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Growing pains in Cutten 

Praise and rancor greet a 1,442-unit development proposal

Attorney John Belsher, of San Luis Obispo, was looking a little tense-jawed Monday night as resident after resident stood up inside the Cutten ElemenSchool auditorium to give him and his Forster-Gill fellows what-for over the mixed-use development - with up to 1,442 homes - they've proposed for north of Ridgewood Drive and south of the Lundbar Hills subdivision. At one point, one woman said she didn't like Belsher's attitude, his "smirking and looking around" at his friends. "I really resent it," she said.

Yes, the skepticism meter often jerked into the red, and occasionally there'd be a collective, excited buzz among the roughly 160 attendees after someone said something. But most of the commentary was constructive, with cautions and factual information provided by the fire chief, sheriff, Humboldt Community Services District president, and others in charge of supplying services to city and county neighborhoods. They, after all, will be faced with getting sewer, water and other services hooked up, across county-city lines, to the new subdivision. And while, as Fire Chief Glenn Ziemer put it, "the technical aspects, quite frankly, are easily addressed," the financial aspects are tricky and not by any means resolved.

Forster-Gill - with president Tim Gill and fellow local landowners Scott Dunn and the Robinson family as partners in the project - proposes to build 940 to 1,442 housing units on 386 acres. Within that would be 627 stand-alone homes on lots, 457 townhouse units - these days called "row houses," a trendy parlance, perhaps, to evoke old-time East Coast sensibility - plus 285 homes mixed with commercial space - housing units sitting on top of shops. The rest would be senior housing units. Lots, Belsher said, would be 4,000 to 6,000 square feet for single-family homes. Housing prices would range from $500,000 down to $175,000. At full build-out, "Ridgewood Village" would be home to as many as 3,600 people.

The development also would be in what is now forested gulches and ridges - 50 percent of which would be preserved as forest, said Belsher, with 200 acres turned over to the nonprofit Redwood Forest Foundation to manage as a community forest. Because of that, and other aspects unique to county development, the project has drawn hopeful praise from Mark Lovelace, of Healthy Humboldt, who says it is a fine example of smart-growth principles - a high-density, walkable, live-work community replete with affordable housing, open spaces and trails and the prospect of perhaps not needing to make many trips to, say, Eureka for basic amenities. Lovelace couldn't make it to the meeting, but said earlier in the day that he could see how people in Cutten might be wary.

"We know no one likes to see growth in their community," he said. "But, there's a lot of promise here. This isn't building housing for someone else. It's for people here. Eighty percent of us in Humboldt County need the type of housing that's proposed here. People always assume affordable housing is for the homeless. And so when we talk about affordability in Humboldt County, we always run into the same problems ... including the `Not in my neighborhood' factor."

Certainly one could see how current residents might feel encroached on by the development - especially if it advances rapidly in nine phases, with a foreseen completion a mere decade from now, as projected by Forster-Gill. They envision thousands more cars spilling into Walnut Drive - already a traffic "nightmare" as one person put it - and other neighborhood roads, as well as increased crime and the loss of their forested boundary. "There's only one road into this development, and one road out - Walnut," said a woman. "And we already have a lot of traffic on it. It'll be like Broadway - and you all know Broadway."

Belsher told the crowd that the project's low-end estimate of 940 homes was already zoned for in the county's General Plan, following "70 public meetings," and that 1995 planning documents "show that Walnut has a capacity for existing and future development." Plus, he said, Foster-Gill has to complete a $100,000 traffic study before anything gets decided.

A man took Belsher to task after that, saying the General Plan document Forster-Gill is basing its project on, Sketch B (which suggests 940 homes can go on the Forster-Gill property), hasn't actually been voted on as the final plan. "It's just a suggestion," he said.

And one resident,Anna Hetko, pointed out that the Forster-Gill development is but one of a series of developments the county will be looking at in the future in the Cutten area's remaining forested stretches. "All of the forest is basically going," she said. After the meeting, Hetko, who's lived in the area 20 years and has a one-acre parcel, said the Forster-Gill project "sucks." "They want to build a shopping mall in there, where now there's bear, bobcat, spotted owl, salmon spawning creeks and five osprey nests," she said. "It's living, breathing habitat that they want to develop in a grotesque manner. Already we're thinking of moving."

Although this meeting wasn't an official part of the overall county general plan process, and therefore not on the official record, Cutten resident Sean Bailie said he organized the meeting because he felt the residents had been left out of the planning loop and that they should jump in now. The county is in the early stages of the environmental impact report process, and yet already decisions are happening - in January, the county board of supervisors voted 4-1 to allow Forster-Gill to prepare a petition to amend the zoning on the property from low density single-family residences to a mix of commercial space and single- and multi-family residential. (First District Supervisor Jimmy Smith, who voted against allowing Forster-Gill to apply for the zone change amendment, said the Forster-Gill project would appropriate "more than a fair share" of the affordable housing the county is expected to build. "I voted against it because I don't think this all has to happen in this particular area," Smith said.)

After the meeting, Ridgewood Village project manager Mike Atkins said he understands people's "fear of change." "Who comes to these meetings? People who are concerned, or completely against it. And that's who we need to talk to. That's why we're here."

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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