Two weeks after a heated Humboldt County Planning Commission hearing that soured relations between the commission and local tribes, applicant Travis Schneider said he’s optimistic ahead of tonight’s follow-up meeting, where the hearing is scheduled to continue.
“I think we’ve found some common ground with staff’s revised conditions,” he said in a phone interview this morning. “It gives me optimism. It makes me feel good, and I think it kind of demonstrates that we’ve come together on this issue.”
His optimism comes despite the fact that neither he nor the county has managed to connect with anyone from the Wiyot Tribe or the Blue Lake Rancheria since the Aug. 18 meeting, at which Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio lambasted the tribes, repeatedly referring to them as “the Indians” and accusing them of dishonestly manipulating negotiations. [DISCLOSURE: The Blue Lake Rancheria is a minority owner of the Outpost’s parent company, Lost Coast Communications, Inc.]
As previously reported, Schneider is pursuing a coastal development permit and special permit modification in order to resume construction of his 8,000-square-foot home on Walker Point Road, near Fay Slough and the Indianola cutoff.
A stop work order was placed on the project late last year after Schneider violated the terms of his previous permits by laying down an access road through environmentally sensitive habitat and disturbing a known Wiyot archaeological site when he used an excavator to clear native blackberries and other foliage. Schneider also built the home’s foundation about 10 feet away from the footprint specified in the approved site plans, and he initially failed to comply with the county’s stop work order.
Over the past eight months, county staff has worked with the California Coastal Commission and three Wiyot-area tribes — the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Wiyot Tribe — to document the damage and pursue a resolution.
Several stakeholders, including county staff and Schneider himself, believed that a list of 11 conditions of approval had been agreed to by all parties during an Aug. 2 meeting. But just one day before the Aug. 18 meeting, the Planning Commission received comment letters from the Wiyot Tribe, the Blue Lake Rancheria, and the California Coastal Commission, all of which asked the commission to reject staff’s recommended approval.
The Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria both asked for additional environmental review and more time to review the proposed restoration and mitigation measures, with the latter asking the county to revoke Schneider’s building permit. They also said it was unclear how the recommended conditions would be implemented, monitored or enforced. The Coastal Commission backed their stance, saying the proposed project didn’t adequately address violations of the Local Coastal Plan nor adequately protect onsite coastal resources.
The Bear River Band, meanwhile, submitted last-minute comments saying they agreed with staff recommendations except for one: a proposal to conduct an archeological excavation, which the tribe considers disrespectful. Instead the tribe recommended placing $38,000 into a fund to be used for future mitigation of cultural resource damage.
At the contentious Aug. 18 meeting, the commission voted three-to-three, with Bongio leading the charge to allow Schneider to resume building his large family home. (Commissioner Melanie McCavour had recused herself, participating only in her capacity as the Bear River Band’s tribal historic preservation officer.) The three dissenting commissioners noted that the Coastal Commission could easily overturn an approval, and the matter was ultimately tabled for further review.
Following the meeting, county planning staff reached out to both the Wiyot Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria to request a meeting but did not hear back. The Outpost also reached out to the tribes but had not hear back by publication time.
But the county is again recommending approval of Schneider’s coastal development permit and special permit modifications, with a couple of revised conditions of approval. The staff report for tonight’s meeting lays out staff’s reasoning:
Given that the recommended conditions were developed in consultation with the Tribes and the Coastal Commission, agreed to in principle during the August 2nd meeting, and that the parties have not offered suggested alternative conditions, the Planning Department believes that the recommended conditions are appropriate to address impacts to coastal and archaeological resources.
One of the conditions — dedication of an easement to the Wiyot-area tribes for access to the archeological site — has been revised to specify that it is permanent and will be dedicated specifically to the Wiyot Tribal Land Trust for conservation and open space, at Schneider’s expense.
Another revised condition adopts the Bear River Band’s request for a tribe-managed fund for mitigation of cultural resource damage.
Schneider said he believes these revised conditions address some of the concerns tribes raised before the last meeting.
“I don’t know if they’re going to agree, but they haven’t spoke out against it,” he said.
Asked his opinion of Bongio’s comments at the August 18 meeting, Schneider said, “It was a moment I wasn’t in agreement with or proud of. I even spoke to Alan [afterwards].” Schneider said Bongio’s tone and language choices “took attention away from the issue at hand.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who appointed Bongio to the Planning Commission in 2013, said he still hasn’t watched the August 18 meeting but did hear about the controversy surrounding Bongio’s comments.
“Am I disappointed? Yeah, because I feel we’re making some headway” with county-tribe relations, he said, adding that he understood the objections to Bongio’s comments. “My concern is with the tone and the delivery. I have talked with Alan about that. We didn’t go deeply into it. … I’m hopeful that we can get back to an even keel so that we’re back working together on projects.”
In developing his family home, Schneider is taking advantage of the county’s Alternative Owner Builder program, a simplified, less restrictive permitting system adopted by the county in 1984. The program’s stated goal, according to the housing element of the county’s general plan, is “to promote low cost housing and improved permit compliance in rural areas not served by public water or sewer.”
“That goes way, way back,” Planning and Building Director John Ford said in a recent interview. “I think the idea was that, for people who were building a house — particularly for those folks that were part of the back-to-the-land movement and maybe using materials and styles that aren’t customary for a home permitted under the uniform building code — this gave them some flexibility.”
The Alternative Owner Builder program permits much more flexibility in acceptable design and materials along with more lax inspection schedules. The general plan says that through this program, builders “approach the need for low-cost housing in a carefully considered and innovative manner. Investing their capital in rural land and building low-cost, low-amenity dwellings of innovative designs, often utilizing recycled or home manufactured materials, they are able to provide themselves with an affordable, comfortable, and satisfying living environment.”
Over the years, however, the AOB program has been embraced by builders with much grander ambitions. Schneider’s 8,000-square-foot home is one example, and Ford said the program was also used by Mackey McCullough, owner of Arcata-based McCullough Construction, Inc., when he built a 10,000-square-foot home near Lord Ellis Summit.
Ford said the AOB program has loopholes that should probably be addressed in the near future.
“Normally, with a conventional permit, you’d have to call for a foundation inspection to make sure the house conforms with the approved plan. That was not done in this case,” Ford said, referring to Schneider’s project. “Had there been an inspection we probably would have not been in this situation with the house.”
Schneider’s property qualifies for the program because it’s not within the boundaries of any incorporated city or municipal sphere of influence and it’s not served by public water or sewer services, but Ford said the original idea was to promote code compliance among rural landowners who probably couldn’t afford to hire their own contractors, let alone build such large homes.
Schneider said he used the program because of its eased restrictions.
“The primary reason is because it provides the option for us to not use fire sprinklers in the home,” he said, adding that most of the design and building conditions remain the same as with standard permitting. Still, he acknowledged his project’s divergence from the original intent, to promote rural development at a reduced cost.
“The program could conceivably use some revision and maybe second look after this particular case,” he said.
Bohn agreed, saying the Schneider and McCullough projects exceeded the expectations people had when the program was established.
”Anybody building anything is gonna push it to where they can go,” Bohn said, referring to regulatory compliance. “I think that [the AOB program] was maybe not fine-tuned enough, or the perception is that it is being taken advantage of.”
Tonight’s Planning Commission meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. inside board chambers at the county courthouse. The meeting can also be streamed via the county website.