No-Man’s Land: A Marsh Locked In Legal Stalemate And Overrun By Drug Use

February, 2011

It is a dismal little patch. The old mill site known as Parcel 4 is full of rusted out drying kilns and crumbling concrete. Overgrown bushes and shadowy ruins are littered with trash and human waste, a sign that partiers and squatters frequent the site. 

Though many people are aware of the area and its shifty residents, few know why Parcel 4 is so forlorn. Why hasn’t this southern-most edge of the Palco Marsh been restored to wetlands like neighboring parcels? Why are the old mills still here, creating an eye sore for those who visit the nearby Bayshore Mall? 

Since 2008 the site has been in a legal limbo that prevents restoration and site cleanups. The Redwood Region Audubon Society has been trying to negotiate a solution to the problem with the City of Eureka, who owns the land, but the quagmire has proved more complicated than anyone anticipated. 

Restoration Or Industry? 

The Palco Marsh Complex was purchased as part of a 1986 California Coastal Conservancy (CCC) grant. In October 1985, the Conservancy authorized disbursement of $610,000 to the City of Eureka to acquire the property, including Parcel 4—an abandoned mill site then owned by the Pacific Lumber Co.

The funds used to buy Parcel 4 and the adjacent acreage were stipulated for restoration or enhancement. However, Parcel 4 was excluded from the subsequent wetlands improvement plan because Parcel 4 had long been slated for industrial use. Its water front access and proximity to a deep-water channel makes the site suitable for a commercial pier and dock. 

By purchasing the site with grant money dedicated towards conservation, the City of Eureka was held to strict terms. If development plans moved forward, the City was required to repay the Conservancy. If after 10 years no payment had been made, the City would dedicate the land to the CCC for an open space easement, protecting Parcel 4 from development. 

By 2008 the parcel had neither been included in restoration efforts nor developed, and the Conservancy accepted an offer to dedicate the site to an open space easement. CCC chose the Redwood Region Audubon Society (RRAS) to hold the easement. Though the city remains the official property owner, RRAS holds the easement which protects against development. 

Now the parcel is zoned for one use but reserved for another, and each use cancels out the other. The easement prevents the land from being developed despite its industrial zoning. Yet Parcel 4’s zoning prevents restoration efforts from moving forward.  

Restoration and enhancement are considered “inharmonious” uses of industrial sites. Even in natural resource zones, restoration must be conditionally approved. “[The Eureka General Plan] will not allow restoration or enhancement for fish and wildlife due to [Parcel 4’s] industrial zoning,” confirms Lisa Shikany, environmental planner for the City of Eureka. 

Rezoning the property would be a costly. It would be a lengthy procedure requiring amendments to the Local Coastal Plan, the City’s General Plan and the zoning grid. 

These hurdles are a letdown for easement holders. “The situation is very frustrating,” says Chet Ogan, RRAS conservation committee chair. “We really want to restore the site.”

 

Everyone Loses?  

The marshland in Parcel 4 is rich and fertile, and could become a world class birding site if given a chance to rebound.  

“We would like to improve it so the public can enjoy the natural, and endangered, flora and fauna,” says Ogan.  

In its 10 acres of wetlands and five acres of uplands, Parcel 4 supports two rare salt marsh plant species—the Point Reyes Bird’s Beak (Cordylanthus maritimus ssp. palustris) and Humboldt Bay owl’s clover (Castilleja ambigua ssp. humboldtiensis). Both plants are considered threatened by the California Native Plant Society.  

At the nearby Palco Marsh, restoration work will be completed this summer. Interpretive signs have already been installed, the tidal slough has been dredged, and invasive vegetation has been removed. Yet while the City locks horns with the Audubon Society, Parcel 4 remains a soggy concrete jungle. 

In anticipation of this stalemate, the City was strongly opposed to the easement. Now retired City Manager David Tyson acknowledged the conflict of use in a letter written to the CCC in May 2008. It states that a “mutually agreeable solution” could be reached about the issue. Yet no agreement has been reached to date, and the parcel still sits undeveloped and unimproved.

 

The Mess Remains  

While there are no plans to clean the site, or remove the ruined concrete mill, Shikany says there are also no current efforts underway to develop Parcel 4. This means no one is investing energy in policing or cleaning up the site, and it remains a perfect haven for drug camps, parties and stray dogs. 

Eureka Police Department Lieutenant Murl Harpham, head of the City’s Problem Oriented Policing (POP) program, has had extensive experience with the area. “Basically we respond when we get complaints. We don’t have the man power or resources to do it on a regular basis,” Harpham says. 

In this current state, pedestrians aren’t likely to enjoy the site. Most of the squatters are benign, but safety threats do exist. 

“There are the old pirates,” says Harpham. “They’re old and burned out, and just do their drugs and drink. They’re pretty much harmless other than the mess they leave…. but then there are the crazies that nobody talks to because they talk to themselves, and there are the predators.” The predators pose the biggest threat. They are typically addicts and ex-cons who prey on the other groups. 

Aside from in-fighting, loose dogs are the biggest threat posed by campers. When pedestrians walk the site, they are often inclined to bring their pooches, and this can lead to fights, says Harpham.

Removing the concrete structures to make room for wetlands and birds might help solve this. The newly restored Palco Marsh has seen a drop in transiency and is now frequented by bald eagles and other birds. 

 

What Is Feasible? 

While the City maintains that restoration plans are premature, a feasibility study will soon explore opportunities for trail development on the property. 

The City of Eureka received a $525,000 grant from the CCC in January, which includes $30,000 specifically for a feasibility study of Parcel 4. The proposed project is designed to identify opportunities and constraints for trail development, which is part of the planned routes of both the California Coastal Trail and the Eureka Waterfront trail.         

Shikany says the study is a welcome step towards compromise, as trail development may not require complicated rezoning.

“A trail going through an industrial property is not necessarily contrary to zoning,” she says. “It would be consistent with the easement. We would just need to look at what exactly is being proposed.”

Joel Gerwein, project manager for the CCC, says he is excited to work with the City to find a way to solve the stalemate and fix the health and safety issues associated with the site.

“I think this study will help us figure out how to move forward and manage that piece of land for the environment and the public,” Gerwein says. 

The Audubon Society is also excited about the trail proposal, says Ogan, though he hopes a larger restoration plan can be brought to fruition.  

Yet until the area is rezoned or a compromise is reached, Parcel 4 will be beneficial to no one but campers and pit bulls. 

 

—F. Thomas Cardenas is the ECONEWS intern and a junior in environmental science and journalism at Humboldt State University.