Bottoms annexation brings shock and awe

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA BOTTOM – A county agency’s inclusion of 77 acres on the Arcata Bottom into the City of Arcata caught residents there by surprise last week. The Jan. 20 decision by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) involved a historic westward expansion of the City of Arcata onto 76.7 acres west of Janes Creek

But the approval was subsequently met with shock, suspicion, questions and demands for reversal by residents of the areas to be incorporated.

The annexation brings the pending Creek Side Homes housing development approved by the City Council last year in the City of Arcata. The DANCO project will add 32 single-family residences and 32 accessory dwelling units, a 100-bed memory care facility, and 25 senior-restricted neighborhood cottage units to the city’s housing stock. It will also allow expansion and improvement of Ennes Park.

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LAFCo more than tripled 21.6 acres the City of Arcata had approved for annexation. The added lands are zoned Agriculture Exclusive and lie outside the city’s Urban Services Boundary. While no development will be possible under current city regulation, skeptics worry that ag land protections are weaker with the area under Arcata control.

Meanwhile, though LAFCo insists otherwise, residents of Foster Avenue say they were given no notice of the imminent change in their status before their property was drawn into the City of Arcata.

Foster Avenue residents Carol McFarland and Don Nielsen say they found out only after the fact that they were to become citizens of Arcata. The news has undermined their sense of security and potentially blown up the plans they’d made to pass their property to their heirs, and to protect it as an agricultural asset.

“How can I understand the implications of your undisclosed actions in regard to taxes, insurance, utilities, fire and safety, and expenses of  rezoning and development from the county to the city?” he wrote in a letter to the City Council. Added Nielsen, “it certainly feels unethical and extremely upsetting to me.”

Longtime land use activist Lisa Brown, well-versed in the area’s regulatory history after previous housing development battles there, said the annexation wasn’t legal and demanded its reversal.

“I see no other option to undo the harm done to the people of Arcata by the action taken by LAFCo, which was approved WITHOUT the formal consent and ‘Resolution’ of the City Council,” Brown said. She said the annexation puts the ag land at heightened risk of development, a view shared by city staff.

LAFCo’s rationale for expanding the annexation beyond what the city had approved and requested was based on several factors. It wanted Foster Avenue to Janes Road and the large conservation easement parcel located to the west of Creek Side Homes included, as well as the parcels to the south. Reasons cited in an addendum to the project’s EIR included:

• Expanded annexation would allow dissolution of the Janes Creek Stormwater Drainage District, which LAFCo called “logical.” Community Development Director David Loya called that “a really weak argument.”  

• It would “prevent the creation of a partial island between Foster Avenue and Janes Road,” one “surrounded by city property. But Loya downplayed that as an “aesthetic desire outweighed by the need for agricultural preservation.”

• Agricultural preservation. The addendum cites Arcata’s General Plan and zoning policies within the Western Greenbelt as providing sufficient protection. 

Loya disagrees. At the meeting he offered qualified support for the LAFCo-authored expansion with a “light” recommendation to stick to the original, city-submitted proposal. He said the city would do its best to accommodate the involuntarily added lands, and to preserve and protect them. But he later made clear his position that ag protections are stronger with the lands remaining in the county. 

“I believe that these parcels have higher risk of development if they’re in the city,” he said. While current policies discourage development, a future, housing-hungry City Council looking for developable areas could see the vast tracts of undeveloped land and ease restrictions.

LAFCo Commissioner and county Supervisor Mike Wilson expressed skepticism about the strength of county ag protection, and said it would be stronger within Arcata city limits. Some other commissioners agreed.

But citing examples elsewhere in the city, Loya said rezoning from ag to residential would be an “easy step” for a future council under development pressure. 

“This was not a city decision,” Loya later said. “We didn’t ask for it and don’t want it.” He said the expanded annexation is “not supported” by the city’s current General Plan. 

Disagreement exists over whether an appeal of the LAFCo decision is automatically triggered or not. Brown and others believe it is not, and want the City of Arcata to sponsor reconsideration. City Manager Karen Diemer said she “[doesn’t] see a route for the city to appeal,” but that her reading of the matter is that a protest hearing is automatically triggered. 

Interestingly, while Creek Side Homes is only the latest of several controversial attempts by DANCO to establish a housing project on the Bottoms, for the first time, the focus of objections isn’t the development itself. Also, the development continues to be referred to as both “Creek Side” and “Creekside” in various planning documents.


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