Humboldt County is in desperate need of mental health services.
Local health care providers and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) staff have spent the last year looking for long-term strategies to address the ongoing mental health crisis, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and insufficient local resources. The county has tried to get an adult crisis residential facility up and running for some time but hasn’t found a viable location for such a facility until recently.
During this week’s meeting, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors took its first look at a proposal to build a behavioral health crisis triage center in Arcata and unanimously approved a letter of support for a grant application that would partially fund the construction of the facility.
The proposed facility, which is inspired by Be Well Orange County, would provide approximately 12 crisis stabilization beds, 12 sobering cots and nine mental health crisis residential beds, though the design and square footage of the facility has yet to be finalized. The facility would be built on property owned by Mad River Community Hospital but the exact location of the property has not been disclosed.
Several members of the North Coast Health Leadership Team emphasized the “extremely critical” need for additional mental health services in Humboldt County.
“This would be the best thing that could happen to really improve [mental health] care in Humboldt County,” David Neal, chief executive officer for Mad River Community Hospital, said. “What’s going on at Mad River [Hospital], Redwood [Memorial Hospital] and St. Joseph’s [Hospital] is a really grave concern. … We [need to] develop a unit where these patients could be housed, get the appropriate care that is necessary … so they can succeed in getting the treatment needed to then transition to other levels of care.”
Behavioral Health Director Emi Botzler-Rodgers said the proposed facility presents “an amazing opportunity to address mental illness in our community.”
“There is lots of judgment of people with mental illness and I think we as a community are still really learning about how to stop stigma and discrimination,” she said. “I think this is one of the ways to do it, to just recognize the need in our community and come together to normalize that people with mental illness need care with dignity and respect and kindness.”
The grant funding would come from the California Department of Health Care Services’ Behavioral Health Continuum Infrastructure Program. The latest round of grant funds would pay for $480 million in projects to address significant crisis care gaps in California’s behavioral health infrastructure.
“This is a unique situation where the state has a grant program where communities … can bring their ideas to the state for funding,” Connie Stewart, Executive Director of Initiatives at Cal Poly Humboldt, said. “This round of funding required a 10 percent match because of public and private partners.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn expressed enthusiastic support for the project and even suggested that the county “can do better” than a 10 percent match of $3 million to fund the project.
“This is long-term,” he said. “I think this is going to go a long way because … when you read stories of people that come out of homelessness and mental health [crises], it is because somebody spent some time with them and gave them dignity for a moment. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s our job.”
Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo asked how long patients would stay at the facility and whether or not people would be involuntarily held.
“Maybe this is nitty-gritty we can get into later, but the triage nature of it makes it sound like people are in and out of there relatively quickly,” she said. “Could you help me understand in broad terms how people come in and then get connected to other resources?”
It would vary, Botzler-Rodgers said, because the single facility would offer several components of care.
“Our goal is to get people to the right level of care,” she said. “They may come in, they may be triaged and they may not need to stay. They may just need to be linked to outpatient services and connected with a case manager or a clinician. … They may need more intensive, longer-term services like residential treatment, but at this facility, it’s really only 30 to 60, maybe 90 days. That would be the max.”
After public comment and some more discussion, Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation to submit a letter of support for the grant funding application, which was seconded by Bohn.
The item passed in a 5-0 vote.
The board also approved an anti-hate resolution condemning recent “hate events” in the county, including several instances of racism, anti-Semitism and an increase in hate crimes, discrimination and violence towards the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Recent events include posting anti-trans signage in the community, anti-2SLBTQIA+ graffiti/vandalism in local schools and at a queer-friendly church, as well as harassing phone calls being made to at least one community organization.
The resolution, brought forth by Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Steve Madrone and Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, emphasized the county’s commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion of all religions, ancestries, and ethnicities regardless of immigration status as well as people of any disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
“While this resolution is broad and encompasses a lot of wishes and values in the community, I don’t think it’s speaking to abstract concerns,” Arroyo noted. “I think these are very real fears for people in our community and I hope that we follow it up with more forms of action. But in the meantime, I really appreciate it being brought forward and it’s an important moment in time to do so.”
During public comment, Humboldt County Human Rights Commission Chair Jim Glover reminded the board of the commission’s recent decision to create a “rapid response protocol” designed to address such issues in the community as they arise.
“We had two opportunities to respond to incidents targeted to segments of our population and to what some believe is a coordinated attempt to stoke fear,” he said. “To that extent, [the commission’s] efforts are meeting with some success. However, the commission is determined to educate the public about the inaccuracies being presented and the perceived hateful bias behind each event and the LGBTQIA+ Pride event in October that was interrupted by protesters.”
Glover added that the protesters were only focused on a single aspect of the all-ages Redwood Pride Halloween event: the drag show.
“The protesters would have had you believe that little else went on in that event except for a drag show for kids,” he continued. “There was far more to this event, but the focus of the protesters was only on one aspect.”
Glover thanked the board for bringing the resolution forward but urged the board to “be prepared to do even more in the future.”
Bohn made a motion to approve the resolution but said it should be “a little more encompassing” and include the homeless community as well.
“I think that is a crisis that we need to address,” he said. “I’m also proud that we’re bringing this forward but as we bring this forward, don’t forget the one [segment] of our population that is actually dying from us not doing anything is the homeless population. … I don’t know if it constitutes a hate crime, but it sure tears my heart apart that we’re not doing more.”
Arroyo said she appreciated Bohn’s comments and offered a second to the motion.
The board did not take any action to amend the resolution to reflect Bohn’s comments, though the board seemed to agree with his sentiment. The motion passed in a unanimous 5-0 vote.
Legislative Platform for 2023
Almost every year, as a part of the usual beginning-of-the-year housekeeping duties, the board is tasked with approving a legislative platform for the coming year. The document details the county’s official stance on various legislative issues, ranging from public safety to more specific issues like offshore wind, to inform state and federal lawmakers of our local priorities.
The board took its first look at the document two weeks ago but could not reach a consensus on one of the community’s most contentious issues: Caltrans’ Richardson Grove Improvement Project. During that conversation, Madrone indicated he would vote against the entire legislative platform if the document included supportive language for the project, as he’s done in years past.
In case you’re not familiar, the project, which has been tied up in litigation by environmental groups for the better part of the last decade, proposes minor realignment and widening of Highway 101 along a 1.1-mile stretch through the iconic Richardson Grove State Park.
The project has been modified several times since its inception to reduce potential impacts on old growth redwoods along the highway but opponents, including Madrone, argue that the changes don’t go far enough.
“As a hydrologist, I understand some of the issues of root systems and other impacts to old growth redwoods,” Madrone said. “There are a lot of trees that have died back … and that has a lot to do with the disturbance of root systems, disturbance of hydrology, as well as opening up the highway and having desiccating effects on the tops of the redwood trees. Those are well-studied effects on old-growth redwoods.”
Madrone added that the highway realignment project could dramatically increase the volume of large semi trucks traveling through the area.
Bohn argued in favor of the project and emphasized that impacts would be “less than significant.”
“I won’t change my position on Richardson’s Grove,” he said. “No old growth will be affected, no growth will be cut and old growth will be taken. … There’ll be less trucks if we have more space and that’s what they’re doing is allowing these larger, longer trailers to be able to go through the grove safely. It’s not going to be any big fuel-belching monsters coming through the trees.”
He added that the realignment project is essential for the county’s future and “for the betterment of the whole community.”
In an attempt to meet in the middle, Madrone suggested the county take a neutral stance on the project. He included a proposed revision to the legislative platform that would convey the county’s support for “efforts that would allow larger trucks into Humboldt County” as long as “no old growth redwood trees are affected with this construction, either from tree removal or root disturbance.”
During public comment, Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), urged the county to look into alternative solutions to the project.
“If the county is interested in promoting more efficient, more sustainable goods movement into and out of the county, there are things that we could do and legislation that we could possibly pursue,” he said. “ If we were to bring back something else along the lines of alternative solutions to allow for access during periods in which Highway 299 may be closed or something else. I think that that kind of fulfills the goal of the group goods movement.”
But throughout the debate, no one’s mind appeared to change. Arroyo said she could understand both sides of the issue and suggested that the board omit the item from the legislative platform entirely.
“I would prefer that our legislative platform is what we were asking our team to advocate for,” she said. “I would prefer that if we are not in agreement about something that it simply not be in there rather than say we’re neutral on something. I’d rather we just omit it.”
After some additional discussion, Bushnell made a motion to go with Arroyo’s suggestion and remove the item from the document. Arroyo offered a second.
The motion passed 5-0.
Measure S Payments
Early on in the meeting, the board received an informational report from the county Treasurer-Tax Collector’s office regarding the county’s backlog of Measure S tax payments.
Back in November, the Board of Supervisors agreed to temporarily suspend Measure S, the county’s commercial cannabis cultivation tax, for two years – 2022 and 2023 – to provide immediate financial relief to the struggling cannabis community. To further assist indebted farmers and offer a little more flexibility, the county will now allow any tax amount to be paid at any time.
“With the suspension of the annual billing of the Measure S tax, it has provided an opportunity for us to explore the option of taking payments during the suspension period,” said Treasurer-Tax Collector Amy Christensen. “Because the annual payments are suspended, that’s why we do have the ability to take on the payments. I’ll need to work with county counsel so the details are legal and we can proceed.”
Bushnell thanked Christensen for providing the option for struggling farmers. “This will be very helpful, I think, for people to come in and start chipping away at those amounts,” she said.
Speaking during public comment, Craig Johnson, owner and operator of Alpenglow Farms, thanked county staff for offering a little more flexibility.
“This is a step in the right direction and we sure appreciate this,” Johnson said. “We’ve been coming to the board since 2017 asking for help to prevent this entire situation on a county level and we’re going to continue to show up and advocate for our community. … No one wants to be behind. It’s because of extreme economic challenges.”
Likewise, Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, thanked the county “for coming up with a mechanism to support the [cannabis] community.”
“I would like to remind the board that up until our economic crisis started, we had an 80 percent payment rate. That’s pretty darn good,” she said. “It was not until … the collapse of the industry that it really just became an insurmountable challenge.”
Bushnell made a motion to accept and file the informational report, which was seconded by Wilson. The motion passed 5-0.
Cannabis Permit Appeal
Towards the end of the meeting, the board considered an appeal to a recent decision by the Humboldt County Planning Commission to approve a conditional use permit for Cisco Farms, Inc., for a five-acre commercial cannabis operation on Chambers Road in Petrolia. After more than three hours of back-and-forth discussion, the board unanimously voted to deny the appeal, with several conditions, and uphold the Planning Commission’s decision.
The appeal, brought forth by a group of Petrolia residents, cites numerous cumulative impacts associated with the cannabis operation.
One of the appellants, John Williams, spoke at length about the community’s “laundry list” of concerns surrounding the project. The primary complaints focus on the size of the cultivation area, water availability on the property, impacts on road infrastructure, as well as traffic and public safety near the school along Chambers Road.
“What I want to talk about more is the impact on the community, which is pretty much neglected in the initial study,” Williams added. “We all know from experience that permit conditions and laws are not effectively enforced in the Petrolia area, we’re just too remote. … We think there will be significant impacts that won’t be mitigated and that means we think the Planning Commission erred by [approving the pemit].”
The applicant, long-time Petrolia resident Cisco Benemann, reiterated his willingness to work with his neighbors and said he had done so throughout the application process.
“We held a community meeting at the community center [and] I listened to my neighbors’ concerns that live on Chambers Road,” he said. “I understand [their concerns] but this is a project I’m gonna scale [up] over time. I’m not going to come out of the gate at five acres and build this whole thing out. It’s gonna take time and will take one acre at a time. … I would like to be able to have the potential to grow and scale this project for the next 20 years.”
Around a dozen Petrolia and Southern Humboldt residents addressed the board during public comment. The majority of the commenters were against the project, including Petrolia resident and Treasurer of the Mattole Valley Resource Center Kathryn Radke.
“I am burned out in trying to help our community maintain its social fabric and its public safety,” she said. “Our community is supported by volunteers. I would love to have volunteers come in who are related to the large-scale [cannabis] industry but I have not seen them. I have seen many volunteers from the small-scale industry but quite a few of them have had to move. We’ve lost EMTs, we’ve lost fire department members, we’ve lost board members and active people who are involved in the social fabric because they are priced out and we need to replace them.”
On the other hand, a number of residents sympathized with the applicant and felt as though he had met all of the requirements under the county’s Commercial Cannabis Land Use Ordinance (CCLUO).
The board went back and forth on the matter for the next hour and a half trying to decide whether to deny the appeal entirely or require the applicant to adhere to a list of conditions to quell the community’s concerns surrounding the project.
Ultimately, the board agreed on a list of additional conditions:
- Employees must arrive for work at the property before school starts and leave after school is out to avoid traffic safety issues involving students going to or leaving the school.
- The applicant and/or his employees must volunteer with local organizations for two hours a week once operations begin.
- The applicant must provide up to $20,000 in matching funds obtained by the community within the first five years for traffic safety improvements to Chambers Road.
- As the phasing takes place, the applicant will be subject to an annual review by the Zoning Administrator.
Bushnell made a motion to deny the appeal and approve the project with the aforementioned conditions, which was seconded by Arroyo.
The motion passed in a 5-0 vote.
You can find a recording of the meeting at this link.