Friday, September 2, 2022

Planning Commission Sends Schneider Permit Back to Staff

Posted By on Fri, Sep 2, 2022 at 5:38 PM

click to enlarge The Schneider family home sits in a stalled state of construction at the end of Walker Point Road. - THADEUS GREENSON
  • Thadeus Greenson
  • The Schneider family home sits in a stalled state of construction at the end of Walker Point Road.
The Humboldt County Planning Commission voted unanimously last night to send the issue of local developer Travis Schneider’s permits back to staff in an effort to find a path forward that will be agreeable to local tribes and the California Coastal Commission.

While Schneider and Commission Chair Alan Bongio expressed deep frustration at a meeting two weeks earlier at the prospect of further delay in moving the project forward, Schneider actually requested this delay and pushed back on Bongio’s attempts to expedite the process. The apparent change of heart — or at least approach — is likely the result of Planning Director John Ford’s report during the meeting that the California Coastal Commission, which could hear an appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision and even initiate the appeal itself, was not on board with staff’s recommendation that the commission approve Schneider’s permit and permit modifications with a list of mitigation measures that would clear the way for construction to resume on his 8,000-square-foot family home on Walker Point Road in Bayside. Ford said he’d talked to Coastal Commission staff in the local office, the San Francisco office and “on up the food chain.”

“The very definitive takeaway is that what’s being proposed doesn’t go nearly far enough,” Ford said. “They believe there needs to be restitution and fines imposed, and the conditions need to be more clearly articulated. … They are very clear about the enforcement action also needing to be a part of the permit modification.”

The planning director also made clear that if the matter wound up before Coastal Commission, the entire building plan would be up for review. After indicating he was inclined to push forward and let the cards fall where they may, Bongio asked Schneider, who was in attendance, what he wanted to do. Schneider responded he was reluctant to “rush,” wanted this decided at the local level and would like a chance to work with the Coastal Commission to address its concerns.

Construction of Schneider’s family home halted in February, 50 days after the county issued a stop work order after discovering various permit violations, including that the home under construction was on a different footprint than indicated on approved building plans, violating setback requirements, and that he’d cleared protected environmentally sensitive habitat and potentially disturbed a culturally significant archeological site identified a century ago as a former Wiyot village. He’d also cut a temporary construction access road on the property without a permit, and it came to light this week he also failed to get a septic system permit, which should have been in place before construction began.

click to enlarge A county staff report shows how the footprint of local developer Travis Schneider's new family home, as well as a temporary road carved into the property, violate wetland setback provisions of his permit. - HUMBOLDT COUNTY PLANNING AND BUILDING
  • Humboldt County Planning and Building
  • A county staff report shows how the footprint of local developer Travis Schneider's new family home, as well as a temporary road carved into the property, violate wetland setback provisions of his permit.
Schneider then spent months working with the county and representatives from three Wiyot area tribes — the Wiyot Tribe, the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria and the Blue Lake Rancheria — to develop the restoration and mitigation plans necessary for him to apply for permit modifications that would lift the stop work order and allow construction to resume. Schneider and county staff were optimistic they’d reached an accord after an Aug. 2 meeting, but the Wiyot Tribe, the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Coastal Commission felt many details still needed to be finalized and submitted comment letters opposing approval of the permits before the commission’s Aug. 18 meeting.

Tensions quickly boiled over at that meeting, with Schneider stating in a letter that Ford agreed he could continue construction activities for weeks after the stop work order was issued (a notion the planning director strongly denies) before intoning there was something nefarious about the “coordinated” comment letters and saying certain involved parties want to see “our house demolished.” His representative then accused the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria of having lied about the Aug. 2 meeting, after which Bongio launched into one of several rants at the meeting in which he made far-reaching comments about “Indians,” accusing them of trying to extort more concessions out of Schneider, playing a “game” with cultural resources and reneging on an agreement.

Tribal officials walked away deeply offended, with Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez saying he’d lost faith in the Planning Commission.


Bongio — whose comments had drawn criticism from not only tribal leaders but also First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who appointed him to the commission, and even Schneider himself — began the agenda item with a brief apology.

“I’m gonna take a few seconds at the beginning of this,” he began. “We’ve all seen — some of you were here, some of you read about it in the paper — I want to apologize to the tribes if I in any way offended them.”
click to enlarge screen_shot_2022-09-02_at_4.36.27_pm.png
The chair said he reached out to representatives of the three involved tribes and had a “very good discussion” with the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (and fellow Planning Commissioner) Melanie McCavour.

“I reached out to the other two —Blue Lake and the Wiyot Tribe — four times and never received a call back. So, I just wanted to put that out on the record,” he said before also apologizing that he failed to acknowledge some people in the virtual audience who attempted to speak Aug. 18, saying he “never saw any of those hands come up.”

Later in the meeting, other commissioners addressed Bongio’s conduct, as well.

Fifth District Supervisor Peggy O’Neill, who said she worked for the Wiyot Tribe about 30 years ago, noted that “of all the tribes in northern California … there is no tribe that’s been treated worse than the Wiyot people.” She noted that when the Wiyot people were moved to reservations, the entirety of their ancestral land was taken and turned into what’s now Humboldt County. As such, O’Neill said she was deeply offended when Bongio warned Aug. 18 that postponing a decision on Schneider’s property due to concerns registered by Wiyot area tribes would set a precedent in which developers would have to “go before the Indians” before building anything. Further, she said these are separate tribes, with distinct languages, cultures and histories, so calling them “Indians” is offensive, too.

She concluded her remarks offering her apologies for what she dubbed “a very dark day in our history.”

Third District Commissioner Noah Levy said he sent letters to both the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria apologizing on two fronts. First, he said he personally apologized for having voiced frustration that the tribes did not have representatives at the Aug. 2 meeting, which proved not to be true, as several people from the Wiyot Tribe attended virtually. Regardless, though, he said the tribes would have been “entirely appropriate and within the rights of the tribes, or any stakeholder, to submit comments in writing only.”

“So  I apologize for making an issue of their absence,” he said, before turning to the second aspect of his apology. “I also wrote, though, to personally apologize for what I felt were the appallingly disrespectful comments of Chair Bongio toward the Wiyot Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria at numerous times during that meeting.

“I was personally offended by the way he spoke about them and to them and by a tone of bad faith, I thought, toward them,” Levy continued. “I was upset not just by the language … or his treatment of them in particular, but by the overall biased handling of the matter that I felt infected that item from the start. … It betrayed, I felt, our role that we need to strive for to be a neutral and fair and unbiased body when these stakeholders come before us.”

Levy closed by saying to repair the damage, done, he would like to see the commission consider at its next meeting drafting a “formal apology on behalf of the whole commission.”

Bongio said he’d “be willing to be part of that.”

Public Comment

Nearly 10 people addressed the commission during public comment, including Schneider, who struck an upbeat, optimistic and friendly tone early in the meeting. He thanked the commission for its time and county staff for being “diligent and responsive.”

He said he was “hopeful and optimistic” about the progress made.

“Several planning commissioners have indicated to me that they have personally and proactively reached out to the stakeholders and not received any negative comment, which has also been my experience,” he said.
click to enlarge Travis Schneider
  • Travis Schneider
(It’s worth noting here that both the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria seem to have withdrawn to some extent from the process after the Aug. 18 meeting. They did not respond to planning staff’s requests for a meeting or submit comments on last night’s agenda item, and none of the commissioners disclosed having spoken to their representatives. As such, county staff incorporated suggestions from their prior letters into proposed mitigation measures.)

“I’m glad we found common ground with staff’s conditions of approval,” Schneider continued. “I’m looking forward to moving forward … I’m proud of the fact that when I put my kids to bed this evening we will have shown them how, by working together patiently, we can navigate an adverse situation and come to a thoughtful resolution.”
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.
A couple of commenters criticized Bongio’s comments, with Ellen Taylor saying it would be a “disgrace” for the county to approve Schneider’s permits after the chair’s behavior. But more came to speak in support of Schneider’s character, with Arcata High School teacher Troy Ghisetti saying he’s known him for 25 years and reporting he was a school leader, ASB president and a great student. Chris Lehman said he’d known Schneider for 30 years.

“We grew up together, did 4H together, buried a friend together,” he said. “The man is always looking to bring people together, always trying to do the right thing for the community.”

The last commenter — Jennifer Savage (full disclosure, Savage is a freelance contributor to the Journal) — said she appreciated everyone’s public participation and interest in environmental issues, but said some commenters’ focus seemed off topic.

“I just want to clarify, this is not a reference on what sort of community member Travis Schneider is, nor is it an issue with pros and cons on both sides necessitating a philosophical compromise,” she said. “This is a situation in which Travis Schneider broke the conditions of his legally binding permit and he’s been delayed because he didn’t follow the rules he agreed to at the beginning, and then ignored the county’s attempts to enforce the law.”

The Coastal Commission Looms

When the Planning Commission dove into the decision at hand — whether to improve Schneider’s permit and permit modifications — there seemed to be a consensus building. Staff, commissioners said, seemed to have done well modifying the conditions to incorporate concerns registered by the Wiyot Tribe, the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Coastal Commission in prior letters.

The conditions now made clear that tribal representatives would have to be consulted on detailed mitigation and restoration plans before approval, and nearly all conditions specified they would have to be fulfilled prior to the county’s lifting its stop work order. A measure requiring a stretch of environmentally sensitive habitat on the property be put under an easement was clarified to specify that Dishgamu Humboldt — the Wiyot tribal land trust — would hold the easement.

Then Ford reported the Coastal Commissions concerns, which quickly took center stage.
click to enlarge screen_shot_2022-09-02_at_4.34.42_pm.png
“I want to be clear on process here,” Ford said, explaining that the project is in the county’s jurisdiction but can be appealed to the Coastal Commission, either by a member of the public or if two coastal commissioners decide to take it up. If that happens, the Coastal Commission would have far reaching discretion and could revoke Schneider’s permits entirely, or modify them. “That’s the tension that exists.”

Commissioner Brian Mitchell then asked what concerns the commission has that are not addressed by the mitigation measures currently proposed.

In addition to the restitution issue mentioned earlier, Ford said, “They’re concerned with the size and mass of the house within a scenic location and whether or not that fits within the setting of the property.” The local coastal plan requires houses “fit within the setting,” Ford continued.

“Who gets to make that decision?” Bongio asked. “That’s pretty subjective.”

It should have been considered when building plans were approved in 2017, Ford said. But he then quickly added that he believes one of the things that “raises or heightens” the Coastal Commission’s concern is that the house’s footprint was moved from initial plans, constructed “out closer to the edge of the slop, so it’s more prominent, more visible, closer to [sensitive] resources.”

Bongio said Walker Point Road has numerous houses “above average” size, saying everything toward the end of the cul-de-sac, where Schneider’s two-parcel property sits with expansive views of the sloughs and the bay, is in the 4,000- to 6,000-square-foot range, he said.

“Those lots were developed to have those types of houses,” Bongio said, calling them “executive-type” lots.

Ford replied flatly that if the project is appealed to the Coastal Commission, “that will be a focus of discussion.”

Mitchell then raised the possibility of having staff look at the last six houses built on the road to come up with average heights and square footage, which could be used to tweak Schneider’s building plans to make it more in line with the neighborhood. (It’s worth noting again that construction of the house is well underway, with most of the structure’s framing up already.)

Bongio replied that “the train left the station” when the house was permitted.

“Everything to this point that has been asked for, the applicant has readily offered to give and do,” he said. “With all the mitigations that have been approved and everything, I think we should move forward on this. … I have a hard time not moving this along, OK? We gave the extra meeting. We’ve actually added conditions … and I think it’s our job to move this thing along. We can’t control what happens beyond here.”

Mitchell replied that the Coastal Commission letter prior to the Aug. 18 meeting “was very clear” in reminding the county it has “every authority to deny this permit.”

“If we keep heading down the path we’re on, that’s where we’re going to end up,” he said. “Unfortunately, attention was brought back to this project by the nonconformance and, unfortunately, the tenor and the amount of attention the last meeting brought up did not help,” Mitchell said, adding he felt it was now up to the Planning Commission to do everything it could to have a project that’s in conformance with the local coastal plan and, therefore, unassailable by the Coastal Commission.

Levy then brought up a concern raised by the Blue Lake Rancheria over Schneider’s developing this project under an alternate-owner-builder permit, which is a type of permit designed specifically for those personally building a house they are going to live in and have less stringent oversight. If this had been a normal permit, Levy said, there would have been more oversight and inspections and “we probably wouldn’t have gotten to the point we’re at.”

“Do we have the option to change the type of permit this is under?” he asked Ford.

Ford responded that the alternate-owner-builder permit was intended to help people build in rural areas that are difficult to access or who were using “alternate” building methods, at which point Levy interjected that they were also intended to “promote affordable housing.”

“Correct,” Ford responded with a laugh. “Let’s not forget that.”

The planning director said the commission could opt to change Schneider’s permit, which Levy said might be “responsive” to concerns about his lack of compliance and the county’s lack of oversight.

Bongio said changing the permit would be “going down a really bad, slippery slope” and would set precedent. He then turned his attention back to the house’s size and design, saying he’s been to the site “multiple times” and can’t see how the house would “change anything.”
click to enlarge A county stop-work order on construction of local developer Travis Schneider's new family home has caused a deep fissure between the Humboldt County Planning Commission and local tribes. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • A county stop-work order on construction of local developer Travis Schneider's new family home has caused a deep fissure between the Humboldt County Planning Commission and local tribes.
“It’s not impacting anything that I can see,” he said, again pressing the Planning Commission to decide the matter. “In my world, time is money. … [Doing more research] is two more weeks that this project has been put on hold and is deteriorating, and we’ve got winter coming and we need to push this forward so the resolution can be made, and I think we’re on the right track.”

Ford reiterated that the Coastal Commission has concerns.

“One of the things you have to recognize is that because the house has been relocated in violation of the permit … now the entire house is subject to review,” he said. “That’s just where it is.”

Bongio then asked Ford if it would be appropriate to ask Schneider what he wanted to do — referring to him as a “gentleman I’ve worked with over the years and known” — and the director said it would.

Schneider said he recognizes Ford’s concerns and was “reluctant to rush something.”

“I do think there are some issues that are unresolved,” he said, adding that he wanted to see this approved “at the local level.”

With that, the commission voted unanimously to send the matter back to staff, allowing it and Schneider to work with the California Coastal Commission toward a resolution that might weather the state agency’s review.
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Thadeus Greenson

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

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