ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
March 11, 2004



Latte or cuppa joe? [Sign with "Welcome to Rio Dell" on entrance road into town]
Rio Dell struggles with its future

Rio Dell's new "Gateway Project" welcome sign.
Photo by Bob Doran



[curved sidewalk with grass margins in Rio Dell]

TURN OFF HIGHWAY 101 ONTO RIO DELL'S Wildwood Avenue -- the town's main drag -- and you quickly come upon the city's new "Gateway Project." A welcome sign stands in the middle of a green median. Wide, curvy sidewalks interspersed with bits of lawn line a section of the avenue where not many people seem to be walking. It looks clean and inviting, but, as a visitor soon sees, the rest of the town doesn't live up to its entrance.

For Mayor Jay Parrish [photo at left] , who was born and raised in Rio Dell and runs Pacific Lumber's crane repair shop, the Gateway Project is a good first step. He knows that this town of 3,170 people, across the Eel River from Scotia, is in desperate need of a sprucing up, if not a complete makeover.

[Jay Parrish standing in front of river-rocked median with blooming tree and shrubs in background]"This is a great town, but visually, in the last 20 years, it has declined," he said. "Economically, we've seen a decline in our business activity. We're trying to turn it up. And we thought that the first thing that needed to be repaired is our appearance. We'd like it to say `Welcome. Please stay longer.'"

It's clear that much work needs to be done. All around town, the stately Victorian and Craftsman homes of old Rio Dell, the town that thrived along with the region's timber industry, alternate with cheap, tossed-together structures that look as if they started falling apart almost as soon as they were erected.

The retail sector is no better. Ever since Caltrans built a bypass around the town in the mid-`70s, Rio Dell's business district has been suffering. Today, boarded-up windows and deteriorating commercial buildings compete for space with the few thriving concerns left in the city -- Barsanti's Dollar Store, Mingo's Sports Bar, DJ's Burger Bar, Parnell's Market. With Fortuna's relatively healthy downtown and Eureka's thriving specialty shops not terribly far away, there simply isn't much demand.

That was on the City Council's mind last year when it undertook a revision of Rio Dell's general plan -- the document that is meant to define the city's long-term strategy for development. It had been 24 years since the city's last general plan revision, a good deal longer than average when compared to the standards of other local governments in California. In its development of the general plan, the City Council was assisted by Eli Naffah [photo below right] , the new city manager, and by former Arcata Mayor Jim Test, who at the time was working for Arcata consulting firm PlanWest, which advises municipalities on long-term planning.

General plans are ambitious by definition, but the one Rio Dell passed in January is almost starry-eyed, given the city's problems. It envisions art galleries, museums, bookstores and outdoor cafes in the downtown.

The vision is "to create this town center as a live, work and play area," Naffah explained.

[Eli Naffah at his desk]The emphasis on revitalizing the downtown goes hand in hand, in the city's plan, with discouraging development of the large open space on the west side of town. Dinsmore Plateau is the city's hidden gem: a 100-acre ridge-top flat sitting several hundred feet above the town, accessible only by a rutted dirt road. Currently a cattle ranch, the plateau is a developer's dream -- acres and acres of open, buildable land that could single-handedly absorb a healthy portion of the county's demand for high-end homes.

Such a development could not go forward immediately, as Rio Dell has chronic problems with its water supply and sewage treatment facilities. Of more immediate concern to the developers eyeing the property, Marc and Troy Broussard [photo below left] , is that the new general plan rezoned the land in a way that makes residential development there difficult, if not impossible.

The council's action led the brothers, who do not own the ranch, to join a fledgling effort to recall Parrish and council members Bud Leonard and Mike Dunker, two other members of the City Council who voted for the plan. The effort was begun by Ralph Roberts, a dentist and former City Council member, who felt the city did not seek enough public input before proceeding with the Gateway Project.

The Broussard brothers admit that they stand to gain a great deal of money if their plan to put as many as 200 homes on the plateau, ranging in price from $250,000 to $300,000, goes forward. But they insist that they have the town's best interests at heart. "We believe that the only way to grow the city is through development," said Troy Broussard. "Something like this could turn the city around in seven to 10 years."

[Broussard brothers in front of house building in progress]If the recall ever comes to a vote -- signature collection hasn't even begun -- the questions voters will have to grapple with are ones being asked in planning and government circles around the country. What should be the goal of development -- sprawling suburbs, with nice, single-family homes and automobiles as the central form of transportation? Or vibrant city centers, with more modest homes and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods? In Rio Dell, which of these is possible? Or desirable?


Downtown core is key

City Manager Eli Naffah, who has a long history working on city redevelopment projects throughout the state, is a soft-spoken, genteel man. When the recall was announced a few weeks ago, he found himself spending fair amounts of time defending the city from its critics.

In July 2002, Rio Dell hired Naffah from the East Bay city of Antioch, where he worked in its economic development department. Naffah had previously done similar work for the city of Huntington Beach. And he said that his experience in the field of economic development tells him that the Broussards' claim about the importance of their development to Rio Dell's future is overblown.

"I know exactly what it takes to turn towns around," he said. "Two hundred homes will not turn any town around. Naturally, it will help, but 200 homes in any city are not going to make a big difference. It will help the downtown, but it won't attract business to the downtown and it won't make business survive in the downtown. It's not our savior."

What Naffah does think can save the city -- or at least put it on the path to salvation -- is the newly minted general plan, which calls for increased density in Rio Dell's downtown, with a mix of single-family homes, townhouses and apartments above shops. The idea is to create an attractive, walkable town center that will bring tourists and new residents to the city.

"This 'town center' concept is an [enticement] to developers to try to do new kinds of projects," said Naffah. "And when you get a new product, and have code enforcement to keep it up to code, over time the town will evolve."

The name given to plans of this sort is "New Urbanism," and it's a school of city planning that has taken off in the last couple of decades. New Urbanism is a reaction to the suburban, automobile-centered development that exploded in the 1950s and remains the prevailing model. Architects and planners who adhere to New Urbanism call classic suburban developments "placeless" -- they lack the cohesion of a traditional town, and they contribute to social dissolution and detract from citizens' pride in their hometown.

The "Charter of the New Urbanism" -- the movement's manifesto -- could hardly be more clear in its rejection of suburbia. "Neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population," reads the Web site of newurbanism.org, based in Alexandria, Va. "Communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology and building practice."

In that spirit, Naffah said the City Council is looking at design guidelines for commercial buildings that will specify in greater detail what kind of projects it would like to see developers build, not only in the town center but around the city.

A pleasing downtown would by itself bring business investment, according to Naffah, but it's not the only component of his vision for the city. He would also like to attract some medium-range chain restaurants -- like Olive Garden or Red Lobster. There's available land near the highway that could be suitable, he said.

The key, he said, is to exploit the tourist trade passing by on Highway 101 so that Rio Dell becomes a destination. When asked, Naffah listed Ferndale and Garberville as towns with commercial districts he believes Rio Dell could one day achieve.

[Jim Test at his desk]Jim Test [photo at right] , executive director of the Arcata Economic Development Corp., said the goals outlined in the general plan are not unrealistic, just ahead of the curve.

"You're looking at a general plan that has a lot of ideas in it that are just reaching Humboldt County," he said.

Test said the New Urbanist goal of locating housing for all income levels in the city center is an important aspect of the Rio Dell plan. Given that the plan includes high-end housing, he said that critics like the Broussards have made too much of the claim that the downtown will be dominated by low-income homes.

"The idea is that you have a range of opportunities for people to live in the city," he said. "The thing that's missing is a lot of reasonably priced homes that look nice. In this plan, there are opportunities for people to choose how they want to live."

Naffah, Test and the general plan's other proponents understand that it will take time for their vision to become reality. But they maintained that this is an argument in their favor, given the city's antiquated infrastructure. The city's water is drawn directly from the turbulent Eel. Liquid sewage percolates through gravel beds into the river during the summer -- a less than high-tech system -- and is injected back into the river during the winter months. Sludge has to be loaded into trucks, hauled away and buried.

The inadequacy of these methods was underlined in 2003, when the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the city to stop all new construction until the problems could be addressed. The city later begged the board for leniency, and the board eventually agreed to allow a total of 40 new water and sewage hook-ups through 2007. At that time, if the city has made substantial improvements to its water and sewer systems, the building caps can be lifted. If they're not, the development that the Broussards envision for the plateau would be blocked.


The wrong direction

As co-owner of J&M Broussard Construction, Marc Broussard has had a successful career as a Humboldt County developer, having built 40 high-end homes in Shelter Cove and seven in Fortuna.

[Broussard brothers standing in field near road in Rio Dell]The Broussards, who hail from Humboldt, first became interested in Rio Dell a few years ago. "We thought, Rio Dell -- it's got to come up, because there's no place for it to go but up," Marc Broussard said. Once they started buying property in the town, they went into it wholeheartedly: Broussard's brother Troy believes that they now own more lots in the city than anyone else.

But Troy Broussard, who used to work in information technology for large companies in Chicago, expressed dismay at a town government that considers developers the enemy. The recent general plan, he charged, is the embodiment of that bias.

"They're not purposely trying to screw things up," he said. "They're just going to turn things into a dump, with the direction they're going."

The direction the city should be going, the Broussards believe, is west -- up to the top of Dinsmore Plateau. They said they have a gentleman's agreement with the land's current owner, Duane Primafiore, to subdivide the property and split the profits with him, which they claim would run into the millions.

Up on top of the plateau two weeks ago, Marc Broussard outlined the kind of development he'd like to see on the property -- a "golf course-style" subdivision, with pricey homes on half-acre lots. Broussard estimated that he'd have to put at least $6.5 million in infrastructure into the development to make it happen, but that there would still be an extremely tidy profit.

Still, given the water board's building cap -- a result of what he considers the city's chronic mismanagement of its water and sewer systems -- Marc Broussard acknowledged that development wouldn't move forward anytime soon.

"We've been kind of hit with the reality that it's going to take five years to make this happen," he said.

Even that timeline is assuming that the Broussards can get the city's new general plan repealed, either through the recall or by some other method. When the new plan was passed, it changed the zoning of Dinsmore Plateau from one-acre minimum parcels to five-acre minimums -- which effectively made the kind of project the Broussards have in mind infeasible.

It also sent the city in the wrong direction because development on the plateau, in their view, is potentially the greatest financial engine available to the city. The surest way to revive the downtown is to bring in 150 families willing to spend $300,000 on a home. Such families would have a great deal of disposable income as well. Presumably, a good portion of that would be spent in the town. The Broussards estimate that their planned development would add $65 million to the city's property values.

But just as bad as shutting off the plateau, they say, is the plan to put more inexpensive homes in the downtown area. The Broussards said that more low-income housing -- however well-designed it may be -- is precisely what Rio Dell does not need, and when the rest of the citizenry understands that, they too will get behind the recall.

"This city has been so stagnant that no one goes to meetings," Marc Broussard commented. "They don't realize that what's next to them is zoned for townhouses. They wouldn't like it if they did. It's all going to turn into low-income, Section 8 housing within 10 years."

The brothers plan to throw all their efforts into qualifying the recall for the ballot -- everything from direct-mail campaigns to going door-to-door to gather signatures. Troy Broussard is considering running for council himself, either through the recall or during the next regular City Council election in November.

He wants elected officials who will "let the developers take this city to the next level." But that doesn't mean he's aiming to stack the council with cronies who will do his bidding. Rather, he said Rio Dell needs more "open-minded" people on the council if the city is to pull itself out of its hole. Both brothers are confident of the recall's success -- and its effect on the city's direction.

"Over time, this will change from being a slummy little town, which is what this is," Marc Broussard said.

[Map of Rio Dell, depicting the large Dinsmore Plateau, Highway 101, the Eel River and Rio Dell's town center]


It's about greed

Mayor Parrish doesn't for a moment believe that the Broussards have the city's best interests at heart in seeking to recall him and the two council members.

"Greed. That's what it's all about on their part," he said, echoing some of the language used by supporters of District Attorney Paul Gallegos during the failed attempt to recall him. "This town can't be bought, this council can't be bought, and we're going to look out for the good of the town as a whole."

Parrish said some sort of subdivision would eventually go up on Dinsmore plateau. But such a project would require a massive extension of city roads, water pipes and sewer lines. Even if the Broussards paid to put these things in, the city would be responsible for maintenance. The property taxes generated by such a development would hardly begin to cover expenses -- thanks to Prop. 13, the $65 million in increased property values estimated by the Broussards would amount to about $650,000 in property taxes annually, and of that the city would receive only a small portion.

"Right now I don't think it's right to burden our citizens with increased costs. We know that someday we will get up there -- it's just when, where, how and how can everyone benefit instead of some people suffering."

The idea that the council is anti-development is simply not true, Parrish went on. Rather, the city is trying to grow intelligently. He said the majority of developers whom the city works with understand that.

"Most of the developers we work with let the city come up with the rules, and they work with the rules, and it's a very congenial atmosphere," he said.

Parrish is standing strong with the council's decision to make rebuilding Rio Dell's depressed downtown his top priority. And he doesn't shy away from defending the idea that his city could someday be another Ferndale or Garberville -- within reason.

"Are you saying you want it to be economically viable?" he asked. "A city you want people to take pride in? To these things, I would say yes. We're just trying to make our town better."


[View of Rio Dell from hills above the town]
View of Rio Dell from the west.




North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.