Planning Commission Chair Jeff Ragan — who has served on the commission for 12 years — abruptly resigned during a meeting on Tuesday, citing “huge, grave” concerns over the City Council’s approval of three low-income housing developments to be built on city-owned parking lots.
A proposal for the three developments — one on 8th and G Streets one on 6th and M Streets and the other on Sunny and Myrtle Avenues — was approved by the council in Oct., 2020 and the city has entered into an agreement with developers Linc Housing. Although Ragan was initially in favor of these projects in concept, he said, he felt that the city did not hold a rigorous enough public process before approving them.
“After an RFP [request for proposals] was issued last July and three proposals were reviewed by an in-house group last fall, city council on October 20 — after a 1 hour 18 minute discussion, over zoom, during a pandemic, during a contentious presidential election — decided to commit to the project,” Ragan said just a few minutes into Tuesday’s virtual meeting. “…Frankly I’m just appalled that the council and staff thinks this kind of decision making process is adequate.”
Ragan continued, reading from a prepared statement, to discuss how he felt that there were not enough meetings with the public or the entire city staff to discuss the proposed details of this project. He also said that, after talking to several city council members and city staff about his concerns, that they “affirmed there had been ongoing discussions about these projects for years,” a claim that Ragan felt was “dishonest” and “fraudulent.”
He then went on to say what a pleasure it has been to work with the Planning Commission and other city staff for the past 12 years and how much he has enjoyed working with the private citizens of Eureka — especially those who had the courage to speak up at public meetings.
“I can’t in good conscience participate in a government that claims to represent those people and then sidelines them with minimized processes and minimal efforts and public outreach,” Ragan added. “…So with gratitude and gratefulness for the good work we’ve accomplished before, and with grave concern and disappointment for the project and processes before us now, I resign from the City of Eureka’s Planning Commission, effective immediately.”
Ragan then apologized for unexpectedly passing the gavel to the commission’s vice-chair Tiana Arriaga, who was clearly caught by surprise. “Well, that was a dramatic turn of events that I don’t think any of us were expecting,” Arriaga said, immediately following Ragan’s exit from the meeting.
Delo Freitas — who had just been sworn in as a member of the commission at the beginning of the meeting — added that she remembers working with Ragan when she had worked for the City of Eureka previously, and that she “appreciated his style” and how much he tried to engage the public and make them feel comfortable. However, Freitas did not share Ragan’s concerns.
“That being said, I also really appreciate how staff has seen through the housing projects that he expressed concerns about,” Freitas said during the meeting. “I think that everything they’ve done has been by the books and very transparent and I appreciate the effort they’ve put into this.”
In a follow-up interview with the Outpost on Friday, Ragan explained in further detail some of his issues with the three housing projects, saying that, although he is in favor of low-income housing, he feels that a large-scale projects like these require a great deal of scrutiny to make sure that they’re done right.
“While there’s a tremendous potential for good, there is a tremendous potential for bad,” Ragan told the Outpost. “If they’re designed wrong they’re going to be a magnet for crime and poverty and junk and all kinds of stuff.”
Ragan added that in the last several months he has received calls and emails from community members who were concerned about the magnitude of this project and that he feels that many people in the city are not even aware of these projects at all. When asked what he felt the city could have done to involve the public more in the process, Ragan said that there could have been public workshops — similar to the workshops held prior to the city’s adoption of its General Plan Update. He also felt that there could have been a committee assembled, consisting of various different city staff and experts, to review the submitted project proposals. Ragan said he shared these suggestions with Eureka City Manager Miles Slattery, who was “dismissive” of his ideas.
When asked why he felt these housing developments should be subject to that level of review — something that is not usual for any housing project in the city — Ragan said that because these developments are on city-owned sites, he feels that the process should have been more rigorous.
“Most housing projects are built by private owners on private land,” Ragan said. “They’ve got the right to build what they want. These projects are built on city land. Those parking lots are owned by the citizens of Eureka and there should not be a small cabal of officials that just decide on their own what the rest of us are going to have built on our parking lots.”
Reached by the Outpost, City Manager Slattery said that these projects went through all of the usual processes required to approve housing developments, including going through the Planning Commission. “It went to the Planning Commission for the change in zoning regulations,” Slattery told the Outpost. “[Ragan] approved that. He signed off on that.”
Slattery added that he felt that the city had been “exhaustive as far as the public process for this project” and that the developers Linc Housing had held several public meetings — notifications of which were sent to every resident within a
three-mile 300 foot radius — and had even altered its building designs based on the feedback from those meetings.
As far as whether these projects should have been subject to a more scrupulous process because they will be built on city-owned land, Slattery said that the City has built housing on city-owned property several times — including on a site on Myrtle between 6th and 7th Streets.
However, Slattery said that these will be the first low-income housing projects to be built on city property. But they won’t be the last. The city has been working to develop more low-income housing to meet state requirements and has established that building on city-owned properties will be absolutely necessary to meet those requirements. In fact, these sites are three of of 12 city-owned parking lots that the City plans to turn into housing.
“Not only is this [housing] a state requirement, but all of these people we are housing — they will be a part of the fabric of our community,” Slattery said. “It’s unfortunate because [Jeff] was a valued member of our planning commission. I really appreciate Jeff and everything he’s done. It’s unfortunate that this is the hill he chose to die on.”
When asked if his issue with the city’s approach to these housing developments was really the only reason he resigned after 12 years on the Planning Commission, Ragan said “absolutely,” reiterating that his issue is not with the projects themselves, but with the City’s “horrible job of involving the public.” Ragan added that he plans to use some of his freed up time to continue voicing his concerns to the City.
“Now I have to have time to go through these plans and show up at city council meetings and tell them where I think they got it wrong,” Ragan said. “And it seems obvious to me that the City Council really, fundamentally doesn’t care what the Planning Commission thinks anyway. Had they, they would have run this [project] by us.”
You can view the video of Ragan’s dramatic exit from Tuesday’s Eureka Planning Commission meeting below.