Fear & Loathing at the Mendo Historical Review Board

by Tim Stelloh, June 7, 2006

Sitting at a large table at the head of the back room at the Mendocino Community Center on Monday night, Clinton Smith was furious. Smith, who looks like a scrawny Kenny Rogers (the Texan, not the infamous Mendo Republican) yanked off a pair of gold bifocals, picked up a sheet of paper and looked sternly at the 20-plus audience members staring back at him.

"I don't want to preach, and I don't have time to read both sides of this essay, but I'd like to pass out copies and read a paragraph if you'd indulge me," he said, holding up the sheet of paper. His tone was fatherly, yet he seemed like he might detonate at any minute. The essay, titled "The Quality of Mendocino City," was written by William Penn Mott Jr., the former Director of Parks and Recreation in California, in 1974, and is ostensibly a call to arms for the Mendocino Historical Review Board. Clinton, who's been a Board member for nine months, read a portion of the essay aloud.

"Carefully defined parking areas, parking meters, sophisticated street lighting, traffic signals, etc., must be avoided," the essay reads. "Once this encroachment into the scene takes place, the informal rural charm of the area is destroyed."

It is, in other words, the battle plan that, in the last 20 years, has transformed Mendocino Village into the dollhouse that it now resembles. Nobody takes those words more seriously than the Mendocino Historical Review Board — the County agency charged with historic preservation. And perhaps nobody on the Board takes them as seriously as Clinton Smith.

He is, like Antonin Scalia, the Board's strict constructionist, seeing little room for compromise when it comes to the sanctity of Mendo's quaintness. No signs with logos, no tearing down chimneys — no matter how dangerous or decrepit they might be. That's his mantra. And he defends Mott's vision with such militancy that the Board has had to make public apologies on his behalf.

In April, one particularly heated exchange between Smith and Noah Sheppard of the MacCallum House caused the Board's Chairman, the more tame Lenard Dill, to not only apologize for Smith (who promptly told Dill, "You don't apologize for me"), but to call that meeting the "worst" he "had ever attended."

But this is essentially ground-zero Mendo after all, and frenzied shouting matches over chimneys and arbors and parking signs are par for the course.

The application before the five-member Board that sparked Clinton's Monday night sermon came from Tom Honer, who, along with his wife, Penny, own Fort Bragg's popular Harvest Market. They opened their second Harvest store in Mendosa's, the ancient Mendo grocery, one month ago, and wanted to make a few alterations to the building. Tom Honer seemed keenly aware that they couldn't simply gobble Mendosa's up: He even named it "Harvest at Mendosa's." This, of course, pleased the Board — and the audience — to no end.

But Honer, and his architect, Kelly B. Grimes, made a tragic mistake. They wanted to build an arbor; they wanted to include Harvest logos on the parking lot signs (so, they said, that non-customers would know not to park there); and they wanted to tear down a nearly invisible, non-functioning chimney in the back of the building. According to Grimes, it was built with non-reinforced concrete and is potentially dangerous.

Shame on them.

Smith said that regardless of its condition — and its location — a chimney is a defining architectural feature. No exceptions. And the arbor proposed by Grimes and Honer — which was decried as incongruous — was simply hideous.

Not everyone on the Board agreed. Of course.

Honer and Grimes were vindicated, and the majority of the Board approved their modifications. But Clinton's tear-jerker gave him the last word. "It makes me cry," he said of Mott's essay. "And that, folks, is why, in this meeting, I get frustrated, angered and saddened by what I see happening here. Because the things that he has prophesied ... as minor as they may be, are happening here tonight in this room in the form of a sign that has Harvest Market all over it."

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