Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Mayor Sofia Pereira states that after looking into it, this morning's 2-0-2 vote on The Village student housing project does indeed constitute denial of the project.
"In short: we needed three votes in the affirmative for the project to move forward based on the contents of the motion," Pereira said.
City Attorney Nancy Diamond said that under state law, a majority of the five-person City Council is required to vote for the project. Though a League of California Cities document seemed to indicate otherwise, Diamond said its example wasn't directly applicable to this morning's vote.
"Different kinds of motions have different voting requirements," Diamond said.
The 'nuclear option'
While the council's denial ostensibly means the end of The Village, that may not be the case. In fact, it could open the door to restoration of the project as originally proposed, prior to downsizing and addition of amenities demanded by neighbors – or a different project altogether, over which Arcata would have little to no influence.
In a statement issued after this morning's hearing, Humboldt State Associate Vice President for Marketing & Communications Frank Whitlatch stated, “Looking ahead, we’ll need to be creative and pursue a variety of other options."
That could be a veiled reference to a procedure under which AMCAL Equities, LLC could exercise its option to purchase the 11-acre Craftsman's Mall property, then deed it to Humboldt State. The university could update its Master Plan to include the property, and then, as a state agency, build housing there – potentially even the originally proposed 800-student The Village project.
This fallback procedure has been described as "the nuclear option" by some at Humboldt State. A person familiar with the university's planning said that it is aware of the possibility.
Councilmember Paul Pitino warned of the potential for an HSU override of that nature in arguing for approval of The Village project this morning. "If we don't take a project we have control over, we'll get projects like Foster [the new apartment buildings on Foster Avenue]," Pitino said. "We'd be missing an opportunity and ending up with a nightmare."
Pitino noted that the city had "the hammer" of zoning control over the property under the rejected proposal. It was also able to enforce various terms and conditions based on its General Plan and building codes.
Should Humboldt State come to own the property, a CEQA process would still be required, and citizens would be able to comment on the project's environmental document. But in effect, the city would be all but powerless to influence whatever project the university and CSU decide to install there.
"State law is exempt from local zoning, the General Plan or building standards," confirmed Diamond.
ACRH is aware of the possibility. In a message to members and supporters this morning, ACRH member Maureen Jules stated, "Even as we do our happy dance, we know it is a possibility AMCAL will bypass the city by selling, granting, gifting or entrusting the land to HSU. If this occurs, we can hope, like Susan Ornelas articulated, that HSU will want to work with the city and the worst case scenario would be we end up with the same project that just failed. We will carefully watch the situation and keep you posted."