News From The North

by Daniel Mintz, December 11, 2012

Pros & Cons Of Reggae Fest

Having outgrown its Benbow Lake Recreation Area venue, the Reggae on the River music festival is seeking a return to its French’s Camp location and the county’s Planning Commission has heard divergent views on the move and the festival itself.

A Dec. 6 commission hearing on the festival’s five-year permit application included descriptions of attendance and traffic control measures from the festival’s staff. But some of the festival’s neighbors told commissioners that it will result in scattered trash, illegal camping and pollution of the South Fork Eel River.

The hearing didn’t include decision-making because an Environmental Impact Report is being drafted and its public comment period ends on Dec. 15. The commission will hold another hearing on Jan. 3.

Justin Crellin, the general manager of the non-profit Mateel Community Center, which is producing the festival, differentiated between the current festival and its previous incarnations managed by the for-profit People Productions company.

The Mateel and People Productions split several years ago and the bitter legal battles over ownership of the festival became known as the “Reggae Wars.” A settlement was reached and People Productions managed a new festival, Reggae Rising, while the Mateel carried out a downscaled and camping-free Reggae on the River at Benbow.

Reggae Rising was held from 2007 to 2009, with attendance reaching 14,000. But failure to pay vendors and public service agencies resulted in the commission’s denial of a 2010 permit. With Reggae Rising dissolved, the Mateel is seeking to move its festival back to its original venue and Crellin told commissioners there are “differences between what we are proposing now and the event when it was in its larger incarnation.”

Under the proposed multi-year permit, the event would be held in the first weekend in August, spanning four days and including camping. The Mateel’s management makes it an “in-house fundraiser” for the community center a well as for the numerous non-profits that depend on vending booth revenues, Crellin said.

He also highlighted attendance levels — the 2013 festival will have a total attendance of 8,000 people and an attendance cap of 10,000 will be reached the following year.

Numbered wristbands will ensure compliance, he said.

Traffic will be controlled through staggered arrivals and a “change in production philosophy” will lead to reliable adherence to permit requirements, Crellin continued. He said two recent public meetings, one at the Mateel and another in Piercy, have been held and feedback has “informed our plan.”

Mateel Board Vice President Agnes Patak read a letter from Doug Green, the board’s president, which described the festival as a project shared by the community’s schools, volunteer fire departments, youth programs and other public service non-profits.

“The uniqueness of this event is that it was created by your community for the benefit of your community and for almost 30 years, it has represented a major funding source for many of these non-profits,” Green wrote.

Returning the festival to French’s Camp under the Mateel’s management will “re-establish it as a friendly, culturally-enriching experience,” Green’s letter continues.

Patak said Green is in a San Francisco cancer clinic and he won’t be at the 2013 event. “He will be in the spirit world, he will be looking down from heaven and if this application is approved, he will be our guardian angel,” she continued.

But concerns about the event’s impacts were also aired. Daniel Nicholson of Benbow noted the event’s expansion from its Benbow version and said he’s concerned that problems related to crowd attraction — trash, throngs of bathers in the Eel and illegal camping — will escalate.

“The scale of the event is too big to be controlled,” he said. “It spills over beyond the event boundaries.”

Don “Frenchy” Courtemanche lives on the Eel, 10 miles downstream of the festival site. He questioned why hearings would be based in Eureka, saying it’s “slanted in the applicant’s favor.”

Courtemanche quoted from letters from the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the state’s Department of Fish and Game which advance concerns about river water quality impacts.

He described Reggae on the River as an “environmentally destructive event.”

The hearing was continued to Jan. 3. Commission Chairman Ralph Faust asked staff to “plan the agenda in a way that gives us enough time to really act on this thoughtfully.”

HumCo Extends Dispensary Ban 

Still wary of evolving legal conditions and federal crackdowns, the county’s Board of Supervisors has approved a one-year extension of a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensary applications.

Exceptions to the moratorium have also been approved. If an existing dispensary is shut down due to federal pressure, it will be allowed to apply for a new permit in a different location. That would be relevant to the former Hummingbird Healing Center, a Myrtletown dispensary that was closed after the feds threatened its landlord with forfeiture due to the facility’s proximity to a school.

Two other pre-existing dispensaries can apply for renewals of their permits.

Approved at the Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting, the extension continues a temporary ban on new dispensary applications that was first established in December 2011. It’s the third and final extension of the moratorium, which intends to protect both the county and potential dispensaries from liability and federal enforcement.

Those concerns haven’t eased since the moratorium was originally set, county legal staff told supervisors. They said several cases are pending before the state’s Supreme Court and the county would be vulnerable to lawsuits if continues to process new dispensary applications.

The feds are still warning landlords that if they rent to dispensaries, their properties will be seized. So far, the pressure’s been applied to dispensaries situated near schools, parks and other places where children gather and Deputy County Counsel Davina Smith said the warnings aren’t “idle threats,” as seizures have been done in other counties.

Finally, banks have been warned not to accept accounts from dispensaries, as doing so will be considered a violation of money-laundering laws.

Supervisor Rex Bohn noted that the feds have informed city and county officials that they aren’t immune from prosecution for enabling violation of federal drug laws. Smith said there have been no cases where that has happened but “I’d hate for Humboldt County to be the first.”

Asked if federal enforcement actions are targeted at California, Smith said the perception is that the state is being “looked at with more scrutiny.” She added, “The thought is that California produces a lot of high grade medical marijuana and that a lot of it is finding its way into other states.”

“Do we want to take on the feds?” Bohn asked. Smith said it’s “certainly something for your board to consider.”

During a sparsely populated public comment session, Carla Ritter, the co-founder of Hummingbird Healing Center, advocated for the exception clause. The dispensary’s closure was “not our choice, nor the choice of our landlord,” she said, adding that the dispensary’s staff has been “working to secure a new and appropriate location that meets all the state and county requirements.”

Former Arcata resident Shaye Harty said she worked at Humboldt Medical Supply, a well-regarded Arcata-based dispensary that was also shut down due to federal pressure. She described marijuana’s cultural and economic status as “the big green elephant in the room” and urged supervisors to defend medical marijuana access.

Supervisors said they support responsibly-implemented medical marijuana distribution but they all agreed that under the circumstances, lifting the moratorium is legally impractical.

Deputy County Counsel Carolyn Ruth said that by law, only three extensions of the moratorium are allowed. When the newly-approved one expires in a year, county legal staff will return to propose “some other creative solution,” she continued.

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