Kevin L. Hoover
ARCATA – With a bulging portfolio of projects both accomplished and well underway during his five-and-a-half years on the Arcata City Council, Mark Wheetley would like another term to finish what he started.
Wheetley, a softspoken family man and Democrat, is a senior biologist specialist or “basin planner” for the state Dept. of Fish and Game. His supporters credit his professional connections and deep knowledge of state policies and procedures with helping set many projects in motion.
“I really enjoy working with Alex on the council,” he says. “We’ve accomplished a lot and we still have a lot of work to finish. I’m committed to getting those projects done.”
Modest and self-effacing almost to a fault, Wheetley carefully prefaces his list of accomplishments with a nod to the largely unseen citizens and staff that sweat all the details, day in and day out. He says it’s a testimonial to Arcata-style, multi-level cooperation turning Sisyphus into successfulness.
“Whatever we as a City have accomplished is due in part to the excellent staff that we have, and the hundred-plus volunteers that serve on all the committees,” he said. “When you have that many people pushing the rock uphill together, a lot of good things get done.”
Many of those good things are policy and planning documents that might bore some members of the public, but which are essential for getting grants, defining projects and moving Arcata forward in a logical and creative fashion. These include the new Land Use Code, Housing Element, redevelopment strategy, Economic Development Strategic Plan and Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan.
“Those are the framework documents for a lot of things to happen,” Wheetley said. “Those that know how government works, you tier off of those. They provide the basis for projects, then you go after the funding.”
That solid planning, he says, has allowed Arcata to proceed with civic improvements far beyond what its own resources could enable. “In the time that I’ve been on the council, we’ve been able to leverage tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “A lot, considering the size and scale of Arcata. I think we’ve been extremely successful.”
All the wonk-work has manifested results that will variously employ, entertain and make safer the lives of Arcata’s citizens, Wheetley says. A new Mill Yard store is on the rise on West End Road, not far from the revived Humboldt Flakeboard plant.
The Arcata Theatre Lounge is up and running downtown, while on the City’s far northern end, the massive mixed-use Zanzi project will bring new homes, businesses, parkland and Mad River access to Valley West. The wall--to-wall success of Aldergrove Industrial Park can continue with new expansion into the Happy Valley parcel, plus improved drainage on West End Road.
The new Arcata Fire Protection District station and accompanying extension of Foster Avenue will optimize fire response and bring traffic relief to Sunset Avenue.
The Baylands Project and McDaniel Slough Projects have brought renewed environmental values to vast areas of sensitive bay wetlands. “Arcata has more coastal wetlands than anywhere else in California, except maybe the Cargill Salt Ponds in the Bay Area, so we have a lot to be proud of on that,” he said.
He further noted the City’s tsunami preparedness and levee reconstruction. “There’s been a tremendous amount of restoration going on out there,” he said.
Having anticipated the state’s budget collapse, he said early backing of Measure G not only prevented catastrophic impacts on Arcata, but made possible a range of improvements. “I was pushing for that many years back,” he said. “We were able to get out front of that and become a self-help community.”
Measure G brought the Arcata Police Department back to full staffing bringing consistent police presence to Valley West and other underserved areas such as the Plaza. “It was a mess,” Wheetley said. “In the time that I’ve been on the council, seeing the police department become whole has been a rewarding experience.”
Up the hill, Arcata’s forests have never been in better shape with the advent of two park rangers. With some major parcels purchased and brought under the City’s sustainable management, prospects for further expansion and enhancement – with the Arcata Ridge Trail Project, for example – have never been brighter.
He’s glad that Valley West is finally being treated like something other than a “poor stepchild.” “I heard that a lot when I campaigned last time, and I really made an effort on that,” he said. “It’s a huge part of town,” he said. The new Hampton Inn further heralds Valley West’s renaissance.
The development of 250 E Street as a transitional housing center will further bolster Arcata’s homeless mainstreaming program.
“A lot of groundwork has been laid for a lot of huge projects to move forward,” Wheetley noted. “I want to be part of that.”
Wheetley thinks back on old business, though, and wonders if he could have done more, or better. He thinks the Humboldt Bay Housing and Development Commission deserves more attention.
He believes the perennially troubled North Coast Resource Center attempted more services than it could realistically provide, which in part accounts for recent breakdowns. “They need to take stock and focus, and I wish that they had taken a different path at times to do that,” he said.
Further vigilance is needed to protect and advance Arcata through the stormy state and federal budget climate. But with deft handling and smart polices, it can be done.
Wheetley feels his experience and skill set – 20 years of land use planning and service in every one of California’s coastal counties – will serve Arcata well. He hopes Arcata’s clout will only be magnified with his recent appointment as boardmember and representative of the Redwood Region with the League of California Cities.
He’s counting on further environmental strides via plans that suit both Arcata and the requirements of state and federal funders. “We have a track record of success on many fronts – housing, restoration, economic development, forest values, greenhouse gas reduction... these things don’t just happen.”
“I think we’re getting a lot closer on the rail-to-trail corridor,” he said. “Given the times we’re in, we’re very stable and fiscally sound, and we have received recognition for these things.”
Wheetley was embarrassed by a planning breakdown in his own life, when he and wife Mary illegally converted the bottom floor of a mother-in-law unit behind his home into a rental residence, violating both the Arcata Municipal Code and California Building Code (Eye, April 28). "As soon as we learned that it was [in violation], we immediately removed it," he said. Not exactly – City records show that a Feb. 3 letter from the City building official pointing out the violations and requiring a follow-up inspection by March 5 got no response, so a follow-up letter was sent March 29. The inspection took place April 6, and the structure was back in compliance.
"I was mortified, Wheetley admitted, especially since he's a professional planner.
Wheetley believes Prop 19 is “bad legislation,” and bound to bring more conflict and confusion as did the vaguely crafted Prop 215. “It’s a mosaic of ambiguous enforcement, and a nightmare for law enforcement,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said, “As a nation and a state, we are on a path to [cannabis] decriminalization. I just think this legislation will cause more problems than it solves.”
Wheetley is excited about the Teen Voice project and the planned youth advisory committee. He’s working with the Arcata Economic Development Corporation to encourage teen entrepreneurship.
“How lucky we are to live in Arcata,” Wheetley said last Saturday, looking out over the Farmers’ Market. “It’s not, ‘What is there to do?’ It’s what will I do?”
Wheetley’s many work and civic duties require sacrifice by his family, but they have made the decision that his service will help ensure their future. “We feel it’s important,” he said. “It’s our community service.”
“My plate is always full,” he said. “I’m not a single-issue kind of person. I understand the challenge of integrating all these things, I know how to get things done, I listen to everyone and work collaboratively.”
“I’m trying to stay right on the same game plan,” he said. “I treasure the radical middle ground.”