Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – They didn’t rant or rave. They didn’t even raise their voices above a conversational level. They didn’t go about it alone. They didn’t intend or wish to become leaders, and they probably would rather have spent their time at home.
But it was their homes, their hometown, Arcata’s way of life and emerging threats to these treasures that transformed two private citizens into reluctant public warriors.
With no special powers, just information and patient persistence, they leveraged Arcata’s institutions – its government and media, but most importantly, fellow citizens – to organize and bring significant change. And they never lost their cool or senses of humor.
For their specific accomplishments and for providing exemplary models for public advocacy, Carol McFarland and Robin Hashem are the Arcata Eye 2009 Citizens of the Year.
Few would dispute that more housing is needed in Arcata and environs. Fewer still would agree that turning the Arcata Bottom into a mini-Los Angeles is the way to do it.
Danco Builders has successfully partnered with Arcata and other cities to provide affordable and senior housing. Its proposed 151-home Creek Side Homes subdivision has allies in City Hall and in the community, who rightly point to pressure from state housing mandates and the fact that the former 17-acre Eel River Sawmill site is zoned for medium-density residential development.
Touting those facts, Danco has repeatedly mounted a full-court press at every opportunity to push the project through to approval.
It fell to citizens – neighbors and community members from all over town – to point out the grave shortcomings inherent in the superficially glossy project Danco promoted.
With a good-natured but persistent voice, Carol McFarland was foremost in completing the picture. Trundling into town from her Foster Avenue home with an armload of papers night after night for lengthy Planning Commission and City Council meetings, writing opinion columns for the newspaper and contacting Bottoms residents and users one-on-one, she stood up to a well-funded array of company advocates and consultants with slick PowerPoint presentations, and made her case for the Arcata Bottom.
Pointing out well-documented economic and traffic impacts have been foremost tools in her armamentarium. Those and the specter of sprawl – the very real creeping degradation of traditional Arcata life – were what slowed and halted the Creek Side juggernaut, time after time.
“I just kind of jumped in there and did the best I could,” McFarland said. “I just put my heart out there.”
She doesn’t oppose development, but Danco’s Creek Side presents more problems than solutions.
“What a beautiful place this is,” she says of Arcata and its pastoral farmlands. “We can’t let this resource get chewed up by housing. Do we want it to be Santa Rosa?”
Cannabis and its cultivation aren’t new to Arcata. Closet grows are almost a tradition, and most neighborhoods have hosted the odd grow house over the years with little concern from live-and-let-live-oriented neighbors.
But in the years following passage of Prop 215, profiteers came to exploit the veneer of compassionate use, and an elaborate marijuana ecosystem grew up around the newly burgeoning industry. Above ground, it includes marijuana attorneys, Dr. Feelgood 215 recommendation mills, cannabis centers, hydroponic shops, passive news media and innumerable advocacy groups primed to pounce on any objectors. Unseen, their Arcata operators hope, are the dozens to hundreds of illegal, for-profit marijuana factories nestled in neighborhoods, which supply cannabis centers and private dealers.
Unlike old-school personal grows, the new-era industrial grow houses came with a number of impacts – pervasive stench, pit bulls, weapons, other drug activity, nocturnal comings and goings and outright hostility by the occupants, not to mention fires and robberies.
Citizen Wade DeLashmutt was the first to speak openly to the City Council about his neighborhood-shattering grow house neighbor. Reaction from the council dais ranged from mild concern to outright hostility. But he got people talking, many in anger and frustration.
It took Robin Hashem to give direction to the dialogue. She organized informal living-room meetings of neighbors. When the gatherings veered toward endless gripe sessions or suggestions of vigilantism, Hashem channeled the energy toward constructive conversation. Loosely known as Nip It In The Bud, the neighbor group shared information on suspected grow houses with City Hall, law enforcement and news media, urging these institutions to do their jobs.
And that’s just what happened. A cathartic community conversation, still in progress, ensued. New Land Use Code guidelines for medical cannabis cultivation were passed, and so was Measure G, with fresh funding for law enforcement.
A year later, through raids and regulation, the industry is systematically being flushed out of residential homes in favor of human habitation. Families and children are replacing arrays of halide lamps. Genuine 215 patients grow their own, legally and without police interference.
“People are now more aware of the steps they can take to help root out illegal grow houses in their neighborhoods,” Hashem said. “APD and DTF have been able to methodically make busts and hopefully, get the message out that it’s not OK any more to illegally grow pot in Arcata homes.”
Citizens of the Year
In some alternate universe without these two citizen-activists, the Arcata Bottom is awash in ticky-tacky houses and cars, while in town, whole neighborhoods have gone dark, overtaken by sealed-off, armed grow houses.
Fortunately, we occupy this universe – the one also inhabited by Carol McFarland and Robin Hashem, Arcata Eye 2009 Citizens of the Year.