Proposed new parcel tax would fund open space, trails, creeks and wildlife

Environmental Services Director Mark Andre, and Mayor Sofia Pereira, left, presided over the annual meeting. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Once a year the City Council sits down with its four environmental advisory committees, takes updates and looks ahead. The meeting also lets the citizen-led groups – Forest Management, Open Space & Agriculture, Parks & Recreation and Wetlands & Creeks – learn about what the others are doing, to coordinate and avoid duplication of effort.

The 2018 study session took place at City Hall Tuesday, Jan. 16, with about two dozen committeemembers seated in a semicircle in Council Chamber. Other than the committeemembers, no citizens attended.

This year, the attending committeemembers left the meeting with two  homework assignments. One is reviewing the Arcata Municipal Code for obsolete language in need of revision.

The other is to review a draft proposal for a ballot measure for a new parcel tax that could raise close to $4 million for preservation of natural areas.

Kicking off the meeting, each committee gave a brief update on its recent activities.

Bob Brown of Wetlands and Creeks said sea level rise is under discussion. He thanked the council for appointing two new members.

Nancy Starck of Parks & Rec said visioning will be done for Valley West’s Carlson Park, located along the Mad River. A revised conceptual plan for Redwood Park is also aborning.

Mike Furniss of the Forest Management Committee spoke of land acquisitions in the works which will expand areas sustainably managed by the city.

The 21-acre Lima property is almost ready to be added to the Arcata Community Forest along Jolly Giant Creek. The 49-acre Forsyth property located east of Humboldt State, which Furniss called “a 25-year priority for the Forest Management Committee,” is under appraisal, though a funding gap remains. “Hopefully we can get the funds together and acquire that parcel finally,” he said.

As recently reported, another 80 acres is soon to be added to the Jacoby Creek Forest, while Humboldt State University is about to acquire an adjacent 887 acres.

While a re-appraisal has shown an increase in the land’s value since the acquisition process was initiated, Environmental Services Director Mark Andre said owner Sierra-Pacific Industries/R.H. Emmerson has agreed to sell the land at the original price which was used to gain grants. “It’s great that the landowner is doing that in this case,” he said.

The Forest Management Plan update is continuing, with emphasis on “optimal harmony” between user groups, Furniss said. Other priorities include closing illegal and unauthorized trails and providing better visibility on trails by pruning back overgrowth as a crime deterrent.

Diana Cooper of the Open Space and Agriculture Committee said the long-nurtured Western Greenbelt project is ready for Planning Commission consideration. County cannabis policy and sea level rise are also under discussion, as are mechanisms for open space funding.

On that topic, attending committeemembers were presented with the draft of a new funding mechanism for preservation and protection of natural open space areas.

Andre said the tax has been under discussion for years, but wasn’t rolled out until now because of non-optimal election cycle timing, with other tax measures on the ballot and economic downturns that could have hurt its chances of success.

The City Council had indicated that the tax should be parcel based rather than a sales tax. A two-thirds majority of the electorate would be required for its passage.

The “short and sweet” draft is modeled after measures which recently proved successful in the Bay Area. It includes a range of options for per-parcel charges and its duration in years.

“If something like this were to be successful, it would really need all the committees that are present here tonight to be behind it, to give it a little push, as well as the council giving it its blessing to put it on the ballot,” Andre said.

The city has a small amount set aside for polling for the proposed tax, which would be done in advance rather than “run it up the flagpole and hope for the best,” as Andre put it. Poling might take place in May.

The draft proposal refers to the tax as “Measure P,” but only for discussion purposes, as that might not be its final ballot designation.

If approved, the tax would commence on July 1, 2019. It could range from $24 to $30 per parcel, and might run for up to 25 years. It would be levied against the 4,972 parcels located within the City of Arcata.

The draft includes a range of revenue possibilities over the tax’s lifetime, from about $1.8 million to more than $3.7 million, depending on rate and duration.

Andre said the resulting revenues aren’t huge, but that they can be used as matching funds to leverage much larger grants, sometimes at a 10-to-1 ratio.

Since state law requires the specific purposes for which the tax revenue would be used to be listed, the draft describes them as 1. protection of open space, redwood forests, working lands, wildlife habitat, scenic hillsides and agricultural land; 2. protect land around creeks, rivers and streams to prevent pollution and improve local water quality; 3. expand, improve and maintain parks, open space and trails; and 4. provide urban open space, parks and environmental education programs.

Revenues would be kept separate from other city funds, and an annual report created to document expenditures. An independent advisory committee of citizens drawn from relevant advisory committees would also track the tax.

During discussions, it was suggested that specific projects that could be pursued with tax revenue should be highlighted during any outreach. This could make clear to skeptical voters the benefits of the tax.

As the committees process the draft proposal and come back with recommendations, those will be used to develop final language to be approved by the council in July for placement on the November ballot.

Another issue facing the city is the advent of new consumer technologies such as drones, electric bicycles and other motorized vehicles.

The techno-toys are showing up in natural areas and on trails, and current regulations embodied in the Arcata Municipal Code don’t clearly regulate their use.

An ordinance specifically outlawing drones at the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, except for scientific and public safety purposes, is under development.

But the new Humboldt Bay Trail North has seen use by people riding electric bicycles and, just after Christmas, new “Onewheel” devices which resemble a wide skateboard with a single wheel mounted in the middle. Some pedestrian trailgoers have been startled by wheeled users whooshing by on an electrically propelled device.

“There’s always going to be innovation, but the irritations remain constant,” quipped Wetlands and Creeks Committeemember Jack Murphy, raising laughter.

“All our signs are old and our code is old-fashioned,” Andre said. “It just says ‘motorized vehicles’.” The code also doesn’t specify any speed limits.

Committeemembers were provided with copies of relevant Arcata Municipal Code sections for their review. Areas of focus, Andre said, should be public parks, the marsh, and the forest where outdated language isn’t well serving the public interest.


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