At their hearing last Thursday, April 3, the county planning commission granted the Mateel Community Center's request for additional offsite overflow parking for this year's Reggae on the River but voted 5-2 to deny the Mateel's request to increase attendance from 8,000 to 9,000 this year.

The commission also added a clause to the Mateel's conditional use permit requiring that testing of water quality in the South Fork Eel River, bridge design and construction, sanitary layout, and the yearly traffic analysis all be done by licensed engineers.

In addition to hearing public comment from two dissatisfied neighbors of the festival, commissioners closely questioned Mateel representatives on a number of issues, particularly water use, waste disposal, and security.

Water use at the 2013 festival greatly exceeded the amount projected in the original CUP application and its Environmental Impact Report (EIR), county senior planner Michael Richardson reported.

According to their annual review report, the Mateel agreed to limit water use in 2013 to 60,000 gallons of water drawn from an onsite well and stored in several storage tanks. Their permit called for a water meter to be placed on the well pump to monitor time and amount of water withdrawn.

But the total water pumped in 2013 came to over 222,000 gallons, according to the Mateel's report and the spoken testimony of operations manager Katz Boose. The majority of that water was used prior to the festival to irrigate grass in the bowl in June and July.

During the event, the site provided 16 hot-water shower stations, intended to diminish bathing with soap in the river, as well as water for four kitchens, hydration stations, and dust control.

This year, the second year of drought and the lowest rainfall year in California's recorded history, water is bound to be even more critical.

For the time being, the Mateel will employ water conservation measures and will use a spray “mat,” similar to de-salting icy roads, rather than water to control dust on the roads.

The Mateel estimates it will take two acre-feet of water to maintain grass on the site by mowing and irrigating it once a week from May to the end of July. (An acre-foot is approximately 328, 000 gallons.)

The report states that spread out over the 12-week timeframe, this would amount to taking only 0.01 cubic feet of water per second from the river's total flow, which the Mateel feels is insignificant.

After this year's festival, they hope to build an onsite storage pond with a three acre-foot capacity, site manager John Jennings told the commission. The additional acre-foot could be used to recharge the acquifer along the river. The pond would be filled by rainwater, Jennings said.

In the meantime the Mateel asked for relief from the water restriction for this year's festival, which was not part of the final motion approved by the commission.

Two of the site's immediate neighbors, Keith Bowman and Jesse Parsons, complained about the impact of the festival on their properties, businesses, and residents.

Bowman owns several businesses in the Cooks Valley area, and cited disruption and loss of business due to traffic and pedestrian hazards, as well as the sight and smell of the solid waste disposal site near his property. Flies were a problem, and filled portapotties were not removed until several weeks after the festival.

Parsons had problems with smell and flies from portapotties left near his property as well. In addition he, his tenants, and guests had significant security problems. In spite of the Mateel's promise to provide fencing and 24-hour security, strangers walked across and camped freely on his land before, during, and after the event, intimidating his tenants and personal guests.

The security guards themselves were part of the problem, as they partied at their stations on his land, Parsons said, and even took food out of his guests' cooler.

Jennings explained that the site for keeping waste and used portapotties was chosen to be as far from the river as possible. Furthermore, because of forestfires in Oregon, the sanitation contractor was overwhelmed and unable to fulfill his obligations to the Mateel. 

Likewise, local cell towers were overtaxed by both the event itself and the loss of towers farther north due to the Oregon fires, Boose explained. A temporary cell tower will be brought onsite for Reggae, which should solve many of the communications problems that caused breakdowns in security.

”Whenever you have a lot of people together, you have these kinds of problems,” Boose said regarding the trespassers, adding that the Mateel is dedicated to providing a safe and pleasant festival for everyone.

”Every complaint you're hearing today, you heard in September” at the post-festival meeting the Mateel held with the public last fall, Boose told the commissioners.

All the Mateel representatives assured the commission that they wanted to work with the neighbors, and both Parsons and Bowman expressed their support for the event. “I just want to be treated with respect,” Parsons said.

The commission questioned the Mateel's request to increase total festival attendance from 8,000 to 9,000. The CUP currently permits incremental increases up to 10,500, but some of the commissioners wanted to see how things work out this year before upping the numbers.

Mateel general manager Justin Crellin replied that the community center realized they were already understaffed at last year's festival, so they want to add 500 more crew and volunteers. In order to offset the increased expenses, they would like to sell 500 more tickets.

When discussion came back to the commission, commissioner Dave Edmonds moved to maintain attendance at 8,000 for 2014, as well as the request for three new offsite parking lots for overflow.

Commissioner Kevin McKenny agreed to second the motion with the added condition that water quality and traffic analyses, sanitary layout, and bridge design and construction be done by licensed engineers. When a licensed engineer's stamp is on the report, then that person has taken responsibility for the results, McKenny said.

”I don't think the problem is numbers. I think it's organizational issues,” commissioner Lee Ulansey said. “I would support the motion with an increase to 9,000.”

Board chair Bob Morris agreed. “Last year was a learning experience, and they learned,” he said, adding that the festival is a big boost to a “depressed economy.”

”I'm a long time fan,” said commissioner Noah Levy, who has attended the event. But he had been doing some informal polling in Southern Humboldt, he said, and “almost without exception” the people he talked to said that last year's event was too big.

When it came to a vote, the commission split with Ulansey and Morris voting against the motion.

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Earlier in last Thursday's hearing, commissioners also unanimously approved an amendment to the conditional use permit for the Northern Nights Music Festival, which takes place just south of the Humboldt/Mendocino county line, to add an overflow parking site for 300 cars immediately north of the line in Humboldt County.

The applicant, Outraged Orangutan LLC, purchased the former Dimmick Ranch, which occupies land on both sides of the county line, last year and renamed it County Line Ranch. As the new landowners, Outraged Orangutan inherited the conditional use permit (CUP) used for the Reggae Rising festival on Humboldt portions of the ranch.

The applicants assured the commission that the entire festival except for the overflow parking would be held in Mendocino County. The Mendocino County planning commission will hold a hearing in Ukiah on April 17 to determine the status of the CUP for the festival activities, camping, and the primary parking sites.

Humboldt commissioners unanimously approved the permit modification for the overflow site, with the conditions that the site include sanitary facilities and fire extinguishers, and that the Humboldt commission write a letter to its Mendocino counterparts urging them to require a licensed engineer approve the overall traffic analysis.

The Northern Nights festival is scheduled for Thursday, July 17 through Monday, July 21 this year. The applicant told the planning commission they do not want to compete or interfere with Reggae, which will be held from July 31 through Aug. 4 this year.

The commission also heard brief public comment on the proposed medical marijuana land use ordinance but then continued the item to their next permit hearing, scheduled for Thursday, May 1, for further comment, discussion, and a decision. It will be the first item on the agenda.

In the meantime, the commission will continue a series of special meetings to review the county's draft housing element this Tuesday and Thursday evening, April 8 and 10, beginning at 6 p.m. in the county courthouse in Eureka.

For more information, call the Humboldt County planning department at 445-7541.