Seven cities, districts support Mercer-Fraser cannabis project appeal

The owners of Mercer-Fraser Co. are proposing a  marijuana product processing facility for this Glendale Drive property between Arcata and Blue Lake and near a Mad River drinking water supply pump station.
The owners of Mercer-Fraser Co. are proposing a marijuana product processing facility for this Glendale Drive property between Arcata and Blue Lake and near a Mad River drinking water supply pump station. Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard file

Seven cities and community services districts have backed the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District’s appeal of a controversial Mercer-Fraser Company project that seeks to build a cannabis manufacturing facility along the Mad River near Glendale.

The water district is appealing the Humboldt County Planning Commission’s January approval of the project, claiming it has the potential of contaminating drinking water for 88,000 county residents because of its proximity to one of the district’s water pumps on the Mad River.

This month, the boards and city councils for all seven of the water district’s municipal customers — Eureka, Arcata, Blue Lake, and the McKinleyville, Manila, Fieldbrook-Glendale and Humboldt community services districts — voted to support the appeal.

“It shows that 100 percent of our customers are concerned about the issue,” Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District General Manager John Friedenbach said Wednesday, “and that they’re concerned about the quality of the water supply for the constituents and that it’s a serious issue for the Board of Supervisors to consider.”

When the appeal will go before the Board of Supervisors is up in the air. County Planning and Building Director John Ford said that there is no date set for the appeal.

“I think that there is a desire by the water district and Mercer-Fraser to meet and try to work things out,” Ford said Wednesday. “I don’t want to circumvent that process. We’re just waiting for that to play out. It will be interesting to see how things progress.”

Mercer-Fraser Company has amended the project’s operations plans in an attempt to address the water district’s concerns, but the district is proceeding with its appeal.

Mercer-Fraser Company president and CEO Justin Zabel said Wednesday that they “are absolutely open to continued meetings and an open dialogue with the district and other stakeholders.”

“We are unsure at this time whether additional changes to the proposed project are warranted, as we do not fully understand the specific concerns of the District with respect to the operations plan,” Zabel wrote in an email to the Times-Standard.

The lone ‘no’ vote

Of all the elected officials from the seven city councils and community services districts that purchase water from Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, Frank Scolari was the only public official to cast a “no” vote regarding the appeal.

At the Humboldt Community Services District Board of Directors’ Feb. 13 meeting, Scolari voted against a motion to send a letter calling on the Board of Supervisors to review the appeal.

Reached Wednesday, Scolari said he fully supports the appeal and only voted against the motion because it included other requests that he felt overstepped their district’s purview.

These requests included calling for the county review all heavy industrial zoned properties along the Mad River to ensure there are no other activities that may threaten public drinking water and to require any permitted projects near a public water source to protect public health, safety and water quality.

“It should have been 10 minutes and we should have been out of there,” Scolari said about the meeting. “Instead it took an hour to get this stupid motion approved.”

Scolari said he has no issues with the letter that the district ultimately sent to the county Feb. 16.

“We’re basically all in favor of the appeal,” district board member Dave Saunderson said Wednesday.

Alan Bongio sits on both the county Planning Commission and the Humboldt Community Services District Board of Directors. Bongio abstained from voting on the project during the planning commission meeting in January and again at the board of director’s Feb. 13 meeting, but did not state why during both meetings.

Reached Wednesday, Bongio told the Times-Standard he voted to abstain because he didn’t want anybody to accuse him of being unfair. Despite this, Bongio said the reaction to his abstentions by some in the community has been negative.

“I abstained to avoid any conflict. Period,” Bongio said Wednesday.

Asked to clarify whether he would have had a conflict of interest if he voted on the project, Bongio said there would have been no conflict.

Ultimately, the district voted 3-1-1 to approve the letter.

The project

Mercer-Fraser Company is seeking to construct a 5,000-square-foot facility at 90 Glendale Drive that would manufacture cannabis concentrates and edibles using volatile extraction methods in a closed-loop system. The company is applying for the project under the name MCMP LLC. The facility would be built on property the company is already using for gravel mining.

Responding to the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District’s concerns in a late January letter, the company stated it has limited the amount of solvents that can be stored at the site.

“Based on the voluntary limitation of the types and quantities of solvents used in the manufacturing process, the nature of the closed-loop extraction system, and other project changes,” Mercer-Fraser Company vice president Mark Benzinger wrote to the water district, “MCMP has further decreased, and essentially eliminated, the likelihood of any impacts to water quality.”

Benzinger wrote the company plans to use butane, carbon dioxide, ethanol and isopropanol — commonly known as rubbing alcohol — for its extraction operations. The planning commission limited the company from storing more than 50 gallons of alcohol on the property. Benzinger wrote that they are self-imposing a limit of 55 gallons for each of the solvents.

One of the main concerns by Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District officials is not the cannabis facility, but a proposed zoning change on the property that must be made in order for it to be built.

The county must change the zoning classification on the parcel from “agriculture general” to “qualified heavy industrial.” Friedenbach said this change would potentially allow for other types of industrial uses to move onto the property.

Ford previously said the recently approved county General Plan already mandates this zoning change be made because the plan changed that property’s land-use designation. Should the zoning be changed, Ford previously said the new zoning would require any other types of uses on that property to obtain a conditional use permit, which requires a public hearing.

Zabel said the new “qualified heavy industrial” zoning would also include “restrictive performance standards that include prohibiting approval of uses that would adversely affect ground or surface waters.”

“Specifically, the Planning Commission recommended land use restrictions limiting the property’s permitted uses to only those current and historical uses consistent with what has occurred onsite for approximately 100 years,” Zabel said.

In a Feb. 13 letter responding to Benzinger, Friedenbach wrote that there are other zoning possibilities the county could use for that parcel. Friedenbach specifically said an “agriculture exclusive,” or AE, zoning classification that would allow to company to continue its “current operations.”

“In the interest of protecting the environment and the public health and welfare for the drinking water of [two-thirds] of the county’s population, and given the overwhelming public protest over siting this project on the Glendale property, our board can only support the AE zone which would not expand any industrial activity at the proposed site,” Friedenbach wrote.

Zabel said the current proposal to zone the property as qualified heavy industrial is appropriate and that the change is mandated.

“The proposed Qualified Heavy Industrial (MH-Q) zoning classification was chosen as it is consistent with the site’s historical and current heavy industrial uses and the new General Plan land use designation for the site,” Zabel wrote.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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