Editor’s note: We are happy to announce a new collaboration with Frank Hartzell, a local journalist with a long history of doing in-depth reporting on the coast and across the state. We hope to bring you more such pieces, and to continue to expand our coverage of Mendocino County. So stay tuned.
FORT BRAGG, 9/20/18 — A splash away from California’s most spectacular undeveloped oceanfront industrial property, the California Coastal Commission met in Fort Bragg’s Town Hall last week, from Sept. 12 to 14. The state agency granted the City of Fort Bragg a change to the “local coastal program” (LCP) process, which may allow plans to rezone the former Georgia Pacific lumber millsite to come forward as early as this winter. The California Coastal Commission exists to make sure that changes and development within the “coastal zone” further public access and don’t degrade the environment. Up and down the coast, municipalities like the City of Fort Bragg work with the Coastal Commission under local coastal programs.
At the meeting, Marie Jones, community development director for Fort Bragg, presented the Commission with what she said was a city-community-based vision for rezoning of the 430 acre property, that emphasizes industrial jobs, workforce housing and sustainable long-term growth.
“We don’t want to be a tourist destination. This has always been a real town — it’s working town. We don’t want to become the Disneyfication of Fort Bragg,” Jones said during her comments.
Although the many people within the city government had hoped that after nine years of work, a rezoning plan that emphasizes good jobs represented a consensus, environmentalists at the meeting put forward a different plan and map that emphasized a smaller development footprint. With three of the five Fort Bragg City Council seats up for grabs in November, it remains to be seen whether the current city vision of the millsite as an engine for a new industrial Fort Bragg will be shelved again, finally approved, or morph into one that emphasizes open space and the tourist economy.
The City has spent much of the past decade creating the spectacular coastal trail that allows the public to walk Fort Bragg’s entire waterfront, from Noyo Bridge to Glass Beach. Using monies from the Coastal Conservancy, Georgia Pacific, and others, the City purchased all the land directly adjacent to the ocean for the trail. Currently, a plan to create an access from downtown through Alder Street is in its final stages, with hopes that such access will happen sometime this year.
Environmentalist John Gallo, representing the Fort Bragg Headlands Consortium, put forth a competing plan and map on behalf of the consortium and submitted it to the Coastal Commission. Gallo explained that the members of the group had become disenchanted with the City’s desire that they work within the process and not submit an alternative map.
Georgia Pacific withdraws
The Coastal Commission granted the City’s request to replace a site-specific plan with a community-based comprehensive planning process under the legal mechanism of the LPC. This became necessary when Georgia Pacific withdrew from from the planning process in 2012.
“GP decided to focus their attentions more on remediation. They are not a developer and they essentially felt a little out of their league, working with the City. To be blunt, we were pretty hard negotiators,” Jones said.
The old millsite has always dominated Fort Bragg, with the gigantic Guest House it used for managers towering above everything, next to the old Union Lumber Company General Store, now a small business hub. At one point the mill employed most of the town, but also cut off almost all coastal access. In the 1980s, the mill still employed 2,000 men and women, running 24 hours a day and filling up bars, churches and the bowling alley. The mill was closed permanently in 2002 with most all the buildings demolished by Georgia Pacific (purchased by Koch industries in 2005) over the next 15 years. During that same time, the City has led efforts to create a coastal trail on the site.
Jones said the former millsite is now 97 percent “remediated,” or cleaned up, from more than a century of industrial use. Four millponds remain to be cleaned up. Many locals want the last four ponds cleaned up totally, fearing that storms during sea level rise or a tsunami could scatter them. This was not an issue at last week’s meeting.
Jones said that the specific plan has been sitting on the shelf since GP withdrew 6 years ago, because the City could not afford the $500,000 price tag. From 2009 to 2012 the City worked with GP on rezoning and development and held extensive meetings. The process had gone flat until last week. GP had sought to gain development agreements, which would have enhanced the salability of the property. GP was not involved with the process last week.
For now, there will be no immediate development resulting from the procedural change granted by the Coastal Commission, but the bold plan sets the stage for a rezone that would allow a combination of open space, hotel, housing and industrial development and an urban reserve area. All of this would take place within the loop created by the Coastal Trail to the west, and Highway 1 frontages to the east. Despite all the new areas for development, Jones said 59 percent of the property would be open space, trails and urban reserve.
Skunk Train offer
While the rezoning envisions clean factories, worker housing, and more, someone must buy the property before anything can happen — and for the first time since the mill closed, that is happening. The City’s LCP rezoning plan drama last week has been eclipsed by the announcement, made public the previous week, that the Skunk Train has made an offer to GP on the 70 acres at the north end of the property, which has been accepted. If the escrow goes through, the iconic tourist train ride hopes to run all the way to the Coastal Trail. The Skunk also wants to build a hotel and some workforce housing.
The two last large buildings on the millsite are the “dry sheds” long warehouses that look like something from old Hollywood. Early in 2018, the City supported GP’s request to tear the massive buildings down. Then, the Coastal Commission upheld the appeal of local resident Gabriel Quinn Maroney, delaying the demolition. Now the Skunk Train wants the dry sheds to be part of its purchase and has plans to use the buildings.
The adjacent Skunk Train is the last living artifact of the mill site itself. The California Western Railroad was conceived to carry logs, but became beloved by Bay Area tourists as early as a century ago. It became known as The Skunk when it bought smelly diesel rail buses in the 1920s to transport riders. The Skunk’s purchase could also give North Coast Brewing, one of the town’s major employers, a chance to expand to the west.
The City’s new plan
The City is hoping to make the plan presented this week a guiding document for decades to come. This would not have been possible under the old, time-limited, specific plan process. The idea of discarding the specific plan process was supported by the Coastal Commission and even critics. Critics and Commission staff alike said a longer time frame for planning made more sense.
Although the Coastal Commission gave no input on the map and development plans put forward by the City last week, the procedural changes they did approve could allow this map to come right back to the commission if they liked what was proposed.
“What comes forward [to the Coastal Commission from the City] might be this [rezoning] plan. Unless you tell me ‘no’ The City Council and planning commission liked it,” Jones said.
Jones represented the rezoning plan as the will of the community. She detailed outreach for community input, ranging from numerous City Council and planning commission meetings, to two survey monkey efforts, to open houses and farmer’s market tables.
Gallo asked the commission to “re-engage now with council and community, not solely staff, do it now before final applications are submitted.”
There are 11 new land use policies in the City’s plans. Jones explained one is called a “big idea,” that would allow up to 100,000 square feet of new development in the urban reserve area, if the employer is providing jobs at 150 percent or more of the average wage job in Fort Bragg, along with other requirements.
“You might ask the question, why so much dang industrial?” said Jones, who oversees development applications made to the City, during the meeting. “Well, there really isn’t much industrial in town, and lots of pent up demand,” she said.
Involvement of local tribes
The future role that Native Americans will have in the millsite remains to be seen. Jones excluded archeological sites on the millsite from a drone tour video she showed the commission. Showing the location of Native American artifacts is a violation of law, she said.
The millsite, along with all of Fort Bragg was once part of the 25,000 acre Mendocino Indian Reservation, which was discontinued and sold off starting at the end of the U.S Civil War. The land went partly to C.R Johnson, founder of the mill and railroad, and considered the “father” of Fort Bragg by many. Native people were moved down to Noyo Harbor, then back up to the current millsite. Native people have lived on the extreme south end for a century. Locally, it’s considered de facto Native lands. The issue has been discussed at length in the past, but on Wednesday, Jones only said, as she narrated the drone view, “Native Americans live in these four houses. That is also part of the Georgia Pacific site.” There is also a pioneer cemetery near the Indian housing.
Public comment to the Coast Commission
The meeting room at the Coastal Commission was standing room only all day, with the temperature climbing inside Town Hall despite open doors and fans.
Rex Gressett said the rezoning plan presented by Jones was not truly presented to the people of Fort Bragg, but rather pushed past them. “There is a wide dislike for the process that has taken place, a multiple choice survey was an insult,” said Gressett. He also asked the Commission to engage with people of Fort Bragg outside the City’s process.
Sheila Dawn-Tracy suggested hostels instead of luxury hotels. She also suggested reforestation in open spaces.
Commissioner Donne Brownsey, who lives in Fort Bragg, praised the creation of the Coastal Trail and Fort Bragg’s ability to work as a community, citing the community unity against offshore oil drilling. She suggested people directly engage with the North Coast office in Eureka.
Gallo and members of the Consortium invited commissioners to go for a morning walk on the old millsite with them. Two commissioners took him up on the offer, he said.
“They were blown away by the splendor of the site, and how you could bike and walk from the Noyo Bridge area all the way to Mackerricher and even Seaside Beach through this beauty. World class,” Gallo said.
“On the tour we viewed the berm of riprap, which is there instead of a nice beach, and we viewed the fragile dam made of old logs and whatnot that is separating all the toxins from the bay. We also stood right next to where the hotel and parking lot are proposed out by the point.”
The City had provided a tour to the entire commission at a previous meeting. On Friday, locals commented on a variety of issues during the general comment period. The biggest crowd was Wednesday afternoon, with locals providing mostly opposition to a successful Caltrans request to do a geotechnical investigation of Albion River Bridge. That state agency seeks to replace both the Albion River Bridge and Salmon Creek Bridge.
The three day meeting featured more than 15 hours of discussion of matters ranging from a new environmental justice policy, to a bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown banning onshore facilities for offshore oil. That ban on oil could help with mill-site development, as a local ban on oil related development had run afoul of the Coastal Commission, which previously had seen an industry specific ban as legally problematic. The City has not yet announced a schedule for the mill-site rezoning plan.
To comment to the Coastal Commission about the City plans for the mill-site, coastal commission members suggested contacting Bob Merrill in the Eureka office at (707) 445-7833.