Thursday, September 1, 2022

UPDATE: Planning Director Disputes Developer's Account as More Permit Problems Arise for Schneider

Posted By on Thu, Sep 1, 2022 at 5:26 PM

click to enlarge Travis Schneider's family home has sat partially built under a stop work order since early this year. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • Travis Schneider's family home has sat partially built under a stop work order since early this year.

Planning Director John Ford followed up with the Journal this afternoon after publication of this article to say he’d checked his records and wanted to clarify the timeline surrounding his Jan. 19 conversation with developer Travis Schneider.

Ford was adamant that he did not undermine what county planner Cliff Johnson had relayed to Schneider in a letter earlier that day: That if Schneider continued to defy a Dec. 27 county stop work order issued on construction of Schneider’s home due to numerous permit violations and the cutting of an unpermitted road, he’d face fines and possibly even permit revocations. While Schneider has asserted he and Ford “mutually” agreed that day the county would allow work to continue on the property while the permit issues were resolved, the planning director said that was simply not the case.

“I do not remember agreeing to allow him to continue working” as Schneider claimed in a letter presented to the Humboldt County Planning Commission on Aug. 18, Ford said. “I recall that he was adamant about not stopping.”

Ford offered a chain of emails he says buttress his recollection.

The chain begins at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 19, when Johnson emails Schneider, CCing Ford and two other county employees, to inform the developer he’d sent out an attached letter by mail outlining steps necessary to begin resolving the violations that led to the stop work order and asking for permission for Wiyot area tribal representatives to visit the property the following Monday to assess damage.

“It is critical that we resolve this as quickly as possible,” Johnson concludes.

Schneider responds at 4:06 p.m., adding local attorney Dustin Owens and First District Supervisor Rex Bohn to the email chain, saying he’s “en route to leaving the country” but would be available the rest of the day but then “unavailable.” He then expresses frustration that the county was just now responding to his Jan. 3 email, in which he reportedly declined to halt construction activities while seeking “clarity” on the stop work order.

“Clearly it wasn’t that critical to resolve or you would have responded to my email from Jan. 3, 2022,” he wrote.

Owens replies 13 minutes later, thanking Schneider for the quick reply and saying he’ll be in the office until 5, and could also meet the next day or Friday if Schneider is “still in country then.”

The developer responds at 4:22 p.m. referring Johnson back to his previous email, saying he’s at the airport, “hence ‘en route,’” and saying he’s “not going out of the country for just the night and returning on Friday,” before signing off: “TS.”

Johnson replies at 4:31 p.m. asking when Schneider can make himself available to discuss the matter and asking again about access to the property the following Monday for tribal representatives and county staff. At 4:44 p.m., Schneider responds, offering his phone number and “strongly” encouraging Johnson to facilitate a conversation between he and Ford.

“Let’s just suffice to say the trust level with the county is quite low, actually, it doesn’t exist for me,” Schneider wrote. “You’re not authorized on our lands under any circumstances until I’m present with my counsel. There was ample time to contact me before today. A fire drill as I leave the country is not acceptable. … I strongly encourage you to ask John to call me one on one.”

Ford responds four minutes later asking Schneider how much time he has, asking if he needs to “break out of a meeting” to call him. Schneider responds tersely: “I have 45 minutes.”

This, Ford says, is when the phone call took place. He says he did not agree to allow Schneider to continue working on the property though the developer insisted he would, arguing, as Ford recalled, that the violations related to a “grading issue” and should not affect his building permit and construction of the house.

Ford sent the Journal another email, sent from Schneider to Ford at 5:50 p.m., that appears to follow up on their conversation. In it, Schneider appears to further argue his case that the stop work notice appears “more related to the grading permit … not the actually building erection (sic)” and asking if Ford is available to meet Feb. 2 or Feb. 3.

“Based on this,” Ford told the Journal, referencing Schneider’s last email, “it should be clear that I did not authorize work to continue.”

See our initial report below.

As the Humboldt County Planning Commission prepares tonight to once again consider whether to approve a permit and permit modifications needed to resume construction of Travis Schneider's family home, things seem to have gotten markedly worse for the prominent local developer.

The subject of permits for construction of Schneider's 8,000 square-foot family home in Bayside was the focus of a contentious Aug. 18 Planning Commission meeting at which Chair Alan Bongio and a representative of Schneider’s accused two local tribes of reneging on an agreement and dishonesty. Tribal officials, meanwhile, walked away deeply offended after Bongio accused them of trying to extort more concessions out of the developer, playing a “game” with cultural artifacts and making far-reaching comments about “Indians,” apparently in reference to two of three local Wiyot area tribes — the Wiyot Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria — that opposed approval of Schneider’s permits that night.

The whole issue swirls around a stop work order the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department issued back in December after it was discovered Schneider violated the terms of a coastal development permit for the project off Walker Point Road near Fay Slough. Specifically, Schneider had begun construction on the home with a slightly different footprint than what had been approved, cleared brush and native blackberry in areas deemed ecologically and culturally sensitive, including one identified more than a century ago as a historical Wiyot village site, and cut an unpermitted temporary construction road on the property. Then he continued construction for weeks after the county’s stop work order was issued.

With the Planning Commission planning to again take up the matter after giving county staff and Schneider two additional weeks to see if it could reach an agreement on necessary permit conditions with the two tribes and the California Coastal Commission, the Journal has now learned Schneider may have misled the commission about the circumstances under which he continued construction after the stop work order and that the Division of Environmental Health has weighed in to say he began construction without a necessary permit.

The county issued the stop work order on Schneider’s property Dec. 27, 2021, and three days later documented that construction activities had continued. On Jan. 3, the county again advised Schneider of the stop work order, reportedly sending him six certified copies. Nonetheless, construction activities continued by Schneider’s own account.

Schneider did not attend the commission’s Aug. 18 meeting as he was away on a family vacation but local Realtor Tina Christensen read the commission a letter on his behalf. In the letter, Schneider said he was out of town when the first notice was posted to the property Dec. 27 but immediately called and emailed the Planning Department and then decided to continue construction while he “sought clarity from the county.”

On Jan. 19, county planner Cliff Johnson sent Schneider another letter, noting that the developer had advised in his Jan. 3 correspondence that he “would not stop working on the residence” and warning that continued defiance of the order would result in a code enforcement actions, as well as potential fines and the possible revocation of his permits.

In his letter, Schneider said he then immediately followed up and later that day spoke with Planning Director John Ford, Johnson’s boss, and it was “mutually agreed upon that we continue to work and meet in early February” to discuss the stop work order and permit violations. But that’s not Ford’s recollection of the conversation, the planning director told the Journal by email this afternoon.
“My recollection of the meeting is that I was told by Mr. Schneider that he was not going to stop work,” Ford said in an email. “I recall my response was something to the effect that if he did not stop this situation will continue to get worse. As I recall, he was heading out of town and was going to be back in a week. We discussed re-engaging at that time. As a result of the follow-up meetings, he stopped work.”

Responding to a follow-up inquiry from the Journal, Ford clarified that he met with Schneider the "first week of February" and the developer stopped work on the project Feb. 16, some 50 days after the county's issuance of the stop work order.

Potentially more problematic for Schneider’s plans, however, is the status of his onsite wastewater treatment system (OWTS) permit for the project or, more specifically, that he does not have one, according to an email that Solid Waste LEA and Land Use Programs Supervisor Patrick Owen sent Johnson yesterday after learning the permit issues with Schneider’s property.

According to Owen, the Division of Environmental Health has never issued a permit for a septic system on the property and has been waiting since 2019 for revisions to Schneider’s design proposal and his OWTS permit application. Per county code and state law, OWTS permits must be applied for in order to obtain a building permit.
“Humboldt County Code requires an approved sewage treatment system for construction of any occupied building in the county,” writes Owen.

To make matters worse, Owen points out that his division also has concerns, based on the site plan, that Schneider’s unpermitted road may have impacted the designated septic dispersal field areas.

“Grading and excavation activities can compact the proximal soil structure, causing significant reductions in soil porosity, permeability and ultimately the soil’s ability to treat domestic wastewater,” he writes. “As a result, DEH recommends confirmation that the previously approved primary and reserve dispersal field locations remain undisturbed and suitable for OWTS development.”

Owen recommends the Planning Department include two additional conditions of approval to the permit: That Schneider “demonstrate” that the dispersal field areas remain suitable and that he obtain an OWTS permit approval prior to the stop work order being lifted.

It’s unclear how Schneider’s lack of an OWTS permit escaped the notice of the Planning Department, which is supposed to issue referrals to other affected departments and agencies as a part of the building permit process and cannot issue said permit until all referral agency's approvals have been received.

As reported earlier today, staff has recommended the Planning Commission approve Schneider’s permits and permit modifications with various conditions aimed at addressing concerns raised by the California Coastal Commission, the Wiyot Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria. That recommendation was made, however, before the department was contacted by the Division of Environmental Health and made aware of its concerns.

The Planning Commission meets at 6 p.m. today at the Humboldt County Courthouse. Find the agenda, as well as a link to a live stream of the meeting, here.

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to include additional information.
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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