March 11, 2004
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Rio Dell struggles with its future
Rio Dell's new "Gateway
Project" welcome sign.
Photo by Bob Doran
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
"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
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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