rezone will go before the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.

That's a mighty short window, some folks say.

It's imperative to move quickly, the county counters.

 

The first time around with the rezoning proposal was wrenching -- surprise, tears and gnashing teeth, cries of "you can't rezone my property, it's historic!" (that was in Redway) or other genuine grief, along with hyped-up ads and fliers papering neighborhoods implying that thousands of the poor and homeless were coming your way and who knew what troubles they'd bring.

That happened in January and February, when the county shared with the public its initial proposed list of rezone properties.

"A lot of property owners did not want their property rezoned," said Humboldt County Senior Planner Michael Richardson at a workshop in Eureka June 8 to show people the county's new list of proposed rezone properties, which came out in a draft environmental impact report June 1. "And it was just so heart-wrenching to hear all of this anxiety we were causing property owners. We got a lot of pushback. In the end, we decided if we want this project to work we have to start over."

Richardson is a soft-spoken man in his late 40s with long strawberry blond hair, a gently thorough demeanor, and the look of an outdoors fellow who's become trapped in a cubicle doing a job, alas, he loves. At the recent public workshops to explain the county's second round of rezoning proposals, he often came across as conciliatory, even a little sad, as he talked about possible impacts from the rezoning program and answered questions. And he didn't seem too surprised some people still distrust the county's motives and methods. But he also seemed determined that the county be allowed to move forward, and quickly, or it would miss out on some significant financial opportunities.

The housing element of the county's general plan has been deemed out of compliance with state law three times since 2009 - the latest was this January, when the California Housing and Community Development Department rescinded its certification of the plan, in large part because of issues over the rezoning program. If the county doesn't finish the rezoning plan and get its housing element recertified, said Richardson, then it will not be competitive for certain grants, such as those for fixing up or building low-income housing. Aug. 16 is the next application deadline for one of these grants -- $800,000 to help first-time home-buyers qualify for low-interest mortgages and help homeowners get low-interest loans for repairs.

Plus, if the county's housing element remains out of compliance, the county could lose its ability to issue building permits and approve subdivisions. It could even lose the power to regulate emergency shelters: If there's some dispute over where it wants to put them, the courts could just tell the county where they'll go.

After the first attempt to find rezone candidates flopped, the county started searching for willing property owners. It ended up with 75 candidate parcels which, if it could use them all, would actually accommodate about 1,500 units. That's more than the 980 the state says the county needs to plan for.

"But I think it's a little bit scary we're not going into it with even more," Richardson said one day a couple of weeks ago in the interview at his office -- a quirky retreat inside the bland, institutional planning department warren on H Street in Eureka. Years ago, his daughter and his now-ex wife helped him paint every plastered surface in a green-and-blue undersea mural with colorful fish and sea plants.

"I figured if I'm going to be underwater, it might as well look like it," Richardson said.

Richardson and other county staff have been trying for years to nail down how many unincorporated county parcels are truly suitable for multifamily residential development. The county is required by state law to update its housing element -- one of seven elements in the general plan -- about every five years. Since the 1980s, said Richardson, the state has been ratcheting up its requirements for what must be in the housing element. The county has to include in its element population projections, housing stock numbers, how much land it has planned to meet existing and future housing needs for a range of incomes, and more.

"What had happened was, before, the state found that what a lot of jurisdictions have called 'housing land' couldn't actually be built on -- the slope was too steep or there was no water or sewer," he said.

One example of this is in Shelter Cove, where 18 acres inappropriately ended up in the county's inventory of land (255 acres) that's already zoned for multifamily housing.

So in 2002 the county did a technical study, using GIS, to find suitable parcels that could be rezoned. Groups such as the developer-oriented HELP -- Humboldt Economic & Land Plan -- squawked that the county's land inventory was outrageously inflated. And they were right, turns out. Further study on the ground, said Richardson, with the aid of HELP and others, revealed that the GIS study hadn't accounted for such things as property owners refusing to actually develop their property. And it had included lands that couldn't be developed in the time frame necessary to meet the state mandate.

With this latest round, though, the county thought it had finally gotten it right. It had 64 property owners of 75 "juicy" (as Richardson puts it) candidate parcels that, for the most part, fit some key criteria: The parcels were flat, at least an acre, close to public transit and served by public water and sewer. And they finally had willing owners, Richardson said, and had sent notices of the workshops to them and their nearly 4,000 neighbors within a 300-foot radius.

Still there are complaints -- many emanating from McKinleyville, the boomingest place in Humboldt County in recent decades, where the county proposes to rezone land for more than half of the 980 future units (53 percent).

 

McKinleyville, as its slogan goes, might once have been the place "where horses have the right of way." But now it's really the place where horses, and those desiring the rural life, have had to make way for more people. The unincorporated municipality is the third largest community in Humboldt County, has grown rapidly in recent decades in large part because it has been affordable, and is considered the bedroom community to Eureka and Arcata.

McKinleyville has crafted a community plan to deal with its growth; the rezone list, some residents and community leaders say, doesn't jibe with that plan. These and other disappointments were made clear at a June 9 planning commission workshop in McKinleyville attended by nearly 50 people.

Cain was there, wondering what would happen if his new neighbors started complaining about the stench and noise of his operation. Dave Varshock, owner of United Country Coast Central Realty, was there, demanding to know if the willing property owners were aware of the difficulties they might encounter with financing, permitting and other such things.

"It doesn't make sense," said Varshock, a member of HELP and a group called Find Our Lots that's spent years digging into the land inventory. He said the county should be adding commercial property, not deleting it.

Dennis Mayo, a former planning commission member, complained that the county planners were "still looking at McKinleyville as if this great growth boom is going to continue."

"It's over," he said.

Richardson said the rezone list would be refined. Folks still have time to get their properties on the list -- a couple of people at the meetings said they wanted to. Also, he said, probably many properties would be eliminated for various reasons.

One already has been: the McKinleyville Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses' parcel on the corner of Betty Court and School Road, across from the movie theater. The congregation bought the property in 2010 and has been wending through the permitting process to build a new Kingdom Hall on it.

It's unclear how church land got on the county's list. Richardson said a consultant indicated the church supported the rezoning, but he couldn't find any records explaining why the consultant believed that. Paula Mushrush, the county's economic development coordinator for housing and grants, said the church was among late additions to the list that probably weren't called by county staffers. "Our assumption was that Michael [Richardson] had talked to them already," she said.

Glen Hermans, a trustee with McKinleyville's Jehovah's Witnesses, said nobody in his congregation had been contacted by the county to ask if they were willing to rezone; they'd only heard about it by chance, just a week before the June 9 rezone workshop.

"I was visiting our real estate agent and he said, 'Let me show you what they're doing in McKinleyville,' Hermans said. "He showed me the rezone maps, and a member of our congregation who was with me said, 'That's our property!' The next day it came out in the legal notices. And we got on it right away and sent a letter to the county asking to be taken off the list."

 

It would be ironic if the land next to Humboldt Sanitation got rezoned to residential. Twenty years ago, the Cains bought the 12 acres on Central Avenue so they could move from their original location, on Halfway Avenue, where the company had been since long before the Cains bought it in 1978. At that time, they had five acres and one garbage truck. McKinleyville grew; their business grew as well.

"We were getting surrounded by subdivisions, so we knew we weren't a good fit anymore," Cain said. "That's why we moved to Central Avenue. It was zoned commercial light-industrial, which was great."

The Cains have developed several sister companies, run by family members, on the Central Avenue property: the portable toilets; the public drop-off refuse and recycling; Johnson's Mobile Rentals, which rents out fencing and large storage containers; and Humboldt Sanitation, whose trucks do curbside garbage pickup. They have enough room to handle the volume from the new curbside recycling program and to build their big shed, and they don't plan to move.

"Our three parcels here, and one next to us to the south [owned by someone else], are the only ones zoned commercial light-industrial in McKinleyville," Cain said. "We have no other place to go. [I think] we shouldn't be eliminating commercial property."

Ted Stodder, however -- who owns the rezone-candidate parcel next to Humboldt Sanitation -- takes a different view.

"I don't believe there is any future potential of any commercial development here," said Stodder, a developer and a professor of real estate and construction technology at College of the Redwoods. "There's lots of undeveloped, vacant commercial property in McKinleyville now that I personally don't believe will ever get developed. The general economy of Humboldt County is not on the rise; it's on the decline. I've lived here since I was 2. There are no jobs here anymore. No industry anymore. I encourage any kids I know to leave."

Besides, Stodder said, it would be "next to impossible" to get a bank to loan money for commercial development in McKinleyville unless some of the space were leased in advance. Apartments, on the other hand, are easy: Stodder said he never has trouble renting out his 20-some apartments in Eureka and McKinleyville -- mostly two-bedroom/one baths he rents for $750 to $800. Among his tenants, he said, "I have zero people on welfare, zero people on Section 8, zero drug activities and I have people who have lived there for years and years."

Stodder is aware that the Cains are worried his possible future Central Avenue tenants might complain about the trash and toilets.

"That's a very legitimate concern Greg has," he said. "We've talked about it and there's no animosity. Greg and I went to school together from fifth grade on. We were best friends. We're both McKinleyville boys ... who have a lot of pride in what we've done."

He noted that he could already build some apartments, although not as many, with his current commercial zoning, and that he has sometimes been concerned about the Cains' impact on his land. "It goes both ways," he said.

But how would he feel if his tenants did complain?

"I don't know how to answer that," Stodder said after some consideration. "That's like building houses next to the freeway there along Highway 101 and asking the developer if he feels bad that the tenants are bothered by the freeway noise. But we would definitely have some very specific and strong clauses in the contract" about the potential annoyances next door.

And Cain?

"We'll work together, whatever it is," Stodder said.

A lot of the zoning discussions go this way, unresolved -- sometimes amicably and other times not. Two old high school buddies end up working side by side, each with a different vision of how his community should grow. There's one scenario. Multiply it by 4,000 -- the rezone-candidate property owners and their nearest neighbors. Add several hundred more to account for neighbors just a bit farther away, and add yet more to include the just plain civic-minded.

Those folks -- and the county planners -- will be deciding where some of our future residents go, at least up to 2014. Deadline to chime in: Now.

 

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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