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Blackbird Under Fire

It would be incorrect to describe last Thursday night’s Blackbird Farm meeting at the Boonville firehouse as "hostile." But most of the 40 or 50 locals who attended the meeting certainly expressed skepticism about Blackbird Farms’ plans to expand to a from a current capacity of 36 residents and guests to 292 residents and guests, nearly the size of the town of Philo itself.

Organized by the local Community Action Coalition and moderated by Community Services District Chair Valerie Hanelt, the four Blackbird Farm representatives responded to a series of pointed questions, many of which were much more blunt than the kind of questions we hear at an ordinary Mendocino meeting.

John Walker introduced himself as Blackbird’s project manager. He said he'd functioned as project manager for the last four months.

Kristen Concepcion and Danielle French said they had something to do with the educational program at Blackbird, and a Mr. Modewleski said he was the president of Lupine Construction out of Southern California. (The two women praised the Blackbird educational program but they spoke mostly in edu-speak — I think I heard the word “curriculum” — and so softly they were difficult to hear during their opening remarks.)

The Blackbird people said that they expect to have up to 80 students in two camps with 40 students in each, and that the 292 was the "top number" of transients, not expected to be reached more than four times a year when  there were larger events such as weddings and receptions.

The Blackbird delegation didn’t address the actual facility capacity of their ultimate build-out and how it would actually house 296 people. But they insisted that they are trying to be as transparent as possible and would answer all questions presented to them.

Steve Kreig of Petit Teton Farm pointed out that the permit says that they are asking for permission for an occupancy of 292 every day, despite their “only four times a year” promise. The Blackbird reps confirmed that, Yes that's what the permit says, drawing raised eyebrows from most of the people in the room.

There was considerable discussion of the two narrow, winding roads in and out of the remote farm which make access for the numbers proposed unreasonable.  The roadwork now underway and planned will still be inadequate.

The Blackbird people think that the current arrangement is safe and has been in use for at least 100 years without any significant problems. Locals disagree, pointing out that traffic prior to Blackbird was sparse, and mostly non-existent in the winter months. Enlarging their current project — especially when added to other current and planned expansions on neighboring properties — will exacerbate existing traffic problems and overtax the limited local emergency services.

Local vacation rentier, Aaron Weintraub, said that the experience Blackbird cites as being safe does not apply to the scale that Blackbird is proposing to expand to. Weintraub also said that they do not have any of the agreements with neighboring properties to expand the roads to reduce the safety hazards that would be required by fire officials.

When the Blackbird people said they have offered to maintain the roads at no cost, several neighbors quickly responded that they either had not received any such offers or that those who did had not agreed to the expanded use of their roads that Blackbird has proposed.

Blackbird representatives insisted that they are open to negotiation, but under further questioning conceded that their offer to provide free road maintenance only applies for two years and would be limited to $8,000 -- a number most locals know wouldn't cover much.

There was also considerable discussion of traffic to and from the property, both in normal conditions and in emergencies.

Anderson Valley Fire Chief Andres Avila thinks the safest (or at least less hazardsous) fire emergency plan is for people at the Blackbird Farm to "shelter in place" in the cleared area in the middle of the large ranch if a fire breaks out. The Chief acknowledges that the project area is surrounded by "dense fuels," but given the limitations of the two access roads it would be impractical to expect people to try to evacuate in an emergency, especially if hundreds of people and vehicles tried to evacuate at once.

The two access roads to the property are narrow and winding, with blind curves, no shoulders and deep drainage ditches where vehicles have been known to “high-center” (i.e., lose traction where the chassis hits the ground). There would obviously be problems if outgoing personal vehicles encountered incoming emergency response vehicles in an emergency.

Several people asked how the proposed minor mitigations and road improvements now being considered would be enforced if the permit was approved. Chief Avila said that the main method would be to not renew the Blackbird permit if they were not complying with it. Chief Avila also noted that so far Calfire (which has ultimate authority on road requirements) has said that if certain road improvements and brush-clearing were made that Calfire would accept the plan, even though most locals consider those modest steps insufficient.

Traffic problems would be compounded by other property owners and uses in the area, particularly at nearby Shenoa Resort, which already has a legal entitlement to expand to an occupancy of over 200 and which would use the same three-and-a-half mile Van Zandt (private) Road that Blackbird hopes to use.

Chief Avila said that imposing a one way traffic flow arrangement into the property along Van Zandt Road and then off the property off toward Greenwood Road would reduce the traffic hazard somewhat, but he acknowledged that there is still a major problem with the one lane bridge across the Navarro and the Van Zandt Resort Road approach to it compounded by the addition of the Shenoa traffic.

Mr. Modewleski at first denied knowing who owned Lupine Construction but when challenged by well-prepared locals that it was owned by John Hall conceded that it was owned by the same family that owned Blackbird Farm. Lupine Construction is basically John Hall's construction arm which has built a number of their charter schools in Southern California.

Several questions concerned the company's sketchy finances and the co-mingling of a profit-making resort operation with an "educational" charter school program, both of which are owned by the Hall family. The Blackbird representatives agreed that both kinds of operations would be occurring on the same property. Several audience members almost reacted saying, "Then what are you hiding?"

One neighbor pointed out that Blackbird has brought in some very heavy equipment which seems much more industrial than ordinary road maintenance would require, implying that Blackbird was already assuming they’d get their permit approved even without neighbor consent.


Several people wanted to know why the Blackbird Farm operation seems to be so disconnected to the Anderson Valley community. Blackbird has not made much of an attempt to inform the valley what their plans are, nor have they hired many local people to work there. David Severn said that when he had asked John Hall if he could share the ropes course with the local ambulance service Mr. Hall replied, "No, I have to make money here."

The Blackbird representatives agreed that they're certainly not making money now.

Anderson Valley School Superintendent Michele Hutchens said it seemed to her that the “lesser” camping facilities for the children they expect to "educate” were in stark contrast to the fancier facilities reserved for the paying resort customers.

Local psychologist Greg Sims said that he had experience with a number of group homes and educational establishments in the valley over the years and that he knows how hard it is to manage urban kids in a drop-in remote setting, and protect them and the community. Sims didn't see where the Blackbird Farm operation understood that difficulty. "So I think it's best if you just withdraw your application," said Sims, drawing applause from the room.

At the moment the Mendocino County Planning Commission has scheduled a hearing on the Blackbird Farm permit application for December 15. But according to David Severn who maintains close contact with the planning staff, the planning staff isn’t ready and will recommend another continuance to an indefinite future date and it's likely that the Planning Commission will agree.

When the meeting adjourned it was obvious to everyone (maybe even Blackbird) that there were a lot of big issues left unresolved.

When this reporter asked about a “Fire Emergency Plan” mentioned in the planning documents, Ms. French offered a few stapled pages entitled “Blackbird Farm Emergency Action Plan, 2016 2017 Programming Year.” This obviously hastily prepared document refers to "Evacuation routes" as spelled out in a diagram (not provided) and instructs "all persons to immediately exit the buildings … and meet at the designated assembly area between Highland Lake and Blue Hill." But then says if that isn’t possible that people should “evacuate the properly [sic] in an orderly and calm fashion using the Philo-Greenwood Road,” and “In the event of emergencies, Van Zandt Resort Road (aka the front driveway) will be used only for emergency personnel/vehicles.” More than half of the document is devoted to “active shooter” preparation, there’s nothing about fire prevention in the fire prone area, nor the limitations of the roads.


PS. At Wednesday night's meeting (the night before the Thursday night meeting with the Blackbird reps) when several Blackbird neighbors attended the regular Community Services District meeting to point out the shortcomings of the shelter in place plan, CSD trustee Kirk Wilder observed that given his law enforcement background he would expect that if a fire broke out while there were large numbers of people on the Blackbird property the only word that would apply would be "chaos."

And Aaron Weintraub, who with his wife Anne Bennett, operates several vacation rental properties in the Anderson Valley, told the Board that when Highland Ranch (now Blackbird Farm) was first put up for sale Weintraub discussed buying it with his wife who immediately responded negatively saying, "It's too remote, people will get lost."

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