Does Georgia-Pacific Have a Secret Plan for Fort Bragg?

A Mendocino Coast community group is meeting with Georgia-Pacific consultants to discuss the future of the Atlanta-based corporation’s 434 seaside acres in the center of Fort Bragg. Once the site of a thriving lumber mill that employed generations of Fort Bragg residents, it now represents the last parcel its size available for private development anywhere on California’s thousand mile coastline.

The community group calls itself North Coast Action. It’s heavy on idealism, light on reality, but is nevertheless earnestly presenting an improbable wish list of potential uses for the land to the San Francisco-based real estate consultants G-P has hired to take “community input.”

Suggested uses include a fish farm, a Monterey-style aquarium, Habitat For Humanity housing, a public park, a marsh that would naturally render sewage harmless as has been accomplished by the City of Arcata, low cost housing, and retail shops.

The Atlanta-based corporation is unlikely to consider any suggestion that doesn’t promise top dollar, and it’s unlikely that G-P doesn’t have its own plans for the property.

G-P’s San Francisco consultants have conducted community tours of the closed plant and have convened several workshops which, down the line, will undoubtedly be invoked as evidence of G-P’s high regard for community opinion.

“They’re pretty slick,” said one participant. “Everybody knows G-P is interested in figuring out how to make the most money off the property now that the sawmill is closed. So-called community input is just part of the process G-P needs to go through on their way to doing whatever is going to make them the most money.”

Some Fort Bragg residents are downright suspicious.

“G-P has invited the public to tell them what they want to do with this property. But it’s a bunch of bullshit,” said one Fort Bragg skeptic. “The meetings are bogus, a smokescreen.”

The suspicion is justified.

G-P has a history of lying to the public, repeatedly proclaiming that their timber operation was in Fort Bragg and Mendocino County “for the long-haul” even as they were laying off workers and selling their plundered timberlands to an amorphous investment group called Hawthorne Timber. Who really controls Hawthorne is hard to know, and neither G-P nor Hawthorne is saying. Hawthorne bills itself as a financial management outfit unrelated to timber with links to public employee retirement funds in several Western states.

At the root of local skepticism is an offshore resources map some people vaguely recall having seen during the offshore oil drilling protests fifteen years ago. No one is sure of the source of this apparently mythical document, referring hopefully to, “the US Geological Survey maybe?” The offshore map reportedly featured color coded grids off the coastline west of Fort Bragg showing underwater mineral resources.

It also was said to show oil deposits on the west or the other side of the San Andreas fault, a perhaps fact some protesters pounced on. “Nobody in their right mind would tap that oil,” they said, “because it would involve building a pipeline across the fault to get it onshore.”

Regular unleaded wasn’t $2.15 a gallon then either.

The long-anticipated closure of the mill last year left G-P with 434 acres of prime coastal industrial property, including an abandoned airstrip and a 15-megawatt power plant — big enough to power most of Fort Bragg, but small by commercial power plant standards. (An expanded power plant serving the Coast is another widely circulated rumor. It has considerable appeal given recent manipulations of the power grid; small is better, argue its proponents. …)

The G-P property is almost one-third the size of today’s Fort Bragg. The mill, built 125 years before view-shed considerations, has blotted the Pacific from Fort Bragg’s bay windows although in more paternal times when the mill was owned by the Johnson family, millworkers and their families enjoyed recreational access to parts of the property. But for years now, Fort Bragg has been known as “a coastal town that doesn’t know it has a coast.”

G-P has always been closed-mouthed about its plans. “I wish G-P wasn’t so secretive,” said former Fort Bragg planning commissioner Mary Weaver, who wonders if G-P intends to expand its power generation plant.

But, east of the fault line, extending underneath the GP property, according to the mystery map, was a large field of natural gas.

“These maps showed a huge swath of green which represented natural gas deposits,” said one person who claims to have seen them, “and part of the green was right under G-P’s property.”

The first big protest to resist possible oil extraction off the Mendocino Coast took place at Crown Hall in Mendocino in 1985.

“It was a doozy,” recalls Rusty Norvell. “Nobody went home until three in the morning.” The Norvells devoted many hours to a local movement (later co-opted by professional Democrats) aimed getting permanent ocean sanctuary status for the seas off the Northcoast. Flo Norvell, Sue Miller and Dobie Dolphin managed to mobilize local opinion for a federal declaration which would have permanently prohibited commercial exploitation of the seas off the Mendocino Coast, but professional pols, including Gray Davis, soon opted for an annual federal ban against offshore extractions that gave them an annual photo op as defenders of sanctity of Northcoast waters.

The second big offshore protests occurred in 1987. They were attended by state politicians who rolled into Fort Bragg in sleek black Chryslers to declare they were one with the sea creatures. Gray Davis, spotted emerging from one of the Chryslers, inspired a startled remark from one of the crowd at Eagle Hall, “He really is grey, isn’t he?”

In the wake of the big 1987 protest, a resolution was brought to the Fort Bragg City Council to declare the Fort Bragg coast line off limits to offshore oil drilling. The resolution was eventually approved by the Council 4th District supervisor Patti Campbell was sitting on the Council at the time, but balked at a second resolution which would have prohibited exploration for natural gas. Campbell’s husband happens to be Peter Caton, a PG&E executive, which further fueled speculation about gas and power plant development.

California generates much of its electricity from natural gas, and has been fast-tracking new gas-plant development since the bogus 2001 California energy crisis. There’s even talk of an imminent emergency declaration of a natural gas shortage. The peril of looming natural gas shortages, which may or may not exist, further fuels speculation that Georgia-Pacific sees a natural gas installation on their abandoned mill site where giant redwoods were once cut up into two by fours.

“There’s nothing to stop them,” said a skeptic. “They wouldn’t even have to slant drill — just put a pipe right down underneath the plant.”

In this scenario, G-P’s list of potential buyers, lease-holders or investment partners would include such companies as Exxon/Mobil, PG&E, and power plant operators like Calpine, Duke Power, Dynergy, and on through a list of energy giants whose names are now synonymous with corporate villainy. Calpine, flush with windfall profits from the manufactured energy crisis it helped conjure, is preparing to build a liquefied natural gas storage and power generation facility at the Eureka harbor, which would off-load liquid natural gas from Alaska and pipe what it doesn’t burn to the Central Valley via a new, long haul gas pipeline.

“I have not been able to locate that natural gas map,” said one off-shore oil protester who claims to have seen it. “If I could, I would be making copies for the North Coast Action group and asking them to pursue it. But so far, it’s speculation.”

Maps available on-line from California energy and resource agencies, and from the US Geological Survey (now called the US Minerals Service) don’t show any gas deposits on or near the Fort Bragg coast. There are some “sedimentary soils” indicating a natural gas presence shown farther north near Eureka, but no indication of fields or potential reserves off Fort Bragg.

Most of California’s known natural gas fields are in the Central Valley. There is a gas distribution pipeline which runs up Highway 101 to Willits. Beyond Willits gas pipelines run south from Oregon sources.

Long-time Fort Bragg community activist Roanne Withers is blunt about the idea of G-P having plans for a natural gas fueled power plant: “It’s a paranoid fantasy,” said Withers, “because Fort Bragg is too isolated and remote — nothing big enough to be commercially viable could be built here. There’s no big power line hookup or pipelines. Transportation inland is restricted, and there’s not enough local population to support it.”

Skip Wollenberg, a retired geologist who also lives in Fort Bragg, similarly dismisses natural gas and power plant speculation. “I really doubt that there would be any potential for natural gas or oil under the G-P plant or anywhere east of the San Andreas fault. West of the fault there are sedimentary basins that could have oil and gas, but it’s just a generalized potential. There are some conditions that might indicate gas and oil under the slope at the edge of the continental shelf. There’s also some potential for gas hydrates, a frozen CO2/methane mix. But no one as yet is extracting that on a commercial level. There are major problems and risks. And what’s out there only exists at substantial depth. The government is in the early phases of exploring that potential. But there are no specific deposits identified in the area so far.”

City Councilman Dan Gjerde isn’t quite as skeptical. “I’ve heard rumors like that for a long time,” said Gjerde. “People say they saw a map, but I haven’t seen it.”

Gjerde points out that whatever happens to the G-P property, there’s more than the City of Fort Bragg to deal with. “The Coastal Commission would have to approve anything like that,” said Gjerde. “And the current Commission would probably not be as receptive as, say, a Schwarzenegger commission. I suppose you could put together a scenario where the Davis recall is fueled by people who want to change the Coastal Commission to expedite projects like gas-fueled power plants.”

Until the sawmill closed, G-P was producing some surplus power for the grid from its on-site, wood waste-fueled generators, but according to Gjerde, that permit and the power plant itself — currently inoperative while the plant is closed — is restricted to power production for on-site use, and only permits the excess to be sold to the grid. A new permit would be required for an ordinary commercial power plant to be built.

But Gjerde notes, “Fort Bragg is very isolated. It would take quite a bit of time and investment to upgrade that facility and the distribution system to turn it into a large scale energy generation facility.”

“I remember people talking about that map,” added Gjerde. “If anybody could get hold of it, I’m sure a lot of people in Fort Bragg would be very interested.”

Soon after G-P sold its timber holdings in 2000 locals saw the handwriting on the wall and began an effort to change the zoning for the sawmill and the adjoining property to commercial and/or residential use. At present, all 434 acres are zoned heavy industrial — the largest tract of industrially zoned land available for development on the California coast.

G-P resisted the zoning changes. One obvious reason being that industrial zoning enjoys lower taxes. Additionally, industrial real estate is generally more valuable than commercial or residential real estate.

G-P headquarters closed the mill when they could no longer count on large-size, low-cost logs to continue operating the sawmill. Jackson Demonstration State Forest lawsuits and the Big River land acquisition tied up some coastal timber, and historic overcutting had depleted G-P’s own land. When the mill was closed, the facility’s power generation equipment, historically fueled by mill waste and, more recently, trucked in detritus from construction sites, was also shut down. In its last days, sensitive souls often complained that G-P’s power plant was fueled with a lot more than wood waster — old tires, for instance. But Fort Bragg officials and the Air Quality Management District never found any evidence that prohibited materials were being tossed into the generator’s maw. “You’re never going to catch them doing it,” a typical complaint went, “because they only do it when the fog’s in late at night.”

The unproven hazard to mental and physical health once directed at G-P has lately been focused on cell phone relay installations.

The North Coast Action group’s initial efforts to advise G-P on future use of thier lucrative acres sounds good — who could object to asking the public about what to do with the site? But many long time Fort Braggers backed away when the recent arrivals at the core of the group started emphasizing the development of massage parlors and spas, and described their work as “a MacroVision Planning Process.”

“North Coast Action … was inspired by and at the Bioneers Conference (broadcast via satellite) held at the Caspar Community Center in Caspar, California in October 2002,” announces their website. “Of particular note was the plenary presentation of John Todd, Ph.D. from the New Alchemy Institute in Burlington, Vermont.”

Alchemy? It was only a matter of time before it was back.

But this kind of pseudo-science with its overtones of hippie mysticism is about as welcome in traditional Fort Bragg as seaweed on a cheeseburger.

“G-P will only tell us what they want us to know when they want us to know it,” said a former city planner. “As it stands, they can only produce power for internal use and whatever leftover power sales they had been doing historically. If history is a guide, G-P will wait until a deal is already arranged to play their hand. Then they’ll make an offer to the City with maybe a few concessions and say there’s very little time to decide. A fait accompli — take it or leave it.”

There are also wet stuff implications. G-P owns a long-standing riparian right to draw from the Noyo River that comes with the property. In theory, this invaluable access to the Noyo’s tapped out flow exceeds the volume that the entire city is now permitted to draw. It’s another unforeseen legacy of Fort Bragg’s 125 years as a mill town. G-P’s water right is older than the City’s right to Noyo River water. If G-P were to exercise its full draw, well, at a minimum G-P would thereby gain crucial bargaining leverage on whatever project is proposed for the property.

G-P’s draw on the Noyo, in part at least, could be sold to the City or used as a powerful bargaining chips in negotiations for whatever new uses G-P devises for its precious seaside acres. The chronically thirsty City of Fort Bragg is said to be eyeing the water sources its advocates claim lie beneath the proposed publicly-funded golf course east of town on another G-P owned property.

“The east side of the property along Highway One would certainly make a good commercial zone,” says Gjerde. “As long as they stay under the height limits, there’s a long stretch of the property which could be converted to commercial development. Storefronts would be accessible to pedestrians, fronting right on Highway One.”

“But,” continues Gjerde, “it’s hard to see how G-P could configure the property for a mixture of heavy industrial, commercial and residential uses without one use hurting the value of the other uses.”

Another factor Gjerde notes is that G-P’s Bay Area consultants — “Sedway Group, Real Estate and Urban Economics” — are not energy people. Reportedly, G-P hired them, at least in part, because of their experience in developing a ghastly residential development project to be carved out of the steep, overcut hills east and above Gualala on land owned by Gualala Redwoods. Sedway has also been involved in planning projects at the Presidio in San Francisco.

“G-P’s consultants are basically real estate development people,” said Gjerde, “with legal experts, community relations specialists, and environmental planners. I think the nature of the outfit kind of tips their hand about what G-P plans to do. Why would G-P hire these kinds of people if they have a secret interest in gas production and power generation?”

G-P has made it clear in one of their few public statements on their plans what their basic objectives are: “The goal of the [real estate] team, and of G-P is to maximize the value of the property while being consistent with the City and Coastal Commission's goals and policies, as well as with Fort Bragg's community vision for the site,” said G-P spokesperson Melodie Ruse.

The Sedway people have told Fort Bragg that they expect to have an initial proposal to the city by the end of this year.

“Whatever they show us will also be reviewed by G-P headquarters in Atlanta,” said Gjerde. “I don’t think we’ll know much about what G-P’s official plans are until then. The consultants see things unfolding in five major phases. Community input is just phase one. And the City has its own process after that, and no matter what happens politically the Coastal Commission will have a role. You’re talking years for each of these phases. Everything has to go through hearings and reviews. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s at least six years before anything concrete is done.”

Lots of people think that G-P is using North Coast Action to put on a public relations charade to find out what the public wants. If that’s the thinking, G-P and its consultants have the wrong group. North Coast Action is dominated by yuppies who live down the road in Caspar, a community lately become the most oppressive kind of self-gated association, complete with big community circles. Traditional Fort Bragg is not represented by North Coast Fantasy, er, Action.

The information North Coast Action is gathering would give G-P leverage when it comes to bargaining with the City over unpopular industrial or commercial development proposals. G-P will want the development and may get it if G-P wraps it in North Coast Action woo-woo and innocuous-sounding minor concessions like buffer zones, housing zones, storefronts, and maybe even park bench or two. G-P’s major proposals for projects nobody wants are thus disguised by winning over the dominant Caspar “visionaries.”

Sedway Group’s Tim Margerum says, “Recent industry losses [in Fort Bragg] have prompted a shift to tourism as a primary revenue base,” adding that there is also “a strong demand for coastal vacation property.”

Thank you, Mr. Consultant, for the insight a quarter century after the fact.

G-P’s land is currently assessed at $2 million (the 1979 Prop-13 value), with $26 million in improvements sitting on it. But coastal property values have skyrocketed in recent years with prime ocean view acreage often selling for more than $200,000 per acre of bare ground; G-P’s ghostly industrial wreck of a mill site is, any realtor will tell you, worth as much as $100 million.

For their part, G-P has made some encouraging, if hazy, pronouncements about the site, acknowledging that there’s fuel-based pollution in certain areas that it will have to clean-up.

And G-P has at least slowed initial plans to tear down the entire mill facility and sell off whatever it can. Meanwhile, laid-off mill workers, caught between MacroVisioners, corporate realtors, tourism cheerleaders, and a pliant cadre of elected officeholders, seem to have been lost in the fog of all the big talk. Whatever arises on the Georgia-Pacific property between downtown Fort Bragg and the Pacific, it is unlikely to pay the living wage the mill paid for a hundred years.

Complicating matters is Fort Bragg mayor Jere Melo, a long-time G-P mill manager. Although he has so far avoided formal votes on G-P matters, his loyalties are assumed to remain with the big office in Atlanta.

Prospects were further dimmed a couple weeks ago when Fort Bragg’s well-respected city manager, Connie Jackson, submitted her resignation to take a better job in San Bruno. Jackson’s departure has some people in Fort Bragg worrying that the City Council, which lost its “reform majority” in the last election, will invite back former City manager Gary Milliman, who narrowly eluded indictment for confusing the public interest with the private interests of himself and his developer friends.

Fort Bragg’s politics have never been boring. At times, they’ve been a little too exciting, what with a known handful of owning class criminals having gotten clean away with arsons-for-profit that cost the town its library, its justice court and its landmark Piedmont Hotel — Fort Bragg’s very soul — and other flagrantly unpunished crimes, including murder, committed by some of its leading citizens, we can expect exciting times with millions of new dollars in play.

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