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Samoa 2.0 

With a green light from the Coastal Commission, developers looks to renovate the peninsula town

The small company town of Samoa has a eclectic array of people in its hundred-year-old homes. Pensioners, surfers and college students are drawn to Samoa for its quaint appeal. The town is accessible only through a private road, is serviced by its own volunteer fire department and has one of the greatest views of both the Pacific Ocean and Humboldt Bay.

The charming houses are painted in a variety of pastel colors. Due to limitation on construction and removal of lead-based paint the houses have seen better days. But with a recently passed rezoning approval by the California Coastal Commission, Samoa stands a good chance of getting a breath of new life -- that is, assuming the county can provide the necessary infrastructure to support the ambitious Samoa Master Plan development.

On March 11 the CCC approved rezoning the town from general industry to several different land uses, including parks, wetlands and residential. This will allow dramatic changes to the 140-acre area that encompasses the town. The master plan filed with the county outlines one of the largest developments in recent county history, including a major utility overhaul, retail shops, new live/work spaces and a town plaza.

Humboldt County Supervisor Mark Lovelace said this project will revamp the Samoa peninsula, adding jobs and housing. The coast, he said, is usually a tough place to get development pushed through. Worries over tsunamis cause the Coastal Commission to fine tune master plans before acceptance.

Two hours after the commission approved rezoning for Samoa, the 9.0 mega-thrust earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami. The next day it hit the shores of Humboldt County, somewhat anticlimactically (the swells here caused no major damage). Still, a majority of Samoa is within 30 feet of sea level.

The CCC's North Coast District Manager, Bob Merrill, said this project is the largest he's seen in Humboldt County during his tenure. Rezoning is a major milestone in the project due to the sensitive nature of the area, he added. Tsunamis, rising sea levels, dunes and environmental issues make building along the coast a costly and time-consuming venture.

Here are a few of the planned amenities in the master plan: The Samoa Cookhouse would be renovated with a 40-room boutique hotel and maritime museum. The town would add 293 residential units with 22 vacation rentals, a new indoor soccer arena and 47 acres of public parks, open space and wetlands.

Samoa's existing sewer system would be upgraded and a 500,000-gallon water storage system added for fire safety. Natural gas service would be extended to the entire town, which currently relies on wood stoves for heat.

Due to the historical significance (and antiquated building materials) of Samoa, the town has not changed much in the last few decades. Lead-based paint, asbestos and toxic chemical cleanup have made it a developer's nightmare.

Among other reasons, the Samoa Master Plan has been contentious due to the peninsula's history and culture. The land includes sensitive archaeological areas and Native American historical sites.

Officials with California's Office of Historic Preservation wrote a letter in 2006 alleging that the Environmental Impact Report did not address major concerns about archaeological sites and historic preservation. The current plan lists more than 100 buildings that will be refurbished, including 98 residential units and the hostelry. The debate over the adequacy of the master plan will continue during permitting meetings with the county supervisors.

In 2001 the lumber town was purchased by Dan Johnson, president of The Danco Group, and Lane DeVries, CEO of Sun Valley Floral Systems in a joint venture called The Samoa Pacific Group. Johnson, the group's managing partner, could not be reached for comment.

Humboldt County Senior Planner Michael Wheeler said the Coastal Commission approved the rezoning with certain contingencies: If, going forward, the county chooses to appeal the project for any reason, the plans will need to be resubmitted to the CCC for approval.

This contingency clause will be considered by the Commission board at its June 17 meeting in Marina Del Rey. After the final modifications have been approved, the plan will be taken back to the county planning commission, or, if there's sufficient public interest, the board of supervisors. The final step before breaking ground will be obtaining coastal development permits from the county -- a process that will likely take six to eight months, Wheeler said.

Issuance of that permit is by no means a sure thing, according to Supervisor Jimmy Smith. Specifically, he said, future development will be dependent on supplying an acceptable wastewater treatment facility.

Wastewater treatment and potable water supply have become major issues throughout the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District in recent years, particularly since the demise of the Samoa Pulp Mill, the district's primary customer.

"It is clear that development on the peninsula will only occur with community-based water and wastewater," Smith continued. "Of course, some of the other issues will be long-term emergency services, tsunami evacuation and residential development consistent with the Coastal Commission's tsunami criteria." Traffic will be another issue. Impacts to the City of Eureka will need to be "analyzed and mitigated to the best extent possible," Smith said.

Even with many hurdles left to cross, officials with the Samoa Pacific Group are optimistic that they could break ground within the next year.

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Travis Turner

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