On an evening that started with blue skies overhead, then clouded over to a rainy nightfall, the Fort Bragg City Council voted 4-0 to uphold the appeal of the city planning commission's January approval of a Mitigated Negative Declaration for the Hare Creek shopping center. In addition, the Fort Bragg City Council went along with the planning commission's denial of permits to Group II Real Estate to go forward with the aforesaid Hare Creek shopping center.
The vote might seem a simple victory for those opposed to a small shopping mall, highlighted by a Grocery Outlet, a stone's throw to the west of the intersection of Highways 1 and 20, but the City Council denied the permits without prejudice, leaving open the opportunity for developers to modify their proposed shopping center to meet the standards of the California Coastal Commission. In a nearly hour long discussion period, following an even lengthier public comment period, the four city council members (Councilman Scott Deitz recused himself because he owns property in the vicinity) all expressed a desire to see the shopping center project move forward. The owners of the property, the Patton family, have donated land to the city for playing fields as well as being the landowners primarily responsible for both the strip mall on South Franklin Street that contains the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) building as well as the Boatyard Shopping Center that sits more or less atop the Highways 1 and 20 intersection. Therein lies a crucial difference, the Boatyard Center is largely invisible to motorists as they approach Fort Bragg on either of those highways. The proposed Hare Creek Center would be almost directly in front of motorists as they make their final descent into Fort Bragg on Highway 20. From Highway 1 the shopping center might block a small portion of the view to the Pacific Ocean.
One could go on and on about those who spoke in favor of the shopping center and those opposed. It would be easy to say that those opposed shop at the more or less hidden Harvest Market in the Boatyard Center rather than old time Fort Braggers who prefer Safeway or Purity, but that's just as easy and false as saying the City Council resoundingly defeated the shopping center proposal. The council members appeared to agonize over what seemed a predestined decision. The councilmen clearly didn't want to offend the longstanding Patton family who, by basic zoning rights established thirty-four years ago, possess a commercial use property. On the other hand it's clear that a majority of citizens in Fort Bragg and especially those who shop, visit, and/or work in the city but live outside city limits are opposed to the project. The council members all seemed to be aware that they and the developers are caught between a rock and a hard Coastal Commission place. If you try to build it, the Coastal Commission seems hell bent on making sure no one will come, by denying this project. In recent communications with the city, the Coastal Commission expressed doubts about Fort Bragg's Planning Department's documentation supporting a mitigated negative declaration for the Hare Creek Center, the one part of the deal that the Planning Commission passed.
It's fairly obvious that the City's attorney made it clear in a prior closed session that the Mitigated Negative Declaration, based on a twenty year old Environmental Impact Report (EIR) would not stand up to Coastal Commission scrutiny. So, in essence, the entire public hearing at the March 23rd City Council meeting was a foregone conclusion. The best the City Council members could offer the Patton family was the chance to spend at least $50,000 more (realistically costs could prove much higher) in going through a brand new EIR with no guarantee that even that re-worked document would be Coastal Commission bullet proof.
Issues that must be responded to in the new EIR include mitigations minimizing grading of the nearby knoll, relocating one of the structures (Building “C” in current plans) to the west, incorporating a historic district type of design, providing for a multi-use trail, potentially adding a split level parking lot, no storing of excess materials on the site, and planting more trees between the project and Highway 1.
Asked on the way out if the developers would continue on with the costly process of a brand new EIR, Greg Patton answered, “I don't know.”
A final note for those who saw this issue/council vote as another clearly defined point of difference between newly elected City Council members Lindy Peters and Mike Cimolino and holdovers Mayor Dave Turner and Councilmen Doug Hammerstrom and Scott Deitz: The unanimous vote proves otherwise. The individual issues (like this one and the controversy over the Old Coast Hotel) are more complicated than simple labels can define. Those applying broad brushes need to re-think their color scheme.