Waiting For The Great Fort Bragg Fire — Profiles In Inaction

by Rex Gressett, May 3, 2017

We have had quite a few impressive fires over the years in metropolitan Fort Bragg. It’s all of these little wooden buildings cheek and jowl. Famously, in 1987, in one grand night of arson-for-profit and revenge, the library, the adjacent Ten Mile Justice Court and the Piedmont Hotel went up in flames. Later the Oak hotel next door.

Still one is not normally waiting for a fire that has not occurred. In Fort Bragg we officially have been. Since 1995, it has been the official policy of the city of Fort Bragg to wait in grim anticipation of the most stunning fire of all, which has not yet actually happened. This yet to be fire is expected to happen in our two largest downtown blocks. These central business blocks are bounded by Highway One to the west and Franklin to the east, Laurel to the north and Redwood to the south.

This is the big commercial block that includes Headlands Coffee House. It is the oldest part of Fort Bragg’s commercial district. The beautiful old buildings have common walls, old wiring, old wood and no sprinklers. In 1995 an ancient City Council, seeing the potential for disaster and being unable politically to simply command business owners to install sprinkler systems, mandated that new tenants doing any serious remodeling in these two central business district blocks would be required to install sprinklers. That was a tad more than twenty years ago. No sprinklers yet.

The development director not too long ago made a glancing mention to the City Council, during the discussion of another matter, that in her recent experience there had been a number of proposals for development in these two blocks which have been killed by this ordinance. Any remodeling that costs more than $75,000 requires the developer to put in sprinklers. At $13 per square foot that was enough to stop all proposed remodels. The estimated cost of outfitting the two blocks is about two million.

In other Fort Bragg news. It is no news but….

The housing crisis in Fort Bragg is crushing us. If you can get a place to live, it becomes possible to work from home, take a second job, bring in family to help make the rent. You can do things. In the flickering economic life of our city, as business after business succumbs to the cash exporting big boxes, families, by pure grit, have still somehow increased household income. Not personal incomes, they ain’t going up. But as households and families we are struggling , innovating and figuring it out. Still it remains a hard fact that you can not play at all in the economic game if you can’t find a place to live.

A while back the Fort Bragg City Council was astonished to learn that there were 29 residential apartments located in commercial or industrial zones which could not be rented because of the damn zoning.

That was a real head scratcher.

After the Council absorbed this information and talked about the irony of this little regulation, they decided to allow ten of them to be rented.

Why ten?, you might be thinking. Why not allow all 29 to be rented? Give 29 families a chance to get a roof instead of ten. Why ten?

No light was cast on that mystery at the Council meeting. Councilman Dave Turner said that they just felt better walking before running.

I brought this matter up at the mayor’s Monday morning meeting with Councilman Will Lee who, as Vice Mayor, was standing in for the absent Mayor. The group of early morning attendees were informally discussing the housing crisis. Will Lee was talking in a confident vein about big bucks projects to put in more subsidized housing. He was as puzzled as anyone about the 29 units assigned to zoning limbo and assured me that very evening at the city council meeting he would bring this to the attention of the council.

The City Council meeting that evening was a free wheeling demonstration of the City Manager’s ability to squeeze big chunks of cash out of the council at her whim without undue discussion or any untoward concern with common sense.

Will Lee had a bit of hard time obtaining the city manager’s attention. She is not used to unsolicited feedback from the council. But Councilman Lee persisted and asked his question. That was bringing it before the council I guess. Our City Manager looked slightly confused for a moment and tossed the question over her shoulder, as it were, to the Development Director Ms. Marie Jones. The Development Director was no more accustomed to being accosted by what they both thought was a tamed and submissive City Council than the City Manager. This little interruption by a councilman that they had put securely in the bag with care, had a suspicious odor ( not of confrontation) but perhaps of unwanted autonomous thinking. “Do you mean,” Saith the Development Director, “the Live Work Ordinance?” By which she meant a progressive but wholly unused zoning innovation , legitimately the brainchild of the Development Director, that allows artists or craftsman to live in their own studios.

Of course, Will Lee was referring to no such thing. “It will be ok”, said the Development Director. That answered the question. Councilman Lee accepted that for the moment and the council wandered home having passed all that the City Manager had asked for and gone to sleep.

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