A Humboldt County ranch that receives tax incentives for promoting agriculture and open space was slated to have its contract severed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, but a potential change in ownership may spare the deal.
"The new owners are going to actively comply and exceed the requirements," First District Supervisor and board Chairman Rex Bohn said.
Under the Williamson Act, agricultural landowners sign contracts with the county to receive lower property tax assessments for restricting specific parcels of land to agricultural or related open space use. In May 2013, the county's Williamson Act Advisory Committee found that the McBride-West Point Ranch in the Petrolia area violated its Williamson Act contract in several ways, such as showing no evidence of agricultural production and dividing parcels into smaller than allowable sizes under the act.
The owners did not respond to several inquiries regarding the violations, which Bohn said was the reason the county was considering not to renew the contract.
"The land is leased for cattle production," Bohn said. "The problem is it is a very large holding with three entities controlling it basically with no one wanting to fill out the paperwork. The agricultural part of that is being met and will be met. I just think we're going to get a more responsive owner in the future, and he's made that commitment."
The county's policies state that non-renewal of a contract should be a measure of last resort. But with the state ceasing is subvention payments to counties in 2009 that reimbursed counties for the loss of property tax income and the cost of lawsuits over past contract disputes, 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass said that noncompliant properties are important to address.
"I hope this one has better resolution than the one I saw reading the agenda packet," she said.
With the buyers expecting to close escrow within the next two months, 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace asked staff whether the county should play it safe and continue forward with noticing the current property owners of the board's intent for non-renewal in case the deal falls through.
County Planner Cliff Johnson said that the county has to enter into a new contract with any new owner, regardless of when the property changes hands.
"If it does get noticed for non-renewal, there is nothing that prevents the owner or county into entering into a new contact," Johnson said. "Once the new owner takes ownership, they are required to enter into a new contract within 90 days of purchase."
The board voted unanimously to bring the issue back to the board on Jan. 20, 2015. Should no action be taken by mid-February, the current owner's contract will be renewed automatically.
Earlier in the meeting, the board heard an update on the Community Homeless Improvement Project (CHIP), a collaborative effort between local governments, businesses, law enforcement and fire services, faith-based organizations, nonprofits and community advocates to address and create solutions for homelessness in the county.
Meeting weekly since October, the group has advocated a multi-pronged approach to solving issues surrounding homelessness including education, drafting legislation and improving services.
Eureka police Chief Andrew Mills said the project is not an absolute solution.
"We recognize homelessness is not going to go away because of CHIP, but what we would like to do is impact the problem of homelessness in Eureka," he said.
The results from a nearly 2,000-person survey the group conducted in February showed that the majority of homeless people have lived in Humboldt County for five years or more, with over 50 percent having had some type of mental illness and about 90 percent saying they had an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol.
Eureka City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson provided statistics on the city's municipal code misdemeanor violations from December 2011 to May 2013, which totaled nearly 800 cases. Statistics from 2011 showed that the majority violations were made by repeat offenders. Mills stated that a small part of the homeless population is causing a majority of the crimes.
"It's not just the homeless," Mills said, adding that many community members have the same issues.
With a number of city ordinances in place or in the works, 3rd Ward Eureka City Councilman Mike Newman said that the homeless community has two choices: abide by the law or don't.
"Ordinances don't stop things," he said. "They're just a tool to help enforce deterrence. We can help them with a variety of things ... but you have to enforce law equally."
A large part of the effort is education and spreading the message on what can be done to both the homeless community and the communities they reside in. Many representatives stated that people should give money to services that give a helping hand, not a handout to those living on the streets.
"What I learned is that giving cash to panhandlers doesn't help," Eureka Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Don Smullin said. "It goes primarily to drugs."
Several homeless service providers such as Betty Kwann Chinn, the Eureka Rescue Mission and St. Vincent de Paul also attended the meeting to explain what they can offer. With the collaboration of so many groups working on the issue, Chinn expressed her appreciation.
"For the first time in 30 years, I see a light," she said.
Other ideas in the works include a law enforcement mental health team that will seek to combine local law enforcement and mental health specialists from the county to help those people the two agencies have similar encounters with.
After hearing the several presenters, each board member expressed their gratitude to those taking part in the effort.
"I think this county is moving in the right direction," 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.