MCSD takes vague stand on Mercer Fraser pot factory

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE/GLENDALE – McKinleyville’s town board has weighed in on a controversial county decision to rezone riverfront property in Glendale to heavy industrial and to permit a 5,000-square-foot cannabis manufacturing factory at the site.

The McKinleyville Community Services District Board of Directors convened Feb. 7  to consider backing an appeal filed with the county by Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD), which wants to overturn the Planning Commission’s Jan. 11 approval of the zoning change and special spermit.

The cannabis extraction factory would be located on riverfront property at 90 Glendale Dr. west of Blue Lake. The property is across the river from HBMWD’s pump station park and between two extraction wells, which provide drinking water to 88,000 customers in McKinleyville, Arcata, Eureka, Blue Lake, Glendale, Cutten, Manila and the Samoa Peninsula. McKinleyville is the district’s third largest customer.

Members of the HBMWD Board of Directors are concerned that the factory could potentially contaminate the river and the aquifer below, from which the district pumps all of its water. District officials are even more concerned about the county’s effort to change of the zoning of the property from agricultural exclusive to heavy industrial.

‘Heavy industrial uses’

HBMWD Director Sheri Woo addressed the McKinleyville board following its discussion about a “Succession Plan,” during which directors spoke about planning for various disasters that could befall staff and the board.

“We did just hear about worries and risks and emergencies and what happens and that is kind of what we’re talking about here,” Woo said. “Rezoning that property to heavy industrial will increase risks.”

HBMWD General Manager John Friedenbach said the district is negotiating with the property owner, Mercer Fraser, and MCMP LLC, which would operate the factory. Friedenbach said he wants to make sure that if the factory ultimately opens, that precautions are taken to protect the water supply.

But, Friedenbach said, “this is a bigger issue than just the current project.”

The change of zoning “opens up that parcel to many different heavy industrial uses that could affect the water quality now and into the future,” Friedenbach told the McKinleyville board.

‘That’s not true’

Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford refuted that claim.

“A lot of people talk about the fact that it opens up all kinds of industrial uses. That’s not true,” Ford said.

The property has two zones on it – general industrial and a Q zone, Ford said. This “limits the zoning to resource related industrial uses,” he said. Also, any such uses have to obtain a use permit from the county, a process which allows the county to place restrictions on an operation.

Ford said the Planning Commission “did attempt to include measures that would protect the water quality.... Some of those include performance standards within the Q zones that prohibit uses that would damage either surface water or groundwater quality.”

“I know there is concern to protect the water quality. Nobody wants to see that damaged,” Ford said. “I just would say that there is a lot of sensationalism surrounding this.”

Too risky?

However, those who spoke at the MCSD meeting were all against the rezoning and the cannabis factory location.

“It seems like doing this adds risks,” said McKinleyville resident Jeff Dunk. “My perception of it is, there’s a potential for a small-scale private benefit and a large-scale public risk.”

McKinleyville resident Ross Taylor, a fisheries biologist, said he was concerned about locating the factory in a flood plain, just a mere two feet above the 100-year-flood level.

“An accident, flood or earthquake could result in the contamination of the sole water supply  for 80,000 residents in McKinleyville, Arcata and Eureka,” Taylor said. “While I acknowledge that the chance of a spill or an accident is probably low, the consequences of a spill or contamination greatly outweigh the benefit.”

MCSD Director Mary Burke said she supported the district’s appeal and questioned the zoning change.

“Is the flood plain the best location for heavy industrial use?” Burke said.

Director George Wheeler also spoke in favor of the appeal. “If we can’t draw the line where we draw out water, where can we?” Wheeler said.

Wheeler also questioned why the cannabis factory was being allowed so close to a park. “We wouldn’t allow this next to a school, but we will allow it next to a park?” Wheeler said.

“They should be sited in a place that is more appropriate,” said Board President David Couch.

Vague motion

Director Dennis Mayo was also supportive of the appeal and made a motion to send a letter of support to the district. “Let the big boys fight it out,” Mayo said.

But before the board could vote on the motion, Director John Corbett suggested alternative language, and Mayo agreed to drop his motion and let Corbett take a stab at it.

Corbett provided an unusually wordy, multi-sentence motion that was vague and didn’t stake out much of a position other than to say that the board had “concerns.”

“The motion is not very clear and there’s no real direction,’ MCSD Manager Greg Orsini said to the board.

Corbett asked that the board take a five-minute break so he could rewrite the motion.

Corbett scribbled away as audience members noshed on chocolate chip cookies and gazed at their mobile devices

When the board reconvened, the new motion was also vague with regard to the board’s actual position on the subject.

“I move, the McKinleyville Community Services District write a letter to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. The letter should read as follows: The McKinleyville Community Services District board has serious concerns with the Glendale zoning change and special permit and hope the Board of Supervisors makes the right decision,” Corbett said, reading his motion. “We hope Mercer Fraser and the water district are able to reach common ground on this project. We urge the board to review the appeal by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District. Risks, the scope and persistence of potential environmental damage to groundwater need to be carefully reviewed. Flood plain development issues should have a margin of error for toxics and the 100-year flood plain. The site desirability for rezoning should be seriously questioned. Thank you for consideration of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District appeal and our comments.”

The McKinleyville board voted unanimously in favor of Corbett’s motion.



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