The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to allocate $100,000 to the city of Eureka to fund a permanent site for a homeless housing project by the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation. The board also voted to begin working to sell a 6-acre piece of county property in Myrtletown and use the revenue to begin an affordable housing trust fund.
Earlier in the meeting, local residents and grocers pressed the board to lift a 70-year-old ban on raw milk sales in Humboldt County, arguing that it would improve consumer choice.
“I can buy and smoke cigarettes in this county, I can buy and drink alcohol in this county, I can buy and smoke marijuana in this county, but I cannot buy and consume a healthy, nutrient-dense food that has been used by people around the world for thousands of years,” Eureka resident Bill Schaser said. “Where, pray tell, is the logic in that?”
County health officials and others urged the board to keep the ban in place because of the risk of contracting bacterial infections and potential impacts to the local dairy industry.
“I’m asking you not to turn the clock back to the Middle Ages when in fact infectious disease, which are now preventable, ravaged the human population,” county Public Health Officer and family physician Donald Baird told the board.
The board directed staff to further research raw milk regulations and bring back more information in April.
After Pacific Gas and Electric Company donated seven construction trailers to the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation last year for temporary housing, the foundation has temporarily kept the trailers at the foot of Hilfiker Lane in Eureka until it can find a more permanent location, according to county Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen.
The foundation’s business manager Karen Suiker told the board the city is working to secure an emergency coastal development permit from the California Coastal Commission to begin using the trailers to house people. Suiker said the $100,000 requested of the county could be used to set up the infrastructure and utilities at the site to allow that to occur.
“Beyond that, we’re homeless,” Suiker said. “We are at the mercy of the public entities to assist with housing these units that will supply 42 units for families and single individuals.”
At the direction of the board in September, county staff looked at other properties where the trailers could be moved to including the courthouse gravel parking lot in Eureka and other county-owned properties in Cutten, Myrtletown and outer Eureka. Nilsen said the topography or other uses at the properties would require the trailers to be located at several locations and would require investment by the county to make the property habitable.
“If we start putting them two at time, we lose the ability to provide the services,” 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn said in response. “We’re going to spend more time with staff going between them.”
Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell called on the board to consider an alternative option to sell a nearly 6.5-acre piece of property at Lucas Street in Myrtletown — a property that Nilsen said a previous study showed would take three to five years to develop.
“We could direct staff to actually allocate the proceeds to an affordable housing project,” Fennell said.
Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass suggested the proceeds from the sale could be placed into a trust fund for affordable housing.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson called on the board to take a step further by using revenue from transient occupancy taxes levied from short-term rentals like those on AirBnb to provide further funding for affordable housing. Fennell said that option should be discussed at an upcoming Feb. 6 meeting when the board is set to decide whether to declare a shelter crisis and develop a task force to oversee future homeless housing efforts.
Nilsen said that a contract between the county and Eureka would need to be approved before the $100,000 in General Fund money can be allocated to the city.
Raw milk ban
At the end of nearly two hours of discussion, several board members indicated they would support removing the county’s longstanding ban on raw milk sales if strict regulations are in place.
The board voted 4-1 — with Bohn dissenting — to direct staff to further research current regulations on raw milk sales in other counties, at the state level and potential options for regulating local sales.
Board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said that while he would never drink raw milk or give it to his family, he naturally falls on the side of choice and letting people buy what they want, even if there is a risk of getting sick.
“I just think if I go to a restaurant and order a steak rare, I know that I’m taking a risk there,” Sundberg said. “As long as they know the risk, then I’m OK with them taking the risk.”
The county ban on raw milk sales was adopted in 1947 as part of the county’s efforts to comply with the state’s Milk and Milk Products Act of 1947. The county is one of four in the state to ban raw milk sales, according to county Department of Health and Human Services Environmental Health Division Director Melissa Martel, though others in the audience argued there were only three.
Martel said that the risks of consuming raw milk clearly outweigh any “unproven benefits” regardless of public choice or corporate pressure.
“Raw milk can contain a multitude of disease causing organisms in addition to environmental contaminants external to a cow, such as feces during processing,” Martel said. “There is no kill step to eliminate pathogens in raw milk.”
Baird said that while pasteurized milk has also caused illnesses, raw milk increases the likelihood that a person will contact preventable food-borne illnesses not found in pasteurized milks. Baird said there have been several attempts to lift the ban, with the latest major public effort occurring in 2010.
California allows the sale of raw milk by licensed dairies. Eureka Natural Foods President Rick Littlefield said he sells raw milk at his Crescent City store Wild Rivers Market. Littlefield and other grocers from Wildberries Marketplace and the North Coast Co-op said people are already buying raw milk anyway, but Humboldt County is missing out.
“We regularly sell out [in Crescent City] and often have Humboldt shoppers make the trip up for these products,” Littlefield wrote in a December letter to the board asking it to lift the ban. “Also, it is not uncommon for travelers coming thru town to express bewilderment that they can’t get their raw milk in Humboldt County.”
Bohn, whose district includes several Eel River Valley dairy farms, said he did not hear anything at the meeting to lift the ban. While he said some dairy farmers support allowing raw milk sales, Bohn and other dairy industry reps said many oppose them.
“To protect [consumers] to me is better than the opportunity to make a poor choice,” Humboldt County Farm Bureau Executive Director Katherine Ziemer said.
Ferndale dairy farmer Dennis Leonardi told the board the county already is dealing with an opioid crisis and lack of available beds at local health care institutions.
“We don’t need more sick people,” Leonardi said.
The board directed staff to look into several topics related to raw milk sales and regulation including larger labels to assure customers know what they’re buying and the potential health implications; requiring grocers to separate the raw milk products from their pasteurized counterparts; provide more information on licensed versus non-licensed raw milk; how other counties regulate raw milk sales; and to look into a section of the county’s ban that appears to permit the sale of raw milk in certain cases.
The section of the law in question states the county ban does not apply to any milk or cream produced and sold from dairies that have only one cow or fewer than six goats, as defined in the Milk and Milk Products Act of 1947.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.