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The long-planned Old Arcata Road Improvement Project is one step closer to reality after the Arcata City Council voted on Wednesday to approve the undertaking, which will make multiple upgrades to the road, including the installation of a roundabout at the intersection of Old Arcata Road and Jacoby Creek Road.
The vote was 4-0 with Councilmember Brett Watson abstaining because he felt he needed more time to review the project’s final environmental impact report (EIR). Watson also had some concerns over the potential threat of litigation from a local group of residents known as Bayside Cares.
Bayside Cares has written several letters of opposition to the project – specifically the proposed roundabout – bringing up multiple issues with safety, potential historic landmark impacts and wetland impacts, which have led to several delays in the approval process. The group’s latest assertion is that there was a potential conflict of interest for a member of Arcata’s Transportation and Safety Committee, Josh Wolf, who also is employed by the project’s consulting firm, GHD Engineering.
A letter sent to the City by Bayside Cares on Feb. 11, the group recommended that the council not approve the final EIR on the basis that “all the contracts that led to its preparation … are void because a public official or officer had a financial interest in all of them and participated in making all of the contracts,” Watson read from the letter during the meeting.
City Attorney Nancy Diamond spoke to the allegation, saying staff looked into the issue and concluded that Wolf had no conflict of interest because he had nothing to gain financially from the project’s approval.
In addition to his concern over the letter from Bayside Cares, Watson said that he did not feel he had adequate time to digest the 1,000-page EIR and complained that he was not granted enough access to staff to go over the document and have all of his questions answered prior to the council meeting.
Some tension arose as Watson brought up his complaint and some of the other council members seemed perturbed by Watson’s lack of preparation. (Watson brought up the same issue at another recent meeting and it was later revealed that the City is investigating allegations of misconduct against Watson and that “special protocols” have been adopted for him to interact with staff.)
Watson also asked staff to address some of the visual impacts brought up by Bayside Cares, whose members said the roundabout would compromise the character of the Bayside neighborhood and potentially impact some historically significant buildings, including Jacoby Creek School and Bayside Temperance Hall.
Mel Melvin of JRP Historical Consulting told the council that no significant historic impacts were found and that the location has already changed over time.
“The historic character of that intersection has already been compromised,” Melvin said. “The change would not be substantial enough that historic properties would no longer be able to convey their significance.”
Many community members spoke during the public comment period, most of them saying they supported the project because of the dire need for safety improvements to Old Arcata Road. Several commenters mentioned that they feel unsafe biking along the road or walking their children to school.
“While I certainly enjoy the benefits of Bayside and its character, I do think the safety of our residents should be paramount,” said resident Mary O’Brian.
Some folks did speak in opposition to the roundabout, saying that they felt more research and traffic studies needed to be conducted to determine if it was the safest option. Some also echoed Watson’s concerns over the potential for litigation over the project.
Alice Finen, an employee of the Mistwood Educational Center, which is very close to the proposed roundabout, was concerned that the project would limit access to the school by blocking one of its driveways.
But the concerns were not enough to sway the council and several council members did not want to delay the decision any longer. With the project only 30 percent designed, Mayor Stacy-Atkins Salazar mentioned, there will still be opportunities to address the community’s concerns — including the potential impacts on Mistwood — before the project design is complete.
With the council’s approval of the project and the EIR, the design and permitting processes can continue and the project’s funding will not be impeded. Arcata City Engineer Netra Khatri said the deadline for completion of the project design is January of 2023.
As far as the potential for a lawsuit, most of the council wasn’t bothered by that either.
“If you’re paying attention to public meetings, you’ll see that any type of project that goes through – pretty much the go-to these days is litigation,” Atkins-Salazar said before the vote. “And so I’m not going to be threatened by litigation to slow something down when this is the new go-to [strategy] to slow something down or stop it.”
ADDENDUM: Following this article’s publication Watson contacted the Outpost to point out that we had failed to mention that during the meeting he said he has a learning disability. Due to his disability, Watson said, it takes him a long time to read and comprehend complex information. This is why he needed more time to review the documents and why it was particularly frustrating to him to be denied more time with staff to help him review the materials.