How a dark money, grassroots greenwash badly backfired on Arcata

This column is a giant exercise in “we told you so,” and pulls no punches. So if that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to you, avert your eyes. 

The people of Arcata – and most specifically and sadly, the residents of the Westwood neighborhood – have been thoroughly bamboozled. Led by the nose into supporting something that worked against their own interests. And it is their own fault. You may very well have been part of it.

We learned last week that the Craftsmans Mall is on the path to becoming a state-owned property, one which is immune from any local regulation of future development there. This was entirely foreseen and warned against, but it happened anyway.

How, you ask? Strap in. 

As the now-abandoned The Village student housing project was being processed via the Planning Commission and City Council, an advocacy group calling itself “Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing (ACRH)” popped up. 

Citizen organizers have served Arcata well in recent years. In the early 2000s, the Sunny Brae-Arcata Neighborhood Association prevented ruinous logging of the Sunny Brae Tract, ultimately helping deliver a whole new annex to the Arcata Community Forest. In 2006, the Citizens for Healthy Teeth, along with local doctors and dentists, headed off a harebrained attempt to end community water fluoridation in Arcata, continuing the town’s longstanding protection of the public’s dental health. A few years later, the Nip It In The Bud group came together in local living rooms to push back against the industrial grow houses metastasizing throughout Arcata neighborhoods. To name a few genuine citizen uprisings.

Unfortunately, ACRH both exploited and deviated from this noble tradition. Positioning itself as a plucky grassroots movement representing the interests of those who live in Westwood Village just downhill from the site of the proposed housing project, ACRH was anything but. What it was was a front group for business interests, fueled by dark money.

ACRH systematically pursued two goals: to fluff up and fabricate fears about the student housing proposal, and promote the business interests of its backers, who happened to be competing developers angling for the juicy contract to build on the site. Knowing the 8-acre location was in play, the project-hungry builders funneled money to this front group to stymie the competing proposal.

We know that other developers were funding ACRH because its members initially boasted of this financial backing in public hearings. While they quickly realized their naive mistake and strove to downplay the association, they couldn’t have been more blatant about the group’s real aim – to steer business toward their financial angels.

Subscribe to the Mad River Union and enjoy online access to the full print edition for just $40/year!

Audaciously, the greenwashing ACRH created a fanciful fairy-tale alternative project outside of official public process and announced that it had developers lined up and ready to build it – before any Planning Commission hearings had been held on it. Golly gee, what would you suppose the odds are that these were the same builders funding the group?

Meanwhile, ACRH cynically continued to solicit, and take, donations from the citizens it had whipped into a state of fear over The Village. Unforgivably, this included residents of Maple Lane, who had very real concerns about the massive project set for construction on the bluff directly behind their homes. These people ended up paying for a pig in a poke, and spent their own money to ultimately disenfranchise themselves from having any influence over what may be built there. Oh, the bitter irony.

Even when The Village’s project applicant complied with ACRH’s demands and returned with heavily revised, downscaled proposals, the group ignored the very changes it had demanded, moved the goalposts and kept lying about and exaggerating the menace the project posed. Their bad faith arguments were designed to poison the public process with misinformation, and accomplished just that.

We, your local newspaper, diligently reported all of this and warned against the deceptions. Among other things, we published ACRH’s founding document, which was crafted in the same Eureka office of the legal firm which represented developer Strombeck Properties in its opposition to The Village during Planning Commission hearings. 

As we sounded the alarm bells and presented evidence, we were told, among other things, that we were “imagining” the involvement of developers, even though the damning facts were self-admitted by ACRH and sitting in plain sight for all to see – or ignore.

The amateurish, fake “Humboldt Taxpayers League,” which tried similar dust-and-smoke tactics in opposition to Measure F, can only dream of being so effectively deceptive as ACRH has been. 

Some reading this have probably wondered at times why ardent devotees of certain politicians not only vote against their own interests, but beat their chests in support of the charlatans who are picking their pockets. If you were worked into a lather about The Village by ACRH, the answer is no farther than the nearest mirror. Find it and ask yourself why you fell for the con job.

Like all successful scammers, ACRH mixed bits of truth with abundant servings of fear, exaggerations and outright falsehoods to build an appealing narrative – one of neighbors rallying to beat back a ruthless developer. Most of all, they used the time-tested tactic at the root of all scams: telling people what they want to hear.

So persuasive was all this that they who fell for it ignored the hard evidence right before their eyes. Some of the ACRH members even seemed to believe their own propaganda. One earnestly spoke of their opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United, which allows corporations and others to secretly fund political campaigns. This while they staunchly refused to disclose their own dark money backers, or how much they were taking from them. 

ACRH’s organizers may have rationalized the duplicitous tactics with some notion of “the greater good” – even as they willfully acted as agents of shadowy, self-interested business elites. 

Should you discuss all this around the kitchen table, you might ponder which  is worse – that ACRH were unwitting, useful fools for their patrons, or that they knew they were screwing the public on behalf of big money. Either way, the outcome was the same. We have squandered our resistance for a pocketful of mumbles.

Seeing this slow-motion corruption of public process was like finding out your elderly aunt is headed to the store with her life savings to buy gift cards for a telephone scammer, or a bad dream in which a loved one is in jeopardy and you’re trudging through sucking quicksand to get to them. Except that this was happening on a city-wide scale.

All those who cobbled together donations to ACRH have every right to demand a refund. They might also ask ACRH’s principals how much money they may have personally pocketed in “consulting fees” for their service to the unknown developers. The only real satisfaction we can take at this point is that the skullduggery didn’t pay off.

The Village project, at various points, included an array of mitigations for traffic, environment, noise, scale, aesthetic and many other potential impacts. It was a tax-paying, state-of-the-art, LEED silver facility, with excellent connectivity, onsite policing, a small grocery store nearby, and offering 602 to 800 units, including high-quality housing for university students and desperately needed residential apartments for the public, all created at private expense. In so many ways, it would have been good for HSU, Arcata, all of its residents and greater Humboldt beyond. But none of this was good enough for ACRH, since it wasn’t going to be constructed by their private patrons.

Now, with the Craftsmans Mall parcel poised to become the property of the state and exempt from local regulation, HSU can basically install whatever it wants there, with or without costly mitigations. They could even have AMCAL build it. The Planning Commission and City Council will have no say in the matter. Other than strongly worded letters, Arcata citizens have forfeited virtually all local control.

What can we learn from this? You already know. It’s what you tell your children: Don’t succumb to peer pressure. Think critically. Make evidence-based decisions. Heed the facts whether or not you like them. Recognize logical fallacies. 

And when some smiling someone is telling you what you want to hear, offering an alluring narrative, asking for money and saying “trust us,” hold on to your wallet with both hands.

Meanwhile, when and if a mega-development moves in on the Craftsmans Mall site, address your thank-you cards to the Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing. 


Related posts

One Comment;

  1. James Baskin said:

    Ouch! Is that coffee I’m smelling?
    As a Westwood resident, I too joined ACRH with the thought of having a conduit for meaningful community input on the development. Before the environmental review commenced, it was intuitively obvious that the original project proposal had some kinks to iron out as to its potential impacts on circulation, runoff, slope stability, and views, among others. Moreover, being an HSU alumnus who had been reduced to camping in the community forest when available rentals were even more limited, I am in general support of increasing housing inventory, provided it didn’t facilitate enrollment beyond the area’s carrying capacity. So, I paid my membership fee and looked forward to joining in with the other seemingly clear-thinking and earnest MIMBYs — *Maybe* in My Back Yard (if the project detriments were adequately mitigated). However, after witnessing the various red herrings that surfaced at the first meetings — town vs. gown affordable housing competition, urban developer “outsiders,” “erosion of small-town community character,” what have you, instead of putting the focus squarely on the project effects, I caught a whiff of something off and backed slowly out of the room,

    Sonething, something, “chickens coming home to home to roost,” indeed.