Matt Rees, CEO of the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District, told county leadership today that there’s only one feasible spot for a new, expanded hospital in Garberville. | Screenshot.

Efforts to expand Garberville’s Jerold Phelps Community Hospital encountered another roadblock today as the Humboldt County Airport Land Use Commission (which is really just the Board of Supervisors wearing different bureaucratic hats) found that the proposed expansion site is too close to the Garberville Airport.

The commission ruled unanimously that the proposal, which includes the construction of two new hospital buildings, is inconsistent with the county’s Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan. But in discussing the matter, both county staff and the five supervisors/commissioners indicated that today’s ruling isn’t necessarily a fatal blow for those expansion plans. 

The Board of Supervisors has the authority to approve the project anyway, which it may choose to do at a future meeting, though staff warned that such a move could jeopardize Federal Aviation Administration funding to the county.

A bit of background: The Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District has proposed purchasing and renovating the building at 286 Sprowl Creek Road, which formerly housed an elementary school and, more recently, a theater where College of the Redwoods held classes.

The healthcare district also hopes to construct two new buildings on the parcel, including a two-story, 32,600-square-foot hospital and a separate clinic building, plus a parking lot with more than 100 spaces. If completed, these facilities would replace the current hospital and clinic on Cedar Street. 

The problem is that the parcel is located less than a mile from the runway of the Garberville Airport, which means it sits inside an area designated Airport Land Use Compatibility Zone C. Inside this zone a variety of uses, including hospitals, are explicitly prohibited.

Regardless, at today’s meeting Deirdre Clem, a senior planner with LACO Associates, argued on behalf of the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District, which has retained her firm’s services. Clem acknowledged that the hospital expansion plans are inconsistent with local land use rules, but she asked the commissioners for help “identifying a pathway forward” since the project has broad community support and this particular parcel is “the only logical property” with the requisite power, water and sewer capabilities. The must be some exemptions or exceptions that could clear a path forward, Clem said.

But Bob Bronkall, deputy director of the Humboldt County Public Works Department’s Land Use Division, said there was no such wiggle room for today’s ruling. The Airport Land Use Commission must make a fact-based finding — either the proposal is consistent or it’s inconsistent with the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan.

The facts were unavoidable, and so the commissioners (again, not to be confused with county supervisors) voted unanimously to make that finding. 

But before that happened, Bronkall explained that the Board of Supervisors has more leeway than the Airport Land Use Commission. With their other bureaucratic hats on, these same five people could approve the hospital expansion project at a future meeting — despite its inconsistency with the rules. Doing so would require a two-thirds majority (which means four of the five supervisors). And Bronkall warned that such a move would need to be made “with consideration that it could jeopardize federal funding for our airports.”

He explained that the FAA wants to be sure that projects approved near county airports don’t interfere with airport operations. The county already bent the rules when it moved a zone boundary line to accomodate the Moser Airport Business Park in McKinleyville, Bronkall said. Bend the rules again and “there could be concerns [from the feds] that the county as a whole is not promoting the integrity of airports.”

But Matt Rees, CEO of the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District, said there’s simply nowhere else for the new hospital to locate — “nowhere that wouldn’t significantly increase the cost” by requiring new water and septic systems. “We can’t afford it,” Rees said. And the hospital’s current site won’t suffice because there’s not enough land for an expanded parking lot. 

“We know the public wants an emergency room in Garberville, and they’re willing to pay for it,” Rees said, noting that voters just approved Measure F with nearly 74 percent of the vote, extending the healthcare district’s $125 parcel tax through June 2028. Meanwhile, state earthquake statutes say the hospital needs to have a new facility before 2030.

Supervisor/Commissioner Mike Wilson said, “The community might have to ask itself which it values more” — the hospital or the airport. “It may be a really hard decision between two pieces of community infrastructure. I hope we don’t get there, but this is gonna be interesting.”

Wilson later floated the idea of shortening the runway by about 100 feet, possibly allowing the proposed parcel to be move out of the forbidden zone.

Public Works Director Tom Mattson, meanwhile, suggested that the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District reach out to an aviation-specific consulting firm for advice, and Supervisor/Commissioner Rex Bohn recommended a call to U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman’s office.

For now, the expanded Jerold Phelps Community Hospital remains on the far side of a daunting obstacle course of logistics, finances and bureaucracy.

In other business, the Board of Supervisors received the report from Certified Public Accountant Craig Goodman, who was hired to provide an independent analysis of the Auditor-Controller’s Office in light of the recent turmoil there. As we reported last week, Goodman found that there’s a lack of training and institutional knowledge in key positions. He recommended staff attend regional conferences in order to learn from others and stay abreast of current laws.

Goodman also alluded to a need for more leadership in the office, and he said such leadership can come from any person who sees and need and steps in to address it. However, he also warned against “overstepping boundaries.”

County Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen said she has already started going over Goodman’s report point-by-point with Interim-Auditor-Controller Cheryl Dillingham and Auditor-Controller-Elect Karen Paz Dominguez. 

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to receive the report and revisit the issue in six months. 

The board also voted to extend a temporary moratorium on commercial cannabis activities within the Yurok Tribe’s area of traditional cultural affiliation. The ordinance extended the moratorium by 10 months and 15 days to allow time for negotiations between the county’s ad hoc cannabis advisory committee and Yurok tribal leaders, who have expressed concerns about the county’s weed regulations. 

# # #

Here’s the proposed site for an expanded Jerold Phelps Community Hospital: