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August 17, 2006

The Weekly Wrap

If Rio Dell and Scotia say 'I do'

The Weekly Wrap


CHRONICLING THE PAPER WAR: Maybe you saw that article in the S.F. Chronicle's Sunday magazine in which former Times-Standard reporter Joel Davis gleefully reports on our anachronistic newspaper war up here between the 150-year-old Times Standard and 2-year-old Eureka Reporter. Sure, Davis trots out the requisite, irresistible cliches, starting with the headline — "Rumble in the Redwoods: What happens when two daily newspapers duke it out in a market town known more for its weed than its writing" — and continuing in the second paragraph — "But lift the Redwood Curtain. . . ."

Still, Davis' account is filled with witty, pointed imagery of Humboldt County, particularly when he describes the newspaper war as being "like a cosmic collision where retail gods with a twisted sense of humor decided to pair an economically distressed newspaper industry with an economically distressed city [Eureka], in a Darwinian race for readers and advertisers." He calls Eureka Reporter owner Rob Arkley — also chief of Security National Holding Co. as well as the fella behind a number of town revitalization projects — "a sugar daddy in a town that needed one," notes the beauty of the area, the retiree-inspired leap in housing prices, and suggests that some consider Arkley's generosity necessary as the "now-heavily regulated lifeblood industries — timber and commercial fishing — circle the drain." He adds that "[t]ourism never really caught fire, it's too far, too cold," and that Redwood National Park, instead of being the next Yosemite, "is instead a soggy 'park, pee, stretch' stop."

In what feels like resentment-tinged commentary, Davis — who worked for the T-S from 1988 to 1995 — talks about the tightwad atmosphere at the T-S.: After noting T-S editor Singleton's "thrifty reputation," he adds that the "purchase of the Times-Standard in 1996 from the notoriously tight Thompson Corp. may be one of the few times where a Singleton buy was an upgrade." Davis seems to express reluctant admiration of Arkley, noting his arrogance (Arkley says he hasn't read the Times-Standard in five years) while calling him an "outspoken doer who revels in running through, over and around bureaucratic red tape" using "deep pockets, iron will and considerable business acumen. . . ."

Davis does a fairly straight-ahead job exploring the newspaper battle, at least from an ideological standpoint. Davis' take: The T-S, once conservative, now leans Left; the ER, feared to be conservative, so far hasn't overtly roared from the Right — except by existing, that is, and being started by the Right's right-hand man. He notes that the T-S says it isn't afraid of the ER, and that the ER says the T-S is whining about competition. He tells us that the ER so far appears to entertain opinions both Left and Right, and he notes that the T-S has "counterpunched" against Arkley's new paper by becoming a better paper and, recently, winning a couple of awards. He alludes often to financials, especially the bit about ER staff making loads more than T-S staff, but only enough to tantalize and make us want to know, specifically, who's making what profit — or not. And he quotes Kevin Hoover, editor of the Arcata Eye, posing the key hypothetical question: "If the Eureka Reporter were to drive the Times-Standard out of business, then what? Would Rob say, 'All right, it is free and clear, and I don't have to offer diverse opinions?'"

Davis' answer: "Time will tell." And then he wraps up the piece with another comment about that new TV show everyone's squawking about, filmed in "the more prosperous Vancouver, Canada," called "Eureka."

But perhaps Davis could have explored that time element a bit more. Over the next few months, what's going to happen? Our election will revolve mostly around the Balloon Track/Tract project, with candidates and voters lining up for or against Arkley's vision for it (a Home Depot-anchored deal with condos over shops). Davis does mention that debate — but misses the silly fun fact that the T-S calls it the "Balloon Tract" and the ER calls it the "Balloon Track." But he doesn't question how that controversy will play out in the newspapers. Nor does he wonder who will win, then, when it comes to truthful reporting. Will the "left-leaning" Times-Standard be able to focus objectively on its business opponent's project? Will the Eureka Reporter be credible in anything it says about its owner's project? Will they both stick safely to "objective" he said-she said reportage till it's all over?

Time will tell. And, we sort of hope not. As long as the letters-to-the-editor pages are generous, and the reporters are having fun packing their muskets (with some inquisitive reportage) for their next sally, it could be an even better "Rumble in the Redwoods." The rest of the newspaper world, in its bland mono-newspaperness, should be envious.

— Heidi Walters


RIO DELL REVAMP: Speaking of community revitalization, residents of that SoHum town with the lilting name can get all civic on Aug. 22 when the Rio Dell City Council gathers to discuss how to spend $200,000. "Free ice cream!" you cry. "A swimming pool!" you squeal. Hold on, hold on — we can't promise the ice cream will happen, but the pool — well, that could be part of the dowry once you wed with Scotia, along with a number of other town-fixin' goodies already underway. Besides, the $200,000 in question, a grant from the EPA, is specifically meant to be spent on inventorying brownfields (areas contaminated by petroleum, in this case) and developing a plan for cleaning them up. The workshop is 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 22, at the Rio Dell Fireman's Hall, 50 West Center St.

— Heidi Walters


FIRE NET: Fog chases many coast dwellers uphill in the summer, into the sunshine, and perhaps a like number of overheated mountain dwellers downhill for the reverse therapy. But the fiery inland no doubt has put a damper on a lot of the up-migration, lately, with only a few intrepid coasters (the ones struck with gold fever, perhaps) venturing inland to play on the rivers. The mountain dwellers, meanwhile, are finding more than their usual respite downhill — reveling in the coolness, yes, but also purging their lungs of wildfire smoke.

It is, in other words, horribly hot and chaotic up there in the mountains, with fire camps feeding 500 and more firefighters, engines clogging twisty, narrow one-lane roads, heavy smoke billowing in and out of river valleys at the wind's whim, and scorched trees rolling onto the highways while the ash rains down. Caltrans crews are on constant watch, said a Six Rivers National Forest employee, especially on State Route 96 near Somes Bar and along the Salmon River highway, to clear the errant rolling objects — or to stop traffic to let an actual wall of flame roll by.

Those who don't flee their homes for the chilly coast, and those who are fighting the fires, have been kind enough to put fire updates onto a website. The site is filled with practical news of fires all over the West, as well as condolences to families who've lost someone in helicopter crashes. The Aug. 15 update posted at 11:19 a.m. notes this about the Bar Complex/Bake Oven Incident in the Trinity Alps Wilderness: 15,160 acres, 35 percent contained but with estimated full containment unknown, 338 personnel, and zero structures lost. "Fire has backed down to the New River drainage and put off a significant amount of smoke ... noticeable from Hoopa down to Weaverville," reads the commentary. "Helicopters dropped water on hot spots and where needed. There were several recons flown, along with a crew pick-up, and holding the New River line with helicopter retardant drops. The southern perimeter of the fire . . . continues to look really good, with very little heat in this area. . . . The east side of the fire is well into the rocks and seems to be held up in the limestone. . . . Heavy smoke continues to hamper fire suppression efforts, specifically with helicopters supporting firefighters on the ground. Meanwhile, fire continues to back into Brushy Creek drainage and is almost around the corner to the Immigrant Trail. . . ."

For more play-by-play, check it out:

— Heidi Walters


If Rio Dell and Scotia say 'I do'

story and photo by HELEN SANDERSON

On a sunny, summer afternoon in Scotia, you can drive down Main Street and see plenty of Wrangler-wearing men in T-shirts and boots heading home from a day's work at the Palco mill. Kids clad in brightly colored bathing suits sprint through a water sprinkler's path in the front yard, screaming and laughing. With its rows of neat little houses, American flags waving from the front porch, lush yards, immaculate soccer field, and stately redwood storefronts, Scotia is idyllic in a countrified, Stepford sort of way. But drive less than one minute north into Rio Dell and the scene shifts dramatically. Groups of teens listlessly watch traffic from the curb while a 30-something man in sweatpants navigates a motorized wheelchair down the sidewalk with a child on his of Scotia

Main Street in Scotia and Main Street in Rio Dell, connected by the narrow Eagle Prairie Bridge spanning one-fifth of a mile over the Eel River, appear to be worlds apart. And now that Scotia's owner, Pacific Lumber Co., is hoping their employee-occupied houses can be sold and that the well-kept company town can be annexed into the somewhat ramshackle, yet geographically gorgeous City of Rio Dell, some residents are wondering whether the plan to unite the towns, and allow Palco employees to buy their Scotia homes, is such a good idea.

Right: Scotia, Calif.

The problem, many Rio Dell residents say, is that while Scotia looks good on the surface, its infrastructure is old and therefore could possibly become a burden to Rio Dell, a city that is just beginning to get itself back on its feet.

"I see Rio Dell lifting itself by its boot straps," said Jean Pyhtila, a Rio Dell real estate agent.

Make no mistake, many homes there are still rundown, but in recent years new, upscale ones on the outskirts of town have sprung up like dandelions in summertime. Long-neglected problems with water and sewer services are all but resolved now.

Still, the state of Rio Dell is a little sad compared to its neighbor. But at least it's, well, real. A town like Scotia — meticulously maintained and company-owned — hardly exists in the real world.

And by all accounts, residents of Scotia have it good in ways that are unheard of anywhere else.

For one, everyone who lives in Scotia is employed by the company, or their spouse is. The rent is cheap, ridiculously cheap, ranging from $400 to $700. Any home repairs are paid for by Palco, which spends up to $1 million a year maintaining the town. Scotia residents have no water bills (there aren't even water meters on the houses), the company pays for garbage disposal. Even their electricity bills are artificially low because Palco produces its own at a biomass plant in town.

Dan Dill, a fifth-generation Palco employee and lead biologist for SCOPAC — the science arm of the company that monitors wildlife and waterways on Palco's 200,000-plus acres — said he shells out less than $700 a month for a three bedroom, two bath house on Main Street. "This is like subsidized rent," he said. He figures a comparable house would cost at least three times that in Eureka.

But if Scotia is annexed into Rio Dell, all that will change. The company will discontinue renting and any home not bought up by an employee will be put on the open market.

While the sale of its 275 houses would help buoy Palco's coffers, the company maintains that their primary motivation is an altruistic one — to offer their employees the American dream of owning a home. But before that can happen, the Humboldt County's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) must OK the annexation plans.

The City of Rio Dell has hired local consulting firms Winzler and Kelly Consulting Engineers and PlanWest Partners to study the infrastructure of Scotia — water, sewer and roads — conduct a feasibility study and draft an environmental impact report. The entire town of Scotia is one parcel so property lines are being drawn. The cost for the studies are being paid for by Palco.

Rio Dell Mayor Bud Leonard said that as long as the annexation of Scotia leaves Rio Dell in a "revenue neutral" position — meaning that it does not cost the city extra to maintain Scotia after it receives sales and property taxes — his city should jump at the chance to expand its sphere of influence.

"Even at my age, and it is quite elderly (83), I have a vision that the town has to grow," he said. "Whether it be across the river, up to the Van Duzen [River] or whatever, it can't be stagnant. This is an opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime."

"It's a numbers game," said Kirk Gothier, assistant Humboldt County planning director and LAFCo member. "If the numbers work it will happen."

Others are more hesitant to take Palco's bait.

"The possible environmental clean-up needed after so many years of industry could be very substantial and more than Rio Dell can handle," warned Rio Dell resident Sharon Wolff.

"We've got liabilities higher than the sky," said former mayor and Rio Dell dentist Ralph Roberts. His worry is that Scotia, with its aging infrastructure and old houses — built between the early 1900s and 1950s — won't generate enough tax revenue. "Why should you take something in that is worn out? "

Debra Garnes, a Rio Dell City Council candidate and retired Sacramento Municipal Utilities District employee said many residents are uncomfortable with the annexation.

"The reason for the discomfort is the lack of answers," she said. "The Palco of old, that everyone loved, is not in charge anymore. People are a little afraid of the new Palco and who they are looking out for: themselves. That's business."

No figures have been outlined on how much housing in Scotia will cost. But Rio Dell Realty owner Dean Winkelhaus roughly estimated the homes, which range in size from one-bedroom duplexes to four-bedroom homes, to be worth anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000.

Dennis Wood, Vice President of Operations, said that the impetus to sell the houses came from the requests of employees who have long wanted to buy their homes. The values of the houses, Wood said, will not be know for another few months.

And if the annexation fails? "[Scotia] can form a community services district, which is actually unlikely," Gothier said. "Then if that doesn't work they would have to form a homeowners' association to deliver services. It gets harder the further away you get from a city to deliver services."

Mark Lovelace, a Palco-watcher and member of Humboldt Watershed Council and also the Healthy Humboldt Coalition, is, some might be surprised to know, a fan of Scotia .

"[Scotia] represents a lot of things we would like to see elsewhere in Humboldt County," Lovelace said, "a small, walkable community where people can live, work and get the services they need all in one area. It also shows that you can have industry and homes right next to each other and have it be an enjoyable place to live."

The idea of annexing Scotia to Rio Dell, he says, holds a lot of promise. However, "it needs to be a decision of the people of Scotia and Rio Dell. Whether it works for Palco should be secondary for them."

If LAFCo approves the annexation, the only thing stopping the merger, and the home sales, would be the citizens of Scotia. If 25 percent of registered voters protest, then the deal could be shot down. And while it seems unlikely that a faction of protesters would ever rise against the company's will, Lovelace notes that in 2003, 18 percent of Scotia residents voted against the recall attempt of District Attorney Paul Gallegos.

Beyond that, the nightmare scenario, of course, would be if home sales were finalized and then the company went under, leaving their employees without work to pay for their homes. But Dill, who is looking forward to the possibility of buying his house, believes that will not happen.

"The face of Palco may change, the kind of lumber we sell may change, but we are not closing our doors," he said. "There is an enormous amount of timber in our woods."

On Wednesday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m., the Rio Dell City Council and Planning Commission will hold a joint meeting to hear comments regarding the scope and content of the environmental impact report of Scotia.



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