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Blackbird Expansion Proposal Sent Packing

Last Thursday's Planning Commission meeting was to rule on the Pathways In Education, aka Blackbird Farms use permit application to increase maximum occupancy from 36 to 292. The meeting elicited a surprisingly unified opposition to the increase on behalf of Anderson Valley residents and neighbors of the proposed project.

In his opening remarks, Chief Planner Andy Gustavson acknowledged the high level of written concern which raised issues that would warrant continuing the public hearing to a later date.

Also he cited the recent discovery at Blackbird Farm of an unpermitted occupancy change "that rises to the level of a life safety concern," and recent information of a grading violation that needed to be investigated. Gustavson recommended that the meeting be continued and the public hearing left open so that the number of people present could comment and the Commission could further hear their issues.

The planner who had worked on the application and created the draft Mitigated Negative Declaration dated for signing at the Thursday meeting, Fred Tarr, had retired just a week or so ago. I suspect the level of citizen concern once the project was belatedly made public was behind Fred's smiling comments to me that his retirement would be a relief from having to deal with the public.

The young planner who took the handoff, Adele Phillips, has been very gracious in making sure the public has the correct information on where the project stands. Actually, everyone in the Planning Department has been exceedingly helpful. This along with Gustavson's "let's slow down" position probably reflects the whole department's feelings and indicates that even they have realized the sloppy level of review that has been done so far. It feels like the Planning Department is now on our side.

Gustavson's request immediately had the Pathways attorney on his feet and at the mic begging to go ahead with the adoption of the draft Mitigated Negative Declaration. But to no avail, he was asked to sit down until his proper time to speak.

Adele Phillips then gave a thorough and informative visual presentation of where the application stood, giving many of us deeper insight into magnitude of the project and the potential problems and concerns brought by the application as well as the shortcomings of the application processing so far. For me, gravely lacking was any major concern for the impacts to those of us who live on the proposed main access route of Rays Road.

Understandably, Blackbird Farms was given the opportunity to present their case first. They spoke well, I suppose, as they tried to answer the scattered yet pointed questions from Commissioners. The project manager and the Blackbird lawyer made sure they covered what is essentially their resort project with a good sprinkling of what I call "Dear Children" gloss. Their presentation lasted a little over an hour.

Then came time for what the crowd was mostly waiting for: our voices to be heard.

I was the first to be called to speak.

I opened by saying that I was offended that we were given only three minutes to speak and then became discombobulated about which part of my six and a half minute speech to present and ended up fumbling through maybe nine minutes before I was politely asked to shut up. I pointed out that the project was not about the children but about guests. I pointed out the Rays Road to Van Zandt Resort Road approach to the narrow Shenoa bridge was unmitigatable. I pointed out the non-local hires and the low pay. I pointed out that a tree had crashed on one of the yurts at Blackbird, fortunately when no one was in it.

I felt my presentation was poorly done. But that was really OK because everyone else was concise and spot on. Our point was made.

Aaron Newman questioned the availability of sufficient water for such a large project.

His brother, Marshall Newman, pointed out that while overnight occupancy is set at 292, weddings and other day use could drive the head count much higher.

Lydia Mosk Jancula, who also lives on Rays Road, worries about Rays Road traffic impacts on children and adult and elderly walkers.

Ann Siri has multiple concerns over TPZ (timber/forest) conversion, speed of drivers and potential for accidents with livestock, increased fire hazards, noise from kids on Blackbird’s zip line right next to her property. She said John Hall the principal behind Blackbird tried to get her and her husband to sign that they would pay 80% of road maintenance costs at which point she turned to Mr. Hall and said, "We aren't that stupid." The audience laughed.

Michael Holmberg (Ann's husband) agreed with what Ann said and added that no mention was made in the project application for the ropes course and zip line that has been in use for a couple of years. He pointed out that allowing all the guest traffic turns the private road into a public road which is not allowed on the deed. He also objected to the three minute limit on public comment.

Aaron Weintraub stated that he considered the project to be an illegal conversion of forestland into commercial and asked, "How do you approve this big expansion without full analysis? This project should fail."

Anderson Valley Fire Chief Andres Avila stated that already they (meaning the local fire department) had been left out of involvement with new facilities and "we need to be a part of it from here on out." California fire code stipulates a 20-foot wide fire apparatus access. There is some play or wiggle room, Avila said, but as he sees it if the Commission approves the permit he wants to make the Rays Road/ Van Zandt Resort road access a one-way access with limited two way access via Philo/Greenwood Road. He does, though, see some possible problems with this as well. He noted that previous requirements had not been adequately completed and worried about making certain that things are done.

James Roberts said he just heard about the proposed expansion a week earlier, and that he had gathered some signatures on a petition and sent a letter. He pointed out 292 people almost doubles the population of 331 people now in Philo, that this is not incremental growth and reflects no concern for community. He stated Yurts as housing are illegal and that the project is a Marriott resort in the guise of a charter school.

Daniel Reid representing Shenoa said they were not against development but that it must be done in a thoughtful and considerate manner which is not the case here. He called for more public hearings and more community input.

Erica Kesenheimer said there is a ton of dirt on the Hall family enterprises. They have 33 corporations (similar to Pathways). She cited a $57 million shortfall sought by California Board of Education. "What if they liquidate?" she asked, wondering what Philo would be left with if they abandoned the project for financial reasons.

John & Joan Hall
John & Joan Hall ribbon cutting, 2008

Peter Bradford, Boonville rancher, manages forestland and represents the Farm Bureau. He said an almost 300 person use increase is not compatible with timber zoning and should require a conversion. And if it’s converted they can't log it. He opposed the proposal unless timber production issues are resolved and neighbors are satisfied.

Michael Butler from property west of Blackbird also worried about timber zoning issues, nuisance and fire risks.

Erica Kesenheimer was reluctantly allowed back up with another quick jab at Hall family dealings. And, after joking that if the Halls can pay for such large expansions then everybody in the area can sell for megabucks and, “I’ll see you in Aruba." which drew laughs. Commissioner Little was interested in the substance of her accusations and asked for backup references.

Aaron Newman came back up to add that Blackbird had encroached over the years on their road which used to be a narrow nine-foot road, but has now grown to 12 feet over a 7/10 of a mile stretch that he now says the Newmans have to pay some of the maintenance.

Marshall Newman also came back up to say that the 2010 prescriptive easement court judgment limited the access to normal use. And this proposal would be well beyond normal use.

Michael Holmberg returned to add a brief summary of his introduction to new neighbors. He wasn’t notified that the property had been sold to Blackbird and one day some Blackbird Farm dogs got loose. His horse spooked, their cart flipped, and “I'm in the emergency room.” The dogs chased the horse into a ravine, a friend called for help, and they ended up having to shoot the horse. The only response from Blackbird was “a thick ream of legal papers so we would not sue them.” They would not sign, adding, again, “We are not stupid.”

Whew! My apologies to all speakers if I abbreviated their concerns too severely. The opposition took a little over an hour so we actually averaged about five minutes each and matched that of the four Blackbird Farm proponents.

Wrapping up, the Commissioners each spoke and cited multiple issues that needed to be addressed at the next hearing. An EIR was mentioned as was requiring two use permits, one for the school and one for the guest part of the project. The commission closed the meeting by unanimously voting to continue the public hearing and input and revisit the project in December after it gets the attention it clearly needs.

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