Coastal Commission still awaiting project info
Nearly three years ago, Eureka voters took to the polls to overwhelmingly approve a zoning change for a huge mixed-use waterfront development after a campaign that touted the ballot measure with the slogan: “Marina Center now.” Years later, little progress is apparent, and it appears the project remains entrenched in a stalemate between the project developers and the California Coastal Commission.
In fact, things appear to be moving at such a snail’s pace that Humboldt Baykeeper recently dismissed its lawsuit against CUE VI, the developer and the city of Eureka. The suit challenged the city’s environmental impact report for the proposed development on the Balloon Track property, the sprawling site of a former rail yard that sits at the foot of the city’s downtown commercial district off Waterfront Drive.
CUE VI, a subsidiary of Security National, purchased the property in 2006 and is proposing to turn the site into a 43-acre mixed-use development that would include retail, office and residential space anchored by a Home Depot store, as well as an 11acre wetland reserve.
Baykeeper stepped in to challenge the city’s environmental impact report, charging that the document failed to fully address the project’s potential impacts on the environment.
Moreover, a coastal development permit issued for Phase 1 of the project — which included a cleanup of the site — was appealed to the California Coastal Commission, which has ultimate discretion over the Marina Center because the project lies in the coastal zone.
In preparing to hold a hearing on the permit, the coastal commission asked for a host of information from the city and Security National. The commission’s last letter requesting that information was sent out 18 months ago, according to Bob Merrill, the commission’s North Coast district manager.
“Since the last letter, we just really haven’t heard a response,” Merrill said. “We basically haven’t heard anything more. That was a long time ago.”
Because its lawsuit challenging the environmental impact report was essentially on hold pending the outcome of the coastal commission process, Baykeeper has seen little movement in the case, according to attorney Bill Verick. He said the parties have simply been trudging into court every six months or so for status updates.
With no resolution to the coastal commission stalemate in sight, Verick said Baykeeper simply decided to dismiss its lawsuit without prejudice under an agreement that will allow it to refile at any point — regardless of statutes of limitations — if it deems necessary.
“We didn’t want to keep going back and going back and going back,” Verick said. “This preserves all the rights of everybody.”
Verick said he really doesn’t foresee having to refile the case. In his mind, the project is dead.
“The project can’t go forward unless the coastal commission gives its blessing in the form of a local coastal amendment,” he said. “It seems the project proponents themselves don’t see this as a feasible enough thing to comply with the process. … The fact is, the coastal commission is never going to (approve the project) unless California suddenly becomes a Republican state.”
While the motion to dismiss the lawsuit was signed off on by Verick, an attorney representing the city and Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Bruce Watson on Aug. 30, it is coming before the Eureka City Council on Tuesday. According to the agenda, the council is slated to decide whether to authorize its outside counsel in the case — Edward Grutzmacher of the firm Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver and Wilson — to enter into the agreement for dismissal, which it appears Grutzmacher did almost a month ago.
Reached Friday, Eureka City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson said the agenda item is just an opportunity for the council to “bless” Grutzmacher’s signature.
Via email, Security National spokesman Randy Gans said it’s important to remember that the only issue currently on appeal with the coastal commission is the initial clean-up plan for the property. He said the majority of the commission’s questions for Security National focus on the commission’s land use policies, not the “scientific justifications” of the clean-up plan.
“We are currently working with city planning staff to revisit these policy issues with the coastal commission, as they not only affect the Balloon Track property but many other vacant properties within the city limits,” Gans wrote.
While it’s accurate that many of the commission’s questions center around the project’s compliance with its land use policies, that shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. The commission evaluates these types of projects almost from an ends-justifies-the-means approach, essentially saying a project that includes the diking, dredging and filling of wetlands will only be authorized for certain reasons and certain uses — generally things that have a largely environmentally beneficial component.
The coastal commission simply is not going to sign off on a project that fills wetlands to build a shopping center with a Home Depot, Verick said.
“Maybe in the future if Home Depot merges with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and they want to open the new first-ever Eureka Aquarium/hardware store, then maybe,” Verick said.
Gans dismissed any talk of the project’s demise.
“A project that wins a public vote by 70 percent is never a dead project,” he said, referring to the 2010 ballot measure that saw 69 percent of voters approve a zoning change for the Balloon Track property. “The economy is strengthening, and development is beginning to occur again, so signs are positive.”
Another issue that remains on hold pending the coastal commission’s decision appears to be the settlement between Security National, the city of Eureka, and the California State Lands Commission, which held a title interest in a portion of the Balloon Track property. Under the terms of a proposed settlement approved by the Eureka City Council in October 2011, state lands and the city would release the bulk of their claim to the Balloon Track property in exchange for Security National’s agreeing to pay more than $525,000 into the city’s Humboldt Bay Fund, which is used to pay for projects increasing commerce and public access to the bay.
According to city officials, that money still hasn’t been deposited into the Humboldt Bay Fund. Gans indicated the settlement is still in place, but it appears the city shouldn’t expect the funds unless the project moves forward.
“Nothing has derailed the settlement, and we look forward to closing that transaction once the Coastal Commission issues come into better focus,” Gans wrote.
Eureka Community Development Director Rob Wall said he met with Gans within the last couple of weeks to re-engage on the project, which the Eureka City Council identified as a priority during its recent strategic planning process. Wall said he plans to follow up with local coastal commission staff.
As the apparent stalemate continues, Gans said Security National continues to supervise and maintain the sprawling property, which comes at a considerable cost.
“It costs plenty to maintain the property, but we will continue to mow the weeds, repair the fences and run the environmental pump systems going forward,” Gans said.
Back at the coastal commission offices, Merrill said the ball remains in Security National’s court.
“We need to receive the information that we requested in order to move it forward,” he said, adding that once that happened, the commission staff could probably get the matter scheduled for a hearing within a few months.
“It’s up to (Security National) to move this thing forward,” Merrill continued. “We certainly have other projects that are moving forward, and are getting completed.