Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sweeping Zoning Changes Before Planning Commission Raise Concerns About Mercer-Fraser Reviving its Mad River Cannabis Facility

Posted By on Wed, Oct 31, 2018 at 1:22 PM

click to enlarge Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District General Manager John Friedenbach and staff address the County Planning Commission in January with concerns about Mercer-Fraser Co.'s proposal. - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District General Manager John Friedenbach and staff address the County Planning Commission in January with concerns about Mercer-Fraser Co.'s proposal.
The Humboldt County Planning Commission is set to consider sweeping zoning changes at its meeting tomorrow for hundreds of thousands of acres of properties throughout the county.

The zoning text amendments and reclassifications are being proposed to implement the county’s general plan update, which the board passed last year. But they are coming before the planning commission tomorrow night along with 30 owner-requested zoning changes, including a couple from Mercer-Fraser Co. that some worry will re-open the door to a controversial proposal to build a cannabis manufacturing facility along the Mad River near where the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District pulls the area’s drinking water.

As a whole, the agenda item seems poised — if approved — to make sweeping changes to land use designations throughout the county, a possibility that caused a flurry of meetings. The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water Board is holding an emergency meeting this afternoon, the Willow Creek Community Services District discussed it at a recent meeting and the Willow Creek Chamber of Commerce held an emergency meeting Monday.

Willow Creek Community Services District General Manager Susan O’Gorman said she put the issue on her board’s agenda because she thought many in the community were uninformed about the proposed changes and their potentially sweeping impacts.

“There are a lot of proposed zoning changes in Humboldt County, including Willow Creek, and the one thing I could say specifically is it doesn’t appear to me that there has been adequate outreach and information to community members in regards to the changes being proposed,” she said.

Another Willow Creek resident noted that property owners in the downtown area have not been notified of a proposal to change the zoning from Commercial 2 to Mixed Use. Patrick O'Brien, a member of the Willow Creek Plan Area Advisory Committee, said his group is gathering signatures on a petition asking the county to pause the process until it can conduct further outreach and education efforts on  the proposed changes.

"Knowledge helps dissipate paranoia, or it can turn you into an activist," O'Brien said.

Scott Frazer, who lives in the Blue Lake and Glendale area, said that while much of the concern in his area surrounds Mercer-Fraser Co. and whether this will revive the company’s controversial proposal to build a cannabis manufacturing facility near its existing gravel operation adjacent to the Mad River, he’s also concerned about broader impacts.

Most specifically, Frazer said the agenda item coming before the commission tomorrow would reclassify more than 500,000 acres of “unclassified” land in the county, a move he worries could open the land up to more residential development and a host of impacts. He noted that there were more than 70 meetings in the General Plan Update process spread over the better part of 18 years, and said he thinks there’s been a lot of fatigue among the public on the issue. But now that some of the changes are coming forward in near final form, Frazer said he’d like to see the county pause the process to hold some informational meetings to make sure residents are aware of what’s being proposed and what the impacts might be.

Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt said she’s still reviewing the agenda packet for tomorrow’s meeting but indicated the owner-requested zoning changes are of primary concern to her, noting that they include about a dozen requests to rezone gravel queries throughout the county in a way that would accommodate cannabis manufacturing as well.

And Kalt said it’s important to remember that this is essentially the last chance for public input and review for these projects, noting that once zoning changes are adopted some uses become principally permitted, meaning they are not subject to conditional use or environmental review processes. As an example, she pointed to the rezoning of a property on McKinleyville’s Murray Road that is now the future home of a Dollar General store, which despite some widespread neighborhood concerns is now principally permitted.

The primary concern of many looking at tomorrow night’s agenda is the Mercer-Fraser Co. property in Glendale.

The company, which has operated a gravel pit and aggregate processing facility at the site for a century, applied to rezone the property from Agriculture General to Heavy Industrial with a Qualified combining zone overlay. This would have brought the property into line with its General Plan designation and allowed Mercer-Fraser to apply for a permit to build the cannabis manufacturing facility, which proposed using butane, propane, CO2, ethanol and Isopropanol to make cannabis concentrates.

But the project, which was proposed to be located just upstream from where the water district pulls the majority of the county’s drinking water, was met with a public outcry. The planning commission approved Mercer-Fraser’s application on a 3-2 vote, but the water district appealed that decision to the board of supervisors early this year and the application became an election issue in the Humboldt County Fifth District supervisorial race, with incumbent Ryan Sundberg trying to negotiate a compromise between the company and the water district.

In April, Mercer-Fraser announced it was withdrawing its application for a zoning change and special permit. When some questioned whether this was just a campaign ploy and the application would be re-submitted after the election, Sundberg insisted the project would not come back before the board, going so far as to say he would resign if it did.

Sundberg, Mercer-Fraser Co. CEO Justin Zabel, Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford, county planner John Miller and Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District General Manager John Friedenbach were not immediately available to comment for this story or did not return Journal calls this morning. It’s currently unclear if Mercer-Fraser Co. is again pursuing plans to build the cannabis extraction facility or just the zoning change.

We’ll update this post as we get more information. You can find the agenda packet for tomorrow’s planning commission meeting (set for 5:30 p.m. in Supervisors Chambers at the Humboldt County Courthouse) here and the agenda packet for the water district’s emergency meeting this afternoon here.
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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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