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McK Town Center limits loosened to allow wetlands relocation, development

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

MCKINLEYVILLE – The McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee made a key decision regarding the future of the McKinleyville Town Center at its meeting Jan. 8.

The committee voted to recommend a less stringent definition of wetlands for the Town Center area. The committee also recommended a policy that would allow the wetlands located on a vacant lot behind the McKinleyville Shopping Center to be reconfigured or even relocated. The recommendations have the potential to open up the property to more development and uses as envisioned by the community.

Defining wetlands

The Town Center is 141 acres and includes 65 parcels located between Heartwood and Railroad drives, and McKinleyville Avenue and Pierson Park. The largest undeveloped parcel is 43.7 acres located behind the McKinleyville Shopping Center. It is owned by Anne Pierson who also owns undeveloped property south of Hiller Road.

The Town Center is envisioned as a pedestrian friendly, mixed-use area with shops, residences and trails, all with a village-like atmosphere. During Town Center workshops, residents have suggested multi-story buildings with small shops on the ground level and apartments on top. They’ve also suggested a boutique hotel, a performance venue and a place for a farmers market.

But is there enough room on the property to create everything the community wants?

Although the Pierson property is 43.7 acres, from 31 to 61 percent of the land could be deemed wetlands and wetland buffer zones, depending on how wetlands are defined.

At the Jan. 8 McKMAC meeting, representatives of the Humboldt County Planning Department urged participants to help decided how to deal with the wetland issue and decide how wetlands are defined.

The McKinleyville Community Plan, approved in 2002, defines wetlands as having at least one of three criteria:

1.  The presence of wetland plants; or, 

2.  Soils that are sufficiently wet in the upper part to develop anaerobic conditions during the growing season; or, 

3. Periodic inundation for seven consecutive days.

The “one parameter” wetland definition means that if a wetland plant is growing in an area, it could be deemed a wetland. Using this definition, 61 percent of the Pierson property would either be wetlands or wetland buffer zones.

The Humboldt County General Plan, and the Army Corps of Engineers use a less restrictive “three parameter” wetland definition, meaning all three conditions have to be met to deem an area a wetland. Under this definition, 31 percent of the Pierson property would be deemed wetlands and wetland buffer zones.

The McKMAC ultimately voted to use this less-restrictive definition for the McKinleyville Town Center. Committee member Mary Burke was the only member to vote against the motion, saying she wanted more information about why the creators of the McKinleyville Community Plan decided to have a one-parameter wetland definition.

The committee also voted, this time unanimously, in favor of a policy that would allow the wetlands to be moved, reconfigured and enhanced. Under the policy, there would be no net loss of wetlands. Any wetlands filled would need to be replaced, either on-site or off-site. 

The committee also recommended that wetlands be enhanced. 

‘We all love wetlands’

Anne Pierson’s nephew, Greg Pierson, urged the committee to approve the less-restrictive wetland definition.

“We all love wetlands. They’re important,” Greg Pierson said. He noted that the Piersons have agreed to include 200 units of affordable housing on the property. 

“All of these things we’re trying to accommodate on this property,” Greg Pierson said. “Unfortunately, we can’t do it all.”

“And if you want to see it built, it has to be economically viable,” Greg Pierson said. “It all has to work together. It’s complicated.” He stressed that the status of wetlands on the property is a key issue for the future of the McKinleyville Town Center.

“This is an issue and it’s an important issue,” Greg Pierson said. “If you’re trying to design something you need to know how much room you have, right? Because if you don’t know how much space you have, all these other discussions that you have up to this time are meaningless.”

‘America first’

At one point during the lengthy discussion on wetlands, the voice of President Donald Trump could suddenly be heard.

“It’s going to be American first, OK? America first,” the president bellowed from the cellphone of Dennis Mayo, who is an alternate member of the McKMAC.

“Sorry, that’s a friend of mine,” Mayo said as he quieted his phone.

‘My father had a dream’

Annie Pierson, owner of the McKinleyville Shopping Center, spoke about her father, the late Ernie Pierson, who built the shopping center and donated what’s now Pierson Park to the community.

“My father had a dream for McKinleyville to have a town center, and that’s the reason he built the shopping center to be the beginning of that,” Anne Pierson said.

Back in the late 1950s, the population of McKinleyville was about equal to the population of Arcata, she said.

“I believe it [McKinleyville] was equal to or slightly larger than Arcata, but you would never know it because it was a strip,” Anne Pierson said. “Arcata has a sense of a city. It has a center. It has a gathering place. It has different amenities. It has shops, it has apartments. It has mixed use happening, There’s a vitality to it. McKinleyville can have that too.”

She said the wetlands areas would enhance whatever is developed in the Town Center. “You don’t want it just black top and parking lots and buildings,” she said.

The McKMAC will further discuss the Town Center project at a meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 22, time and location to be announced.



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