Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Despite Coastal Commission Appeal, Schneider Mansion Demolition, Restoration Could be Complete by July

Posted By on Tue, Jan 9, 2024 at 1:43 PM

click to enlarge The partially constructed Schneider mansion, as it has sat since the county issued a stop-work order in December of 2021. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • The partially constructed Schneider mansion, as it has sat since the county issued a stop-work order in December of 2021.
It’s been more than six months since the Humboldt County Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the permits and permit modifications necessary for local developer Travis Schneider to tear down his partially constructed family mansion overlooking the Fay Slough Wildlife Area.

The deal ratified by the commission in July would have seen Schneider avoid up to $3.6 million in fines for a long list of permit violations by tearing down his partially constructed, more than 20,000-square-foot home, removing up to 15,000 cubic yards of fill dirt brought to the property, returning it to its natural grade and gifting a portion of it containing a documented archeological site to a third party to be held for the three local area Wiyot tribes. But six months later, the structure’s graying skeletal framing remains at the foot of Walker Point Road, with the California Coastal Commission having appealed the county’s decision.

Schneider submitted a host of documents to the commission’s staff Friday – including surveying maps, restoration and monitoring plans, and aquatic resource declinations — needed before the commission schedules a full appeal hearing for the case.

Current Commission Chair Caryl Hart and then Commission Chair Donne Brownsey appealed the planning commission decision back in August, arguing that approval of the permits and permit modifications was inconsistent with Humboldt County’s certified local coastal program when it came to standards regarding archeological resources and protections of environmentally sensitive areas.

Schneider did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford, meanwhile, told the Journal he was aware of the appeal but had not received an update on where it stands.

The project has been mired in controversy since Dec. 27, 2021, when the county issued a stop work order on construction of Schneider’s family home after determining he’d built on a footprint different than the one on approved plans and thus encroached on mandated wetland setbacks on the property. Additionally, Schneider was found to have violated his permits by clearing environmentally sensitive habitat and grading over a known culturally sensitive archeological site — a well-preserved, pre-contact Wiyot village first documented in 1918 — while also cutting an unpermitted temporary access road on the property. Schneider then defiantly continued construction activities for 50 days after the issuance of a stop-work order.

Things then came to a very public head in August of 2022, when Schneider’s application for permit modifications needed to resume construction came before the Humboldt County Planning Commission and the Wiyot Tribe, the Blue Lake Rancheria and coastal commission objected, saying more time was needed to finalize details of a remediation plan. The entities’ opposition set off then Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio — First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who’d appointed Bongio to the commission, would later say he “got caught up in the fever” — with Bongio launching into several rants in Schneider’s defense and making far-reaching comments about “Indians,” accusing tribes of trying to extort more concessions out of the developer and playing a “game” with cultural resources. He further accused the tribes of reneging on an agreement — though he said he “had another term for it, but whatever.” (Bongio would later apologize to the tribes if he “in any way offended them.”)

The comments led the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to unanimously vote to censure Bongio and ask him to step down as the commissions’ chair, which he did. But the fallout continued. Bongio’s comments thrust the project under increased scrutiny and it was discovered Schneider’s permit violations were far more extensive than previously known — the home under construction is more than twice the permitted size, Schneider hauled in 10 times more fill dirt to the property than his coastal development permit allowed and began construction without having secured a septic permit — and that Bongio (a relative of Schneider’s by marriage) had personally done some unpaid work on the project he’d failed to disclose publicly. The controversy grew.

In October of 2022, the planning commission penned a letter of apology to local Wiyot area tribes, stating “unequivocally” that Bongio’s comments “were insensitive, racist, inconsistent with the values of the county of Humboldt, biased and understandably may have shaken your faith in the impartiality of this commission.” Two months later, Bongio resigned his post on the commission to “focus on his family and business,” as announced by Bohn. Voters also ousted him from the seat on the Humboldt Community Services District Board of Directors that he’d held for 24 years, since taking it over from his father, Aldo Bongio, who held it for 34.

After months of negotiations, Schneider agreed in April to a deal that would see him tear down the existing structure, restore the property and pursue a lot-line adjustment that would allow him to convey the property with the archeological site to an entity to be held for the Wiyot area tribes. After all that was done, the remaining portion of the property would hold no entitlements, meaning any construction would have to begin the permit process anew. Ford told the Journal that dedication of the property would be “in lieu of the payments of penalties” Schneider faced, though he would be charged for staff time.

But throughout this whole process, the coastal commission has loomed, as Schneider’s beginning construction of the house on a footprint that was different than approved and that encroached on a wetland put the project in the commission’s jurisdiction on appeal. And it was the coastal commission’s leverage and input, as relayed through Ford's warnings, that scuttled a prior proposal that would have allowed Schneider to resume construction and sent all parties back to the negotiating table.

“The very definitive takeaway is that what’s being proposed doesn’t go nearly far enough,” Ford told the commission at the time, saying he’d spoken to commission staff locally, in San Francisco and “on up the food chain.” “They believe there needs to be restitution and fines imposed.”

That reality led to the ultimate agreement approved by the planning commission in July, in which Schneider agreed to remove the structure, restore the site, convey a portion of the land (which has an approximate assessed value of $164,000, according to county records) to be held for the Wiyot area tribes in exchange for the county forgiving up to $3.6 million in fines and penalties.

The coastal commission appeal filed by Brownsey and Hart primarily takes issue with a lack of specificity with the land conveyance approved by the planning commission.

“There were no conditions attached to the modified permit that require the applicant to convey the property with the sensitive archeological site, that specify to whom the property should be conveyed, and that include timelines for when the conveyance should occur,” the appeal states, adding that the county also imposed no restrictions on how the property could be used in the future.

Additionally, the appeal notes, the lot line adjustment necessary to convey the land requires coastal commission approval which, at the time of the appeal, Schneider had not applied for. The appeal also raises concerns that the county’s conditions of approval are so unspecific they may allow for the property to be sold or transferred without the mitigation measures implemented and with some development entitlements intact.

But the appeal essentially puts all aspects of the agreement, and associated permits and permit modifications, back on the table.

Coastal Commission North Coast District Manager Melissa Kraemer told the Journal no date has yet been set for an appeal hearing and that commission staff have been working with the three area Wiyot tribes, as well as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Coastal Conservancy, to determine which state entity or nonprofit might be able to accept the land conveyance on behalf of the tribes and the legal details of such an arrangement.

“It is our hope that we can work out all the issues to resolve the appeal and process the application to enable demolition and restoration work to stay on track for completion by July of 2024 (which was the original timeline imposed by the Planning Commission, who limited work to the dry season),” Kraemer wrote in an email to the Journal.
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Thadeus Greenson

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

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