North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

January 10, 2002

Bluff today, gone tomorrow

Building on the block

Call for Northwest Eye

Burn barrel ban?

Helping quitters win

Who will fund prosecutor?

PG&E seeks plant spin off

Wet weather testing begins

Bus service to Redding

Feeling the pinch

Levee lawsuit

Ferndale to hire manager

Delay for McKinleyville plan

Hoopa election open

Bluff today, gone tomorrow

Homeowners on Letz Avenue along the ocean bluffs in McKinleyville may be breathing a little easier. Last week Miller Farms Construction put the finishing touches on a drainage culvert that should at least temporarily shore up cliff-side erosion on county property.

Erosion occurred the week before Christmas when a section of the bluffs between Vista point on Highway 101 and the Hammond Trail parking lot at the north end of Letz Avenue sloughed into the sea as much as two cubic acres of soil by one estimate.

According to officials in the county Public Works Department, the cause of the sloughing was a blown culvert at the top of the cliff that diverts the runoff from the Arcata/Eureka Airport. They claim that the heavy rains before the holidays saturated the hillside and washed out the culvert, causing massive erosion.

Allen Campbell, director of public works, said similar events have occurred at least three times in the same area since he's been with the county and several temporary fixes have been attempted. "But when you're dealing with the Pacific coast and Mother Nature, look out."

Campbell said that the funding is in place for a more permanent solution to the problem, but that dry weather is needed as well as final approval from the California Coastal Commission.

Landowners on the bluff and stewards of the Hammond Trail are also concerned. Ruth Blyther, planning director of the Redwood Community Action Agency that has built many sections of the trail, said, "The county says [the culverts] failed. Some people think they weren't maintained properly."

Meanwhile, construction continues on a new home not more than 200 yards from the site of the washout.

-- report & photos by Steven Spain

Building on the block

Looking to buy a big building in the middle of downtown Eureka?

The Eureka Federal Building at 5th and H streets is on the block with an online/written auction beginning Wednesday, Jan. 9. The real property disposal division of the U.S. General Services Administration offers the three- story brick building with some conditions -- and they are by no means minor.

First, it comes with tenants. The post office occupies the entire first floor, 6,308 of the 23,959 square feet in the building. U.S. District Court, Bankruptcy Court, Customs, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Trustees, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Social Security occupy offices on the second floor. They all get a minimum three-year lease, one they can cancel with a 120-day notice.

The place covers six parcels, but it's not likely you'd be able to tear it down to build a parking lot. It comes with a historic preservation covenant that lets you know its listed on Eureka's Historic Register and specifies that any plans for the building must be cleared by California's State Historic Preservation Office.

The covenant also offers a bit of its history: The neoclassical building, designed by architect James Knox of the Department of the Treasury, was completed in 1910. It comes with five murals done in 1937 by Thomas Laman-Hardy, commissioned under the Treasury Relief Arts Project.

Among the changes to the structure that will have to pass the state historic standards -- an earthquake retrofit, the building is a classic case of unreinforced masonry. The invitation for bids states in capital letters the place is offered "AS IS," and also includes warnings about the presence of asbestos and lead paint. The feds estimate the retrofit and other work needed to bring it to code could cost as much as $8 million. While the suggested starting bid is $300,000, there is no preset minimum.

Still interested?

You can obtain a brochure from Rhonda Rance at the GSA, 888-472-5263, ext. 3433 or check the auction site online at Just like on e-Bay, you can follow the bidding action online. High bids will be posted as they arrive.

Call for Northwest Eye

Humboldt photographers, remove your lens caps. The Northwest Eye photography contest is accepting submissions.

The juried exhibition and competition, to be held at the Morris Graves Museum in Eureka next month, will celebrate photography as practiced by Pacific Northwest artists. Criteria include technical mastery, individual merit, vision and originality.

Entries are due at the museum, 636 F St., between noon and 5 p.m. Jan. 14. While there are no limitations on subject matter, the prints should not be larger than 11 by 14 inches. The entry fee is $20, but the prize may be worth it: First place nets $1,000.

The works will be judged by Bruce Barnbaum, a professional photographer and instructor. Barnbaum will present a lecture and slide show at the museum Jan. 21 from 6-8 p.m. Call 442-0278 for more information.

Burn barrel ban?

A new regulation being considered by a state air quality agency may end a long-standing rural tradition: the burn barrel.

The California Air Resources Board is considering a ban on burning paper and cardboard trash in 55-gallon drums. The agency claims the backyard incinerators are a major source of air pollution, spitting not just smoke but highly toxic chemicals like dioxins and furans into the air.

"They're our No. 1 air pollution complaint," said Leonard Herr, air quality specialist with the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District, which enforces air quality regulations.

Complaints about burn barrels are not only frequent, they are also hard to address. Often, when someone is suffering because of the smoke from a burn barrel, there is little Herr can do. They may be obnoxious, but they are also legal, assuming the person burning has a permit from the fire department. "You are legally allowed to use a burn barrel on a city lot and bother your neighbors," he said.

And even if a person was burning plastic or other banned refuse, the evidence is usually up in smoke by the time his team arrives. "There's not a whole lot we can do about it," he said. That would change under a ban which would allow police or fire departments to respond to complaints about burn barrels.

The ban includes exemptions for rural areas without garbage service or access to conventional waste disposal. That means the family living in Whitethorn should still be able to dispose of trash in the traditional, time-honored way -- by match.

The ban's effect should be concentrated on urban areas, Herr said. It's easier to cause harm with air pollution when your neighbors are right next door, and burning is very popular in the urbanized areas around Humboldt Bay. "The more built up a city is, the bigger the problem," he said.

It's easy to see why burn barrels remain popular in otherwise urban areas , he said. "In Eureka, only 30 percent of the households have garbage service."

Eventually, dealing with solid waste will mean taking a more comprehensive approach than just banning the barrels, Herr said. "We'd like to see an expansion of garbage service."

Helping quitters win

If quitting tobacco was one of your resolutions heading into 2002, you have a hard road ahead of you -- but there's help. Humboldt County's public health branch is providing 3,000 "quit kits" to local health care providers.

The kits contain information and cigarette "substitutes," including straws and gum, to help curb the oral fixation many smokers and chewers feel after quitting.

"Quitting tobacco is difficult for most people," stated Ann Lindsay, public health officer for the county. "Successful quitting takes an average of nine tries and that's fine. No one learned to smoke or chew in a day, and quitting takes time, too."

Who will fund prosecutor?

A successful environmental prosecution program, already reduced by funding cuts, has been refused permanent status in the state budget by Gov. Gray Davis.

The circuit prosecutor program hires specialized attorneys to travel to multiple counties and prosecute violations of environmental law. The program's North Coast representative, Paul Hagen, has handled at least 28 cases in Humboldt County -- all of which resulted in settlement or a guilty verdict.

Running down poachers and violators of the state's forest practice rules wouldn't be practical for regular prosecutors in the Humboldt County district attorney's office, Hagen said, because of the expertise needed.

The county does not pay Hagen's salary, however local government agencies benefit from fines collected. One settlement Hagen reached with Louisiana-Pacific Corp. over pollution of Jane's Creek with sawdust required the company to pay more than $700,000 in fines and mitigation.

"My services are free, but even if they were paid the county would be getting its bang for the buck," he said.

The problem of paying Hagen's salary is becoming more difficult. Up until last year, the program had been funded by grants from three government agencies: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, its state counterpart, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Department of Fish and Game. But last year the EPA grant ran out leaving the program facing a 33 percent budget cut.

"We are running on a bare-bones budget," said Gale Filter, director of the program. "We've already lost the services of two prosecutors and a research attorney."

The solution seemed to have been found when the Legislature passed a bill to provide $300,000 in annual funding. But Gov. Davis vetoed the bill, citing budget concerns.

The program's organizers were advised by the governor to get together with their supporters to find other funding sources, but "nothing has materialized yet," Filter said. The program's funding is only secure through June 30.

In the meantime, Hagen has been hard at work -- again. He just filed a 350-count complaint against Arcata Readimix and three trucking companies for alleged unsafe transportation of contaminated soil to a landfill in San Joaquin County.

PG&E seeks plant spin off

PG&E is floating a plan to sell off the Potter Valley Project, the small-scale hydroelectric plant that diverts large-scale amounts of water from the Eel River south to the Russian.

As part of its bankruptcy recovery plan, PG&E has proposed selling the 1908-vintage facility. Selling Potter Valley to a spinoff company, Potter Valley Project LLC, would remove the project from state regulation. Rather than being watched by both state and federal agencies, the plant would be regulated solely by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The power plant stands at the center of a tug of war over resources between Humboldt and its neighbors to the south. It's not about electricity: Only 9.2 megawatts are produced at the facility, compared with about 7,100 megawatts at PG&E's Diablo Canyon hydroelectric facilities.

But the dam diverts 180,000 acre-feet of water to the Russian River, feeding agriculture and development in Sonoma County. That diversion is blamed for the collapse of the salmon and steelhead trout fisheries in the Eel. Negotiations are underway to reduce the amount taken from the Eel, especially in the summer when the Eel can go dry.

With such high stakes, no one seems pleased that PG&E wants to sell. Representatives of Sonoma County have voiced concern the new company might try to reduce the flows to the Russian, while Humboldt County river advocates feel state control of the plant is better for their interests.

"We feel strongly that the state should stay in control of our utilities, not the federal government," said Nadananda of Garberville's Friends of the Eel River.

Wet weather testing begins

With heavy winter rains underway, the Humboldt County Health Department's Environmental Health Division announced last week that the wet weather test period was open.

In many areas of Humboldt County, property owners wanting to subdivide or develop land with on-site sewage disposal systems need to test their soils and ensure there won't be groundwater contamination during the wet months. The test must be conducted by a civil engineer, geologist or qualified consultant. The testing may require several weeks, so get started early.

Call Environmental Health at 445-6215 for more information.

Bus service to Redding

Carless travellers trying to get to Redding can finally take the bus. Greyhound has re-established its Eureka-Redding line.

The service was stopped six years ago. Attempts had been made in the interim to start a public transport line to Redding, but those efforts ceased last year when Greyhound announced it would resume service. The first bus rolled into Eureka Jan. 8.

A one-way trip on the new line will take about three and a half hours and cost $28. For schedule information, call Greyhound at 1-800-231-2222.

Feeling the pinch

As economic data has rolled in over the last few months, a strange trend appeared: Humboldt County seemed to be immune to the recession. Unemployment was down and several sectors of the local economy were picking up steam even though the national economy has been in recession since March. That trend has now come to an end, according to the latest Index of Economic Activity for Humboldt County.

Every economic statistic the Index tracks declined during November, from home sales to the hospitality industry. In some sectors the slowdown is minor, and some parts of the economy are likely to rebound quickly. But the writing is on the wall: The recession has hit Humboldt.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the retail sector, said Steve Hackett, executive director of the Index. "Retail sales are a pretty good indication of what's going on in the overall economy," and sales at Humboldt County merchants dropped 10.4 percent in November.

There are other reasons to be concerned about the drop in retail sales. The retail industry isn't just a barometer of the county's health; it is also an important source of employment. Through the tourist trade, it brings much-needed money into the county economy.

While Humboldt's tourist industry hasn't seen the same kind of downturn as the rest of Northern California, stays at local hotels did slip 6.5 percent in November.

Home sales dropped almost 20 percent during November, erasing some of the gains made during October. The sector is volatile, Hackett said, and the trend in Humboldt's home sales is probably still upward. Home sales grew consistently from the late '90s through late last year.

The manufacturing sector saw yet another month of slowing activity in November. In Humboldt County, manufacturing mostly means wood products, and seasonally adjusted lumber numbers dropped 9 percent over the month. The logging sector's economic output is now 25 percent smaller than it was just three years ago.

The recent drop in logging may be a temporary effect of the recession, however. "When the economy picks up, lumber traditionally roars back," he said. The long-term decline in logging won't stop that, although "it's not clear how dramatically it will come roaring back," Hackett said.

Levee lawsuit

Users of a levee trail, upset over what some call harassment by a nearby property owner, have filed suit to assert their access rights.

The Mad River levee, located in Blue Lake next to the Mad River, is on property owned by dairy farmer Manuel Morais. He claims that people who use the levee as a recreational trail have vandalized his property. In 1998 he started to obstruct people from using the levee.

While Morais owns the property, he may not have the right to prevent usage of the levee as a trail. It was constructed through an easement purchased by Humboldt County, which also has the right and obligation to maintain the levee -- so while the land is Morais', the levee is at least partially within the county's control.

And the people who have been using the levee have rights to the property as well, said Blue Lake attorney Richard Platz, who is representing the Mad River Levee Access Group in the suit.

Until the late '70s, California law gave people who used private property for recreational purposes for a period of five years or more the right to continue that use, Platz said.

Because people have been using the levee since the 1950s, that right has been well established. The suit seeks to establish access for recreational users. Platz said no court date had been set.

Ferndale to hire manager

The problem, said Ferndale Mayor Jeff Farley, "is that we on the City Council all work other jobs." That's left Farley and his colleagues on the council without enough time for city business. They are now searching for a city manager.

The manager position would hopefully pay for itself by attracting grant money while reducing the amount of planning work for which the city has to contract out to private consultants.

The application deadline closed Dec. 31. With 16 applications in hand, Farley said the city is ready to begin the selection process. "We'll have something within the next couple months," he said. "We looked for someone who would want to stay, someone who has put down roots here."

The idea to share a manager with Rio Dell, also currently searching for a city manager, fell flat because of concerns over workload. "We threw the idea of sharing a manager around, but we felt that for the amount of work we had here, sharing would not work."

Delay for McKinleyville plan

A voluminous packet of comments on the proposed McKinleyville General Plan update from a homebuilders' group may postpone the plan's approval, but it will be all the better for it, according to Humboldt County's top planning official.

"In our business, the more carefully your plans are reviewed, the better they come out, " said Kirk Girard, director of Community Development for the county.

When the comments were submitted by the Northern California Homebuilders' Association in December some residents were concerned that it is a stalling tactic by builders who were more comfortable under the old plan. A report in the McKinleyville Press stated comments were viewed by county planning staff as an attempt to obstruct the plan's passage.

Not so, said Girard.

"They paid to have a consultant go through the plan with a fine-toothed comb and they found aspects that would have to be changed," he said. As an example, Girard pointed out that the proposed plan update had been based on 1990 census data. The 2000 data is now available and should be used, he said.

But the comments will set back the schedule for the plan update's approval. They have to be studied and incorporated into the proposal, which will then have to be recirculated for another 45 days.

The plan revision should be presented to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors by spring, Girard said.

Hoopa election open

Not all the election deadlines have passed in Humboldt County. Tribal members who want to sit on the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council have one more week to file an application for candidacy.

Three seats are open on the tribal council, which has many of the functions on the reservation that a city council has in an incorporated area. Tribal council members are responsible for social services, the tribal police force and the museum. The deadline to file is Jan. 18. Five tribal members have already applied to run.

Also open is a position as the tribal chief judge, with three tribal members already in the running.

The primary election will be held April 30.


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