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Boating Down Oak Street (April 28, 1999)

Fort Bragg urchin diver Joe Roberts came before the Fort Bragg City Council in March to oppose what seemed to be a minor change to the town's General Plan  for one parcel in east Fort Bragg. Elwood and Laura Baxman needed a General Plan zoning amendment so they can eventually subdivide their one-acre-plus lot and build six homes on it. Roberts, who lives next door to the Baxman parcel, had two complaints: His property floods every winter because of the previous grading and tons of randomly-composed fill placed on the Baxman parcel. Roberts was also opposed to the “urbanization” of his rural country neighborhood. He said he thought he was protected from city-like development by the town's General Plan when he purchased his one-acre-plus with his modest home on it. 

“Planning” dictates that subdivisions of land be reviewed in terms of an entire area rather than on the basis of an increase in one parcel's “density.” Since the  area of Robert’s neighborhood had not been examined carefully since approval of the area's zoning which allows for one home per 15,000 square feet in the 1982 General Plan, and since the whole area is half-way through the review processes in the current updating of the town's General Plan, the Planning Commission denied the Baxmans' request to double the “building” density of their parcel “without prejudice.” (Meaning the amendment/subdivision might be granted after the whole area was properly reviewed). The Baxmans appealed this decision to the City Council.

Council members were advised by their planning staff to ignore their Planning Commission's decision, the General Plan update, and Roberts’ complaints about his property being flooded every winter by Baxman’s landfill and anticipated six-home sub-division. The city planner wrote, “It is not anticipated there will be any impacts on drainage from the proposed amendment/rezoning.” The planner assured the Fort Bragg City Council that Robert’s annual flood would magically cease when  “the developer would be required to submit a drainage plan for the land division” which “would be reviewed and approved by the City Engineer.”

Roberts was not reassured.

Wendy “The Relentless” Squires, the Baxmans’ agent, also ignored Roberts’ complaints that Charlie Baxman’s, previous grading and “filling” in of the one-acre-plus parcel next door to Roberts had caused his property to flood every winter, blithely ignoring Roberts’ testimony that the flooding commenced with the Baxman landfill. Squires told the Council that her employer's family wanted to build low-income housing  to “help” the community. But the City Council, in essence, approved the Baxman’s philanthropic subdivision when the Council approved the General Plan amendment allowing for the subdivision, naively believing they could count on their staff to remedy Roberts’ annual floods with “drainage” at the time the six-house subdivision was erected. This vague if not ominous promise from the Baxman-friendly Council didn't sit well with Roberts whose complaints about flooding have been ignored by city staff for several years now.

Overall concerns about just plain sloppy planning and “special favors” (amending the General Plan while it is in the process of being updated is an end-run around environmental review) aside, the Council's decision to approve the first step toward approving a subdivision seems like no big deal unless you take Roberts up on his open invitation to take a walk around his neighborhood. 

Fort Bragg's Oak Street is a two-lane street culminating at its western end at the main entrance to the Georgia-Pacific mill. To the east, Oak Street traverses  a few blocks of light commercial enterprise, then rolls on through “central” Fort Bragg’s old residential neighborhoods on into a hodge-podge of newer subdivisions with jammed tract homes adjacent to large, semi-rural parcels containing one home, its outbuildings, its pastures and gardens.

Approaching the dividing line from city to county jurisdiction, urban Oak Street's new subdivision’s sidewalks, gutters and storm drains abruptly halt. Beyond, Oak Street itself is “undeveloped.” A little further on, Oak transitions into the county's Sherwood Road. Sherwood Road is lined with multi-acre parcels and is eventually bordered by G-P-owned timberland all the way east to the outskirts of Willits. The Roberts home and the filled-in Baxman acre next door are still predominantly in a rural area of town. 

The city has annexed chunks of county land in Roberts’ neighborhood in a helter-skelter fashion over the years in order to provide local developers with city water and sewer service pipelines. These hook-ups are of course required for their lucrative subdividing of rural acreage.

It’s not just Roberts’ property that floods out every year. During normal wet weather years Oak Street floods out at Sanderson Lane just west of Roberts’ house. Warning signs are posted all around the deep puddle which reduces Oak Street to one lane every winter. During the two-day period of very hard rain during the winter of 97/98, several feet of water from near Roberts’ house flowed down the entire width of Oak Street to the west, overloading residential street storm drains and flooding several residents’ yards and even some homes in Fort Bragg’s central residential district. Rossi's Hardware sold filled sandbags for $1.50 apiece, which townspeople placed along the curbs and around storm drains to divert the water from their yards and living rooms. 

No one had seen anything like it before. City maintenance crews, helplessly trying to respond to residents' complaints of “plugged up” storm drains from as far away as 20 blocks from the Oak Street flood epicenter, told panicked residents, “You think you have it bad? You ought to see Oak. You can float a good sized boat down it.” The drains were not plugged up. The storm drain system simply could not handle the vast amount of storm water, giving fair warning to anyone who understands the inevitable impacts of “urbanization” (paving over) of uphill rural areas.

Behold! Surrounding Roberts’ property is (or was) a several-acre wetland complete with Alder trees and many other basic wetland indicator plant species (located on the undisturbed parcels). Because the area has yet to be scrutinized by an expert we can't say what “level” of wetland was there and what “level” remains, but we do have bona fide wetland, at least before a portion of the area was bulldozed and filled by Clark and Baxman subdivisions.

“Inland” wetlands occur in land depressions underlined by dense impenetrable claypan soils that allow water to accumulate in winter and spring. They partially or completely dry up in the summer and fall. These wetlands support rare species of plants and insects which have adapted over the centuries to the wet and dry cycles of the wetland. Common and not-so common species of birds and animals frequent this type of wetland. 91% of all the wetlands in California have been destroyed, the largest amount of any state in the nation. Even though under Governor Wilson the state enacted “no net loss of wetlands” policy and law.

There are many inland wetlands in Mendocino County. Old settlers often built their homes on the peripheries of wetlands. They understood that like sponges, wetlands soak up rain and store excess runoff, then slowly release and filter flood waters back into the groundwater, making for dependable and sweet drinking water wells . One acre of wetlands stores and filters up to 1.5 million gallons of flood water. Most of the older homes in Roberts’ neighborhood are built on the “high ground” surrounded by “undeveloped” pasture land and gardens which absorb winter rains.

A 1998 Memo from the Fort Bragg’s Director of Public Works, Dave Goebel, in response to Roberts’ many previous complaints about being flooded out after Baxman in-filled the next door parcel states, “We have a topo map which was completed in 1987 that shows how the water used to slowly flow to the northwest, [away from Roberts’ property], but with the grades as they were, much of the water stayed on site.” 

That is until 1991 when real-estate brokers Paul and Barbara Clark received approval from the city to subdivide a 1.78 acre parcel down into four parcels just on the north side of Roberts’ parcel right in the heart of a pastureland/wetlands. Off the narrow east/west Cedar Street, new north/south county road called Dennison Lane was created to serve these parcels. Eventually sold to former Mendocino Savings Bank Manager Bill Dunham, the pastureland/wetlands were filled to an elevation a few feet above neighboring parcel ground level. Drain pipes poke out every few yards from the fill upon which now sit two prefab homes on two of the four filled-in parcels. During winter rains the drains siphon the water off from the parcels into a culvert drain near the north/west corner of Roberts’ property. It is not apparent what the function of this drain is except to drain water away from Dennison Lane and onto the neighboring parcels.

In 1994 Wendy Squires obtained a grading permit for the one-acre-plus Baxman parcel next to Roberts. The permit was for “preliminary grading to remove material and [add] fill.” Another “drain” was required by the city. Since there is no city storm drain system on this section of Oak Street, apparently Oak Street itself was intended to handle the runoff which then would eventually drain into the storm drain pipes further down Oak Street to the west (and then eventually into the Noyo River). 

In combination with runoff from the Clark and Baxman wetlands/pastureland fill job and other subdivisions in this rural area, flood water now spills voluminously out all over the place, flooding Roberts’ parcel and Oak Street itself. The City's ancient storm water system to the west and downhill from Roberts’ parcel is simply not large enough to handle the rainwater that used to be absorbed in the area's now-buried pastureland/wetlands.

Federal, state, and Fort Bragg laws require review, delineation and approval by the Army Corps of Engineers before development can proceed on a wetlands. The Army Corps does not prohibit a single home from being built in a wetland area, especially in the type of pastureland area like that around Roberts. But the Corps is supposed to work with developers and local government to protect the integrity of the wetlands, its biological and flood control values, while assisting in finding the best site for a home. 

The City of Fort Bragg has never bothered to contact the Army Corps (or require that a private firm be hired) to review the wetlands area for any of the housing tract subdivisions in east Fort Bragg. The City's ancient storm drain system was not constructed to accommodate the additional millions of gallons of flood water no longer absorbed by the Oak/Cedar area wetlands and pasture lands, on which now rest subdivisions with more to come. Residents “downstream” all over town can count on, and will be subject to, annual flooding of their streets and homes if more landfill subdivisions are approved.

This is typical developer-driven “planning” in Fort Bragg: ignore the laws, pretend the impacts of development are not related to the surrounding area, ignore a resident's first-hand observations and concerns, then, after the resulting big mess happens (in this case the flooding of the older residential district downstream), Fort Bragg taxpayers are forced to pay for the remedy — an expensive new storm drain system or suffer major flood damage.

One Comment

  1. Paul Clark October 28, 2021

    Paul Clark here there is a lot of miss information in this article if the author or the editor would like to reach out to me I will provide what information I can we divided our property Barbara Clark and myself into four and a residual property one was sold to build Dunham others were sold to two other individuals the drain pipes that are referred to as part of the design to keep the natural flow of the water which goes through that area quite heavily has always and will always Paul Clark

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