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PlanCo Approves Permits to Tear Down Schneider 'Dream Home' 

Developer agrees to donate $164K property in lieu of $3.6 million in penalties

click to enlarge Travis Schneider has agreed to convey title for one of the two parcels comprising his property — the one outlined in green — to be held for use by the three Wiyot area tribes to avoid up to $3.6 million in fines and penalties.

Humboldt County staff report

Travis Schneider has agreed to convey title for one of the two parcels comprising his property — the one outlined in green — to be held for use by the three Wiyot area tribes to avoid up to $3.6 million in fines and penalties.

After an emotional apology from the developer, the Humboldt County Planning Commission voted unanimously July 6 to approve the permits and permit modifications necessary for Travis Schneider to tear down his partially constructed family mansion overlooking the Fay Slough Wildlife Area.

After amassing a host of permit violations during construction of the more than 20,000-square-foot home on Walker Point Road — including one that jeopardized Wiyot cultural resources and another that crucially put the project in the California Coastal Commission's jurisdiction — the property has been under a county stop work order since December of 2021 and a notice of violation issued in April, carrying fines of $40,000 a day for up to 90 days.

Seeing no other path forward, Schneider has agreed to tear down the foundation and framing already constructed on the house, remove the up to 15,000 cubic yards of fill dirt brought into the property and restore it to its natural grade. On July 6, after a fairly brief discussion, the planning commission approved the permit modifications and special permits necessary to do that, along with conditions that require the work be done by the end of next July.

Schneider has also agreed to seek a lot-line adjustment, which will require coastal commission approval, that will leave the archeological site — a well-preserved, pre-contact Wiyot village first documented in 1918 — entirely on one of the property's two parcels, which will then be conveyed to a third party to be held for the three local area Wiyot tribes. The remaining parcel would carry no entitlements, meaning if someone wanted to build a home on it, they would need to start the permitting process over from the beginning.

Planning Director John Ford told the Journal that conveyance of the property with the archeological site was agreed to as part of a compliance agreement to settle the code enforcement case the county had brought against Schneider stemming from pervasive violations. While Schneider had faced fines and penalties of up to $3.6 million, Ford said those will be forgiven.

"The dedication of the property is in lieu of the payment of penalties," Ford said. "No additional penalties will need to be paid. There is a charge for staff time."

According to county records, the parcel in question has an assessed value of about $164,000.

The lone person to speak before the commission during public comment, Schneider first addressed two specific issues with the agenda item before the commission. First, he requested a bit more time to do the required work, expressing concern it would be difficult to complete by the initially proposed deadline of October. Then, he said he believes the county's figure of 15,000 cubic yards of fill dirt is inaccurate, wanting to correct the record and saying he'd only brought in 3,000 to 5,000, which he said he'll remove. Schneider then did something he hadn't yet done publicly: apologize.

"I'm sorry and I want to apologize to all those who have been affected by this project," he said before a lengthy pause and continuing, his voice cracking with emotion, to recount how he's always wanted to improve Humboldt County and thought his family's "dream home" would "contribute positively to the surrounding landscape."

"I believe the conditions agreed upon herein allow this community to heal and move forward," he said. "While I had hoped for a different outcome, I'm confident this ... will bring peace and healing to those that we've hurt."

The county issued a stop-work order on construction of Schneider's family home on Dec. 27, 2021, after it was determined 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 an environmentally sensitive habitat and grading over a known culturally sensitive Wiyot site, while also cutting an unpermitted temporary access road on the property. Schneider defiantly continued construction activities for 50 days after issuance of the stop-work order.

The issue came to a very public head in August, when Schneider's application for permit modifications needed to resume construction came before the Humboldt County Planning Commission, and the Wiyot Tribe, Blue Lake Rancheria and California Coastal Commission objected, saying additional details needed to be finalized concerning Schneider's remediation plans before the project could go forward. The entities' opposition set off then Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio, who launched into several rants in Schneider's defense and made far-reaching comments about "Indians," accusing them of trying to extort more concessions out of the developer and playing a "game" with cultural resources and reneging on an agreement — comments tribal officials found deeply offensive and racist.

In the aftermath of that meeting — in which the planning commission sent the matter back to staff to try to find an accord — a litany of other permit issues and violations were revealed, including that Schneider had begun construction on the project without a building permit, that he'd failed to get a septic permit required before he began construction and, perhaps most importantly, that he'd brought in 10 times more fill dirt and had begun construction of a residence more than twice as large as allowed under his coastal development permit.

It was later learned that Bongio had done concrete work on the project in 2019, according to Schneider, which Bongio had failed to publicly disclose when attempting to resolve the permit violations as a commissioner. (Bongio later, after being censured by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors for his conduct at the August meeting and stepping down as the commission's chair, resigned from the commission entirely in December to "focus on his family and business.")

When the permit modification application came back before the planning commission in September, Ford made clear that the California Coastal Commission — which has appeal jurisdiction over the project due to Schneider's encroachment on a wetland — had grave concerns about the violations and whether the proposed permit modifications were adequate to address them.

"The very definitive takeaway is that what's being proposed doesn't go nearly far enough," Ford said at the time. "They believe there needs to be restitution and fines imposed."

The planning commission then opted to send the matter back to staff, hoping it could work with Schneider, the California Coastal Commission, the Wiyot area tribes and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to find an agreeable outcome.

Attempts to reach Wiyot Tribe officials to comment for this story were unsuccessful, while tribal historic preservation officers for the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria and the Blue Lake Rancheria declined to be interviewed.

The compliance agreement will have to go before the California Coastal Commission for authorization of at least the lot line adjustment, as the property's boundary extends to the slough. If restoration and remediation work extend to its jurisdiction, the Coastal Commission may have to sign off on those plans, too, according to North Coast District Manager Melissa Kraemer.

The planning commission's action on July 6 is appealable for a period of 10 days after the vote, after which it can be appealed to the Coastal Commission for a period of 10 working days. Once the appeal periods have run, Schneider can apply for the necessary Coastal Commission authorization of the lot line adjustment and any permits necessary. Kraemer said the commission's executive director does have the authority to waive coastal development permit requirements if she finds the proposed development will not adversely impact coastal resources, public access or public recreational opportunities, but if four coastal commissioners object to the waiver, the matter would go to a public hearing.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

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

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