After five years of planning, dozens of public meetings and a couple advisory elections, Humboldt County has abandoned a plan to establish redevelopment project areas in rural communities spread around the county.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in September to abandon the controversial plan, and supervisors said they may even shut down the redevelopment agency. The decision pleased the leaders of some special districts that feared a loss of revenue and control, as well as both development interests and slow-growth activists — all of which may show just how unpopular the redevelopment proposal was.
Still, some people are lamenting a lost opportunity to invest money for economic development purposes, infrastructure and affordable housing in struggling communities with few resources.
“It was a double-edged sword,” said Steve Paine, general manager of the Willow Creek Community Services District (CSD). Redevelopment could have helped fund a needed wastewater treatment plant for the community, which lies on Highway 299 in the coastal mountain range east of Eureka. However, the county appeared to be setting up a “fiefdom,” and some of the project area boundaries would have diverted needed revenue away from small special districts, Paine said.
“It was poorly presented by the county. It took my board a year and a half to understand it,” Paine said.
Redevelopment is a tool used predominately by cities. Only 30 of California’s 58 counties have redevelopment agencies, according to the state controller’s office. The Humboldt County redevelopment plan was an attempt to address conditions in small communities that have been hurt by declines in the timber business, the fishing industry, or both. The plan proposed to fund brownfield cleanup at closed lumber mills, infrastructure improvements such as wastewater and water systems, tsunami warning systems in some coastal communities, and affordable housing rehabilitation and development. A study estimated that redevelopment would generate $66 million in tax increment over 45 years.
The plan originally included all or parts of eight unincorporated communities in a noncontiguous redevelopment project area: Alton, Fields Landing, Glendale, Manila, Orick, Redway, Samoa/Fairhaven and Willow Creek. However, community activists and special district leaders in some of the communities opposed the plan for various reasons. In Redway, a very small community amidst the redwood trees of the south county, redevelopment met resistance because it could encourage growth. Residents in the coastal community of Manila took offense to having their town called “blighted.” In Glendale, concerns arose about the possible use of eminent domain for affordable housing development. A lawsuit was threatened in Samoa because there is already some new development in the old mill town.
The redevelopment plan also got dragged into the larger battle over growth in Humboldt County. For several years, a group of landowners, developers and business interests called Humboldt Economic and Land Plan (HELP) has fought the county over an ongoing general plan update, a new housing element, and anything else concerning growth.
Kay Backer, a Sacramento-based consultant to HELP, said the county refused to work with the group, with a home builders organization and with local citizens in devising the redevelopment plan.
“The way it was proposed, it was taking money away from the fire districts and putting it under the control of the county” Backer said. Trust of county government is low, she said.
In November 2005, community service districts in Manila and Redway conducted advisory elections on whether the county should include the communities in the redevelopment project area. In Redway, 85% of voters said no to redevelopment; In Manila, 54% rejected the idea.
The Manila CSD Board of Directors struggled with the redevelopment plan, said General Manager Judy Hollifield. Ultimately, though, the board organized opposition because of concerns about the district losing revenue to the county’s redevelopment agency.
County officials ended up deleting both Redway and Manila from the project area. In June, the Board of Supervisors directed staff members to further pare back the plan. The revisions proposed dividing up revenue so that individual communities would be assured 50% of the local tax increment, while the other half would go to a combined fund. Also, the plan eliminated redevelopment bond financing for the first five years of implementation.
The changes, Community Development Director Kirk Girard wrote in a staff report, shift the focus “from the development of a centrally planned slate of projects for bond financing to a community based selection of individual projects that can be funded with grants and loans using tax increment as matching funds. Over time, the same investment levels could be achieved but the new strategy will require increased efforts to secure funding from outside sources.”
But even the more modest plan turned out to be too much. During a September 18 meeting at which redevelopment opponents again heavily outnumbered supporters, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to drop redevelopment altogether.
“The hue and cry from the affected communities was just too much,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman John Woolley.
Paine said the decision was a blow to his CSD in Willow Creek. Redevelopment could have provided $2 million to $3 million for the town’s first wastewater treatment system. The district, which serves more than 2,000 people, still wants to move ahead with the project, but funding is very uncertain now, he said.
The lack of a wastewater treatment system “will inhibit having a new market. It will inhibit a new hotel. It will stifle multi-family residential growth,” Paine said. In addition, Willow Creek has a 42-acre former mill site that cannot be reused without sewer service, he said.
Backer, of the group HELP and who previously served on a joint city-state redevelopment board for downtown Sacramento, said redevelopment “could be a positive force.” And she readily conceded that portions of the county need infrastructure investments, economic development and affordable housing. But, she contended, the county cannot pursue those things until it has a better general plan.
“Part of the problem is that they haven’t addressed the need for so long. The no-growthers haven’t wanted to talk about roads or sewers or other infrastructure,” Backer said. “
Supervisor Woolley conceded that completion of a new general plan probably should have preceded the redevelopment effort. With redevelopment off the agenda, the county will now focus on the general plan update, he said.
Steve Paine, Willow Creek Community Services District, (530) 629-2136.
Kay Backer, Humboldt Economic and Land Plan, (916) 486-2638.
Judy Hollifield, Manila Community Services District, (707) 444-3803.
Humboldt County redevelopment website: