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Blackbird Postponed Again

Last Wednesday night the Community Services District reviewed a draft of a letter to the Planning Department concerning Blackbird Farm’s proposal to increase their allowed occupancy from 36 to a preposterous 292.

The CSD’s draft letter noted that there was an “inadequate access road,” that there were new unpermitted and uninspected buildings on site, and that the increased occupancy could impact the limited resources of the Valley’s volunteer Fire Department.

Fire Chief Andres Avila said that the Philo Fire Station (which would be the first responder to emergencies at Blackbird) is the hardest fire station to staff in the Valley and typically operates with minimum crews.

The draft letter also said that the connector between Rays Road and bridge had to be improved because both Blackbird and the recently sold Shenoa both represent a significant traffic increase.

The draft also called for additional fire safety measures in accordance with the fire code and the building code including water supply, sprinklers and alarms for all buildings with public access.

The draft pointed out that although Blackbird has claimed that normal operation would be around 100 people and that just “four or five times a year” would there be events with up to 292 people," the permit application “would not disallow up to 292 people 365 days a year," adding that the number of such events be capped at that number and that separate permits be required for additional events.

Director Paul Soderman said the letter needed to be stronger with a reference to enforcement provisions and it needed a concluding paragraph with a summary of the district’s requirements.

Since the board had been led to believe by County Planning staff the Planning Commission would probably postpone the Blackbird permit hearing again, there would be time to submit a revised letter.

The CSD board then addressed the larger question of the increasing number of relatively large events, retreats and weddings at various new places in the Valley and discussed the possibility of either setting their own rules, imposing some rules on the hosts of the events, or asking the County to require permits for events with over a certain number of people. This issue will be researched and probably addressed early next year.

* * *

As expected, at Thursday morning’s Planning Commission meeting, the Commission again postponed the controversial Blackbird Farm expansion proposal.

Planning staff had said they were not ready to properly consider the application, but some 20 Anderson Valley residents attended the hearing anyway, having driven over the hill in a steady downpour to express their concerns about the project and the sloppily prepared planning documents.

When asked by Planning Commission Chair Molly Warner to keep comments brief because the Commission expected to postpone the hearing, everyone from the Anderson Valley respected the brevity request. But the two young women representing Blackbird’s “educational side” rattled on chirpily about how open and transparent and friendly Blackbird was trying to be, going on and on and on so long that Planning Commissioner Jim Little was seen rolling his eyes in frustration. Finally, after the girls had exceeded, by far, their allotted three minute allowance, Chair Warner asked, “Are you going to be wrapping this up any time soon?”

Most shocking was an admission by Blackbird project manager, John Walker, that Blackbird's proposed capacity of 292 high end transients had been arrived at in response to a suggestion by (now retired) planner Fred Tarr.

“I'm the project manager and superintendent. In answer to one of the questions about where the 292 came from— there was a question asked. I was the guy who said that by the way. The question was asked, What is the occupancy limit? 300 was the magic number. Over 300 required this documentation [points to his right]. Under 300 required this [points to his left]. So we just chose 292. So that's where that came from. We were looking to find out what number would be allowed. We were not trying to sneak something in. We were just trying to find a number that we could occupy. And the main reason for that is when there is an event or a wedding it could easily be 200, 250 people, two or three times a year. So that covers that occupancy at that time.”

If Mr. Walker wanted 200-250 a few times a year he could have asked for that. But no — they asked for 292 because Planner Fred Tarr told them 300 “would be allowed.”

Critics think the 292 was also requested because if they get it, it would substantially increase the value of the property if or when they sell it.

So Blackbird applied for 292 in the full expectation that the permit would sail through with ease because it was eight short of the magic number!

Tarr was a planning staffer. Grandly setting applicant property capacities was not Tarr's job nor his to grant. The decider is the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors exercising a public/democratic process.

Tarr’s irresponsible “magic number” then essentially forced Mr. Tarr to prepare a “draft mitigated negative declaration” pretending that the 292 would be no problem because the 292 was below the 300 that he (Tarr) alone had unilaterially established!

Tarr could have provided Blackbird with guidelines, codes, previous permit samples, and unofficial opinions about the Farm’s plans. But telling Blackbird what Philo or Anderson Valley or Mendocino County would approve? That’s first degree professional misconduct that should have got him fired.

And the Planning Commission — which is supposed to be the public’s first line of accountability and oversight of the Planning staff — said nothing to any of this. A planning staffer tells the Commission, the County and the public what’s acceptable and the Planning Commission doesn’t care that their function has been usurped?

Here we are with a preposterously overlarge proposal accompanied by a county claim that it can be approved with a “mitigated negative declaration” with no real evaluation or assessment, which is understandably generating a large negative uproar with neighbors and the Anderson Valley public, all because one irresponsible planner appointed himself as the final Blackbird Decider. And nobody in Official Mendo is bothered by this.

(See the end of this story for a dialog between me and former County Planner John Speka who insists that our view of Mr. Tarr’s role in the Blackbird permit application is too harsh.

* * *

Mr. Walker also talked about the road agreements with roads on neighboring properties.

“Since July we have produced lots of documents which you have not seen and some of the questions I hear here today are asking those questions about the documents that we have provided, so to comment on everything that's being said right now including the road and the road agreement. The road agreement is out. Nobody has signed it. It needs some input and we are open for input. We have some road issues now. We have in the process, in the building process, a permit for the turnouts, grading of the road, and gravel for the road. We hired an engineer, a road engineer, we also have some gravel on the property that has been used for 50 years, it's a shale product. In an emergency -- like I say, it's remote. Sometimes, a road will wash out and we can fix that in order for -- you know, springtime repairs, when the repairs are better. I think the answers are coming in.”

So Mr. Walker also admits that the roads can wash out in the winter — which would further complicate any emergency evaculation or response.

As far as Mr. Walker’s “documents” that we have not seen… We have seen draft versions of some of them and the one(s) they variously call “emergency plan,” or “evacuation plan,” or “fire plan” (depending on who asks) read like a third grader prepared them with no specifics and multiple contradictions. So Blackbird saying there are “documents” means almost nothing because the “documents” have not been reviewed or accepted by authorities or the neighbors or the public.

Dan Reed, representing Shenoa, then told the Commission why there was no road agreement.

“I would like to set the record straight on the road agreement. The road agreement came in a FedEx package, it was quite a long detailed agreement. I looked at it. I had my lawyer look at it. We had a good laugh. And no one has contacted me since. I don't know why they paid money to write it. It's a very self-serving agreement. There's no input in it in advance. They just wanted to tick the box so they could come here and say the road agreement was submitted. I think that's disingenuous. I just wanted to be clear on that.”

Neighboring property owner Margaret Peterson explained further: “I also got a copy of the road agreement which my husband and I just looked at and shook our heads and as the gentleman before me [Dan Reed] said, it was very self-serving and very expensive — under that agreement Blackbird does the work and gets paid from us for doing it.

Blackbird’s well-nourished attorney, Tom Johnson, blamed the road agreement problem on the neighbors and the County:

“I want to just talk you briefly about our road agreement. Anybody can write a road agreement. You can't get other people to agree to the road agreement that you write. All documents are written with the purpose of negotiation. The road agreement was written, but no one has responded to the road agreement. No one has said I won't sign it. No one has said I will sign it. No one has made a suggestion to us about any other alternatives. And that's one of the problems with requiring a road agreement. I've written hundreds of road agreements in my lifetime in Mendocino County. And not everybody agrees with them! That's why civil code section or CCP Section 845 exists which says that if you cannot have a road agreement there is a statutory basis for apportioning costs. We would prefer to have a road agreement but we can't and wouldn't even suggest that we have the right to force anybody to sign a road agreement.”

How dare those darn neighbors expect to have a say about a huge traffic increase if Blackbird's urban plunk-down is approved for the area?

Another minor shocker was Commission Chair Molly Warner’s question to staff asking if they respond to public comments. An unidentified older woman staffer replied that, unlike most other public agencies in California, No, Mendo doesn’t respond to comments unless the Planning Commission asks them to (which is pointless because by that time the issue is already up for a vote and there’s no time to respond to them). Mendo alone just puts the public’s comments in a pile and handd them over to the Planning Commission where they are left to die. To make matters worse, Blackbird Project Planner Adele Phillips said, “I would also like to add that often we get questions that staff cannot answer. It's more appropriate for the applicant to answer. And in that case we forward the information to the applicant so that they can reply or respond. We don't monitor whether they actually do directly respond. But we do inform them that someone has this question.”

* * *

Scott Ward now of Redwood Valley told the Commission that he represented Jill and Jeff Haehl who are also Blackbird neighbors. Ward said he was a retired county building inspector with responsibility for Anderson Valley and that both he and the Haehls were concerned about fire safety and road degradation. “It can be very treacherous and there’s a large potential for degradation,” said Ward. “It’s very unsafe during a wildfire. Also, how will conditions be enforced? There’s no mention of that. This is an incredible expansion. Who will monitor to see that conditions are met and work is approved?”

(Note: This writer raised this exact same enforcement question and several others in a formal letter to the planning department back in June and, of course, it was ignored. Since the Planning Commission didn’t ask staff to address it, it will be ignored again, like all the other comments.)

Commissioner Jim Little suggested that the Planning Commission hold a special meeting in Anderson Valley for the Blackbird proposal on the same day as the site visit proposed by Planning staff.

Most of the other Commissioners agreed, with two of them voting to establish a date certain. But the majority voted to postpone the next Blackbird to some time next year.

Commission Chair Molly Warner concluded by saying that she "hoped" that the meeting would be in the springtime. “We hope everything will be in time and we will try to look at the logistics for a meeting in Anderson Valley.”

* * *

Addendum #1:

John Speka: “Very unfair to speak of former County Planner Fred Tarr as the “decider” and determining “magic numbers” for the controversial Blackbird Farms application. I worked in the department with Fred for many years. He was always fair and open with applicants about planning staff’s role vis-a-vis the Planning Commission’s decision making capacity. The above blog spent a good amount of effort in stating how Mr. Tarr “usurped” County Planning Commission authority and should have been fired for supposedly providing arbitrary allowances to an applicant. All of this based on a so-called “admission” of a representative for the applicant at the public hearing. In my experience with the department, applicants were known on several occasions to take parts of planning discussions out of context, believing only what they wanted to hear that could potentially further their applications. None of us were there to hear any past conversations between Mr. Tarr and applicant representatives. Basing an argument that Mr. Tarr overstepped his authority on an “admission” by the applicant at the public hearing is very one-sided. The fact that the Planning Commission was silent on the matter was likely due to their understanding that one-sided testimony isn’t necessarily the whole story.”

Mark Scaramella: “Fair enough. But how else would you explain where Blackbird got their ‘magic number’? As a (former?) planner, then, maybe you can tell us how else Mr. Tarr arrived at a “mitigated negative declaration” that understates or dismisses the proposal’s impact in so many ways without even an attempt to assess it? (We’ll be happy to list them item by item if requested.) You can download Mr. Tarr’s ‘mitigated negative declaration’ at the Planning Commission’s website and see for yourself how far off it is.”

Speka: “Not sure where Blackbird would have come up with the 300 number. Not even out of the question that numbers were discussed with Mr. Tarr at some point. Regardless, planning staff isn’t in the business of designing projects for developers or guaranteeing success of discretionary projects. Their function is to process the application and bring it to a hearing before the proper decision making body. In most cases, a mitigated negative declaration (MND) is appropriate to provide measures ensuring impacts are held to a less than significant level, etc. A MND is prepared with the goal of addressing all potential impacts. However, planners aren’t always able to predict every possible outcome of a project either. In other words, they give it their best shot, but at the end of the day are only human and may sometimes miss the mark. (There’s no ill intent on the planner’s part, although at times from the reactions you get in controversial cases you’d think the planner was scheming their way through the entire CEQA process in order to help the applicant.) That’s why public input is so important, asking what areas may have been overlooked. The Planning Commission then has the authority to add even more mitigation measures, or in the alternative to deny a project felt to be inappropriate for whatever reason. Bottom line is that Fred Tarr had always acted professionally and responsibly throughout his tenure with the County and doesn’t deserve to have his integrity questioned because of an unpopular proposal that may or may not be approved at a future date.”

Addendum #2. 

Outstanding Blackbird Code Violations. (Anyone else with this list of blatant violations and unsafe conditions would be red-tagged and shut down until they were cleared. But in Blackbird’s case they are “working with the applicant.”

"Unpermitted grading of access roads, unpermitted grading and excavation activities; unpermitted remodel and failure to obtain a certificate of occupancy before use as an assembly barn; Yurt #1 — unpermitted structure, restrooms, and deck. Lack of approved heat source, unvented heaters observed. Yurt #2 — unpermitted structure. Lack of approved heat source. Unvented gas heater observed. Hoop house #1— Unpermitted structure being used as a cooling area with extension cords for electricity running to it. Hoop house #2 — unpermitted structure. Unpermitted zip line and platform. Unpermitted storage containers. Improper fuel and battery storage in the storage container area.”

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