John Friedenbach, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, urged the Planning Commission to reject Mercer-Fraser’s proposal. | Screenshot from streaming video.


The Humboldt County Planning Commission last night narrowly approved a rezone request for a 13.5-acre parcel along the Mad River owned by Eureka construction company Mercer-Fraser. The vote, which came in at 3-2 with two commissioners abstaining, sends a project proposal that includes a 5,000-square-foot cannabis extraction facility to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

The approval came despite vigorous opposition from staff and board members of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD), who said that rezoning the parcel from agricultural to heavy industrial, as requested, would jeopardize the drinking water of roughly two-thirds of county residents. 

“There may be no bigger issue brought to the Planning Commission this year that deals with public health and welfare,” water district General Manager John Friedenbach said during the public comment period.

But Jeff Smith, the agent for the applicant (and himself a former planning commissioner), said the heavy industrial zone merely reflects the activity that’s been happening on that property for years, including gravel mining. It also serves to align the zoning with new land use designations approved during the county’s General Plan Update process, he said. And he tried to allay concerns about hazardous materials at the site by noting that any new types of activities there — including the proposed cannabis extraction facility — will require additional permitting and be subject to further public review.

The property sits on the north bank of the Mad River just west of Blue Lake, and it’s flanked by pump houses — or Ranney collectors — managed by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District. The public comment period at last night’s meeting was dominated by water district representatives and area residents expressing concerns about any potential threats to the water supply.

But a few commissioners — chiefly Fifth District representative Ben Shepherd — pushed back, noting the long history of industrial uses along this stretch of the Mad River, including the City of Blue Lake’s sewage treatment plant.

Friedenbach, speaking on behalf of the water district, led off the public comment by questioning the adequacy of environmental review for the project, and he said the district “may litigate” over the alleged shortcomings.

Third District Commissioner Noah Levy noted that the water district is “not just another neighbor” and asked Friedenbach how he distinguishes between the gravel and aggregate activities that have taken place for decades and this latest proposal.

“It’s the change to heavy industrial zoning that opens the door to anything that qualifies under that zone,” Friedenbach responded. 

HBMWD Board Chair Sheri Woo said she is concerned that volatile chemical solvents used in the cannabis extraction process could impact nearby groundwater, especially since there’s already a well on the property. 

Michelle Fuller, who’s a water board member as well as the environmental program director with the Blue Lake Rancheria, said there was inadequate consultation with the tribe over the potential impacts to water quality and archeological sites. 

Representing Mercer-Fraser, Smith followed this string of speakers and worked to assuage their fears. He pointed out that during the now-completed General Plan Update process, the county changed the land use on this parcel to “industrial resource-related,” and he said that both state law and county code require zoning to be consistent with land use. 

Thus, he said, “It has to be rezoned.”

He went on to note that there are provisions — spelling out in what’s called a Q-zone overlay — that limit what can be done on the parcel, so the rezone would not open the floodgates to any and all uses allowed in heavy industrial zones, at least not without further public review and additional permits.

And, addressing concerns about the volatile solvents used in the production of hash oil, Smith said most of them, including butane, propane and carbon dioxide, are gases that would “vent into the atmosphere” rather than contaminate groundwater if they somehow escaped the closed-loop system proposed for the project.

Levy pointed out that the staff report listed liquid solvents as well. Smith acknowledged this, admitting that he’d forgotten what all was in the original proposal, but he said the company was unlikely to use any of the liquid solvents except alcohol.

When the item came back to the commission for consideration, Planning and Building Director John H. Ford explained that the cannabis activities proposed for the site will have to comply with county regulations, and he said staff had included modifications to the plan in an effort to safeguard public health.

“We tried to identify uses that would not jeopardize the water supply, because we all drink that water,” Ford said.

Levy said that while he understands the importance of making zoning consistent with land use, he found it ironic that the change was being forced because of a gravel-mining operation that operated for decades in violation of the zoning on the books. 

Fourth District Commissioner Kevin McKenny said the “elephant in the room” was cannabis, an industry that “most of us don’t know much about.” He suggested that mitigation measures can be put in place to reduce whatever risks are involved, and while he doesn’t know what those measures might be for, say, butane and propane, industrial hygiene engineers could be hired to figure it out, mitigating the fear of the unknown.

Under further questioning from commissioners, Smith agreed to strike many of the proposed solvents for the extraction process, leaving only propane, butane, CO2 and alcohol. 

Levy said that while he respects Mercer-Fraser as professionals and believes they designed the project carefully, his concerns, including their failure to get buy-in from the water district, meant, “I am gonna have a hard time supporting this project.”

But Shepherd said he did support the proposal because he feels in recognizes existing uses on the site. “I hear the concern, but to me it doesn’t rise to the level to oppose the project,” he said, and then made a motion to accept it.

McKenny said he would second the motion, but only if they included some additional conditions of approval. These included a double-check valve system on the proposed well to prevent back-flow; quarterly safety training and drills for staff at the cannabis extraction facility; and a limit of 50 gallons for the amount of alcohol that could be kept onsite.

Shepherd agreed to these conditions and called for a vote. He, McKenny and Chair Robert Morris, who represents the Second District, cast yes votes. Levy and At-Large Commissioner Dave Edmonds voted no. And commissioners Brian Mitchell (at-large) and Alan Bongio (First District) abstained.