A view of the park property from Hwy. 101, half a mile south of Garberville. The arrow shows the proposed location for new recreation facilities. | Photo courtesy County of Humboldt.

On Tuesday the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will consider an ambitious development project years in the planning for the Southern Humboldt Community Park. If approved the project would greatly expand the recreation facilities on the property’s 400-plus acres. Plans include festival event stages, a community forest, agricultural lands and a sports complex complete with baseball diamonds, a football/soccer field, a dog park and a skatepark.

But while proponents have been working toward this goal since the turn of the century, critics worry about the potential environmental impacts on the adjacent South Fork Eel River, the proposed conversion of agricultural lands and the safety of pedestrians and cyclists going to and from events, among other things.

County staff summed up the situation in its report for Tuesday’s meeting: “This is a large, complicated and controversial project with many pieces.”

The riverfront property, located between Garberville and Benbow, is currently owned and managed by a nonprofit, which (somewhat confusingly) also goes by the name Southern Humboldt Community Park. In order to see the park vision come to fruition the nonprofit needs to clear a series of government hurdles, most of them lined up for Tuesday’s meeting.

For one thing it needs the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) to be certified. According to the report, a series of mitigation efforts will serve to reduce the project’s environmental impacts below significant levels, with one exception: In order to build the ballfields developers will have to convert roughly 16 acres of existing farmland, resulting in a serious and unavoidable impact. Therefore, in order for the project to move forward, supervisors must sign a Statement of Overriding Consideration justifying their approval.

And what is the justification for this park? From the staff report:

Justification for the project is based on the facts that the Garberville and Redway areas have a limited supply of available park facilities in close proximity, and do not have any land zoned to allow the development of a multi-use community park. Since much of the flat land in proximity to population centers was historically, and is currently, used for agricultural, commercial and residential development, the few public areas that are in these vicinities have become overused. The proposed project would help the community meet its demand for public recreational space.

Assuming the board agrees, that’s just one hurdle. Supervisors are also being asked to approve a general plan amendment changing the land use designation on all 405 acres to public recreation (it’s currently a mix of industrial, agricultural and resource-related) and amend the county’s zoning ordinance to accommodate a public facility.

If they do so, the property could immediately be used for everything from weddings to Easter egg hunts, mountain bike races and nature hikes. Group camping would be available at a designated site and sports could be played on the ballfields — once they’re built. People would be allowed to continue using the park’s open pasturelands for agriculture as well as the existing playground at Tooby Memorial Park. And the new zoning would allow folks to sell farm, food and nursery products as long as it’s done “within a building equivalent to a roadside stand.”

Project proponents have even bigger plans, including hosting the kind of large-scale, multi-day festivals SoHum specializes in. In order for that to happen the park will require a conditional use permit allowing medium-sized events, which are defined as having between 800-2,500 attendees, and large events, with up to 5,000 people per day “including three stages, areas for artisans and vendor sales and on-site educational workshops.” 

A schematic drawing of the proposed recreation area with multi-use fields, a dog park, skatepark and gravel access roads and parking areas. | County of Humboldt.

The county’s planning commission unanimously approved the project back in January, though it rejected an “environmentally superior” option recommended by staff. That option would have retained an additional 17 acres of farmland under Agriculture Exclusive zoning. The supervisors will have the option of following the planning commission’s lead or going with the staff recommendation.

Dozens of locals signed a form letter of support and sent it in to county supervisors. (See close to 100 of those letters in pdf form here.) Many more have spoken in support of the project at public hearings.

But critics have voiced their opinions, too. Many of their views can be seen in the public comments captured in the final environmental impact report. Neighbors worry about the impacts of large festival crowds. Others expressed concern about South Fork Eel River water being used for irrigation, impacts to wildlife and habitat, possible herbicide usage, increased traffic and other issues. (You can read staff responses to those concerns by clicking the link above.)

Again, the Board of Supervisors will consider whether to approve or deny this project at Tuesday’s meeting, which takes place in supervisors’ chambers at the county courthouse. The meeting starts at 9 a.m.

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