Planning Commission approves ROTR CUP; adds new conditions to permit

Dave Brooksher

Redwood Times

During a late night session at last week's meeting of the Humboldt County Planning Commission, the county approved the Conditional Use Permit for the Mateel Community Center's Reggae on the River 2013 and added several additional requirements for festival operators.

First off, if the Mateel Community Center ceases to operate the festival the permit will expire automatically. This provision was included to preempt another installment of the reggae wars in the event that some breakaway faction of the MCC someday challenges the organization for legal ownership of the event.

"The permit has a condition that if the Mateel Community Center ceases to be the operator, the permit terminates. It's no longer a multi-year permit," Chairman Ralph Faust, "that's the end of the deal."

"We've already been burned once -- I'd like to see us avoid being burned again," he added.

According to County Counsel Wendy B. Chaitin, future litigation may still be a threat to the county.

"If there is some breakaway group of the Mateel Community Center, we could potentially have another litigation event between those two factions over who owns the permit," Chaitin said.

Another point of discussion involved the Piercy business community, which has raised several concerns about the festival's negative impacts on business operations. In the end, planning commission officials added an amendment to the CUP demanding that the Mateel Community Center's leadership continue to "work in a reasonable fashion" with business and property owners adjacent to the venue to resolve a number outstanding conflicts and security costs during the event and how traffic conditions will affect access to tourist-traffic passing through on Highway 101.

MCC treasurer Katz Boose told the commission that the Mateel plans to provide professional security guards for nearby retailers like the Thunder Mountain Trading Company, but that came as news to proprietor Shon Nickels.

"The last communication was November 30th," Nickels said. "It would be business like, especially in a small community, to communicate."

At the heart of the traffic issue is an unanswered question about whether or not local vendors are willing or able to adapt to the unusual business conditions presented by the once-a-year festival. They maintain that traffic congestion, along with restricted left-hand turns, dramatically reduce their access for the usual tourists passing through on Highway 101. According to Nickels, when road traffic backs up due to unrelated maintenance projects on the highway, customers stop coming through the door at Thunder Mountain. He expects that problem to compound during ROTR.

Drivers are unlikely to proceed up the highway, make a U-turn, then drive back into congested traffic conditions in order to make the sort of impulse buys associated with gift shops targeting tourists. Likewise, northbound drivers who need to purchase gas may simply keep going to Garberville rather than going back to fill up at the Patriot or Renner gas stations on the southbound side of the road.

Commission Mel Kreb said, "What I see here with Reggae on the River is that they're going to bring you more business. Reggae on the River brings me more business and I'm 40 miles away -- because I'm on the Avenue of the Giants and people driving by stop on the way to Reggae. I find it very hard to believe that businesses located in the immediate area of Reggae on the River can claim that you're losing business. Really what you're claiming is that you want a piece of the pie -- that's what I think. And maybe that's fair. But I don't think this commission should order the Mateel to satisfy any demand you have."

After those comments, a brief but heated exchange ensued between Commissioner Kreb and Cook's Valley business owners Zachary and Keith Bowman.

"You wouldn't go into downtown Eureka and shut down a business," Keith Bowman said. "Period."

"I think that you get a lot more business during this event than you do otherwise," Kreb said.

"Sir -- I've been there since 1978 and it doesn't work that way," said Keith Bowman

At this point, Chairman Faust made an unsuccessful attempt to bring the room back to order by noting the time -- which was already after 11 p.m., but Kreb was not dissuaded.

"One commissioner has asked if the Mateel can be ordered to settle this before the event -- and there may be some things that can't be settled just because of the requirements of the highway patrol," Kreb concluded, referring to the CHP's opposition to the use of a crosswalk and left-hand turns along Highway 101 during congested traffic conditions.

There was also a stipulation added by Commissioner Susan Masten requiring festival operators to step up their plans for preventing attendants from bathing in the river by directing staff and volunteers to intervene. The previous plan was limited to using an outreach campaign to inform festival attendants about the environmental impacts of sunscreen and other products on salmon and other wildlife in the river.

All of these very important issues will continue to be discussed in the future.