Winning Dirty – The Goatbusters Defeated A Nightmare Of Their Own Imagining – June 24, 2011
Kevin L. Hoover
The premature collapse of Cypress Grove Chevre’s (CGC) goat dairy project is regrettable, even shameful for Arcata on several levels. Experiencing it was like watching a slow-motion car accident, just not slow enough for reason or reflection to intervene.
We didn’t follow the script on this one. We in Humboldt have a routine for processing land use proposals which basically involves milking it for whatever fuel it can add to the culture wars. But this controversy was over almost before it started.
Two things any land use proposal deserves are fact-finding and a public decisionmaking process. This project didn’t get either.
CGC laid the groundwork for the confusion and panic that beset the neighborhood by telling just a few neighbors about the project and then sending surveyors out to mill around at the site. Naturally, this only aroused curiosity. Then human nature kicked in, with neighbors filling in the many blanks with their worst fears – odor, insects, traffic, noise and so on.
This same neighborhood resisted the egregious Creek Side Homes subdivision on the Bottoms throughout the ’00s, and the citizens’ organizational machinery was still in place to meet this big change to the area. Unfortunately, the neighbors also resurrected the same assumptions of Creek Side-level destruction, which simply didn’t apply to the goat dairy proposal.
Once the neighborhood mobilized, with flyers and websites loaded with dark assumptions and a general tenor of non-neighborly meanness, CGC held its belated Open House event. But by then the residents had firmed up their opposition, so much so that nothing was going to sway them, particularly mere information.
It’s really great that Arcata will rise up against inappropriate developments. Doing so stopped ill-conceived projects like Creek Side Homes, the similar Janes Creek West, and Humboldt State’s original big, dumb Behavioral and Social Sciences Building.
It’s too bad, though, that even reasonable developments are automatically cast as destructive. Worse that a pack mentality set in which made excesses of behavior seem permissible. That happened in this case, for example, when some neighbors clung to falsehoods: that the goats’ waste would be liquefied and sprayed on the pasture; that more big trucks would ply Q Street; that clouds of ammonia would rise from the barn; that antibiotic waste would be funneled into Janes Creek; etc.
At the Monday meeting, neighbors voiced perfectly reasonable concerns about jumbo STAA trucks eventually rumbling down Q Street. But even after being shown the bright red line that delineated the truck route as being K Street to 17th Street – entirely skirting residential Q Street – a few attendees looked, listened and continued to complain that the trucks would rattle their homes. No, not even close.
What is the point of “dialogue” when, halfway through the company’s first presentation, an attendee pipes up with “We will oppose you all the way?” If that’s the case, then facts are truly optional and why did we bother with a meeting? The opponents were more comfortable with the damning hearsay they made up than factual information that negated or ameliorated it.
This is Arcata, a university town. We like ideas, critical thinking and thoughtfulness… right? In practice, when there’s anything resembling controversy, no, we do not. We embrace hearsay and folklore, then stick our fingers in our ears and holler, “YadayadayadaIcan’thearyou!” at voices that challenge our assumptions.
Here we had a company willing to invest $3 million in a dairy facility with mitigations based on proven technology on a parcel of land zoned for that very purpose. (With up to double that figure designated for upgrades to the existing facility to accommodate the new, hyperlocal milk source, plus other improvements.)
Would CGC or Emmi have been so foolish as to cheap out on odor and pathogen containment when those things are so easily remediated, and jeopardize the entire multimillion-dollar investment?
The answer is no. Whatever CGC/EMMI are, they are not penny-foolish.
The new facility would have been a world-class model of humane, ethical and environmentally responsible dairying, right here in Arcata.
With all we do to attract business and investment, we don’t know what to do when a big, fat offer falls into our laps. CGC had the cash, the plans, and wasn’t asking for any special favors like tax breaks. Counties in other areas literally give away the farm to provide a location and appealing tax climate for a new industrial facility. We can’t even listen through a presentation about one without yelling at the representatives.
The Taking Up Space Award
The Hall of Blame begins with two elected leaders who could have offered some helpful direction for this project, located on county land bordering Arcata, but sat on their hands.
Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace attended the fateful Monday meeting. Deploying only bland platitudes, he said he needed to get “more input” before offering an opinion. “The fact that they’re [CGC] holding a community meeting is pretty great,” Lovelace said. “It’s a great start.”
That’s not going to anger anyone, or lose any votes. But was the meeting “great?” If things like brushing your teeth and stopping at stop signs are “great,” well, yes. Actually though, those things, like communication with neighbors, are what you do. They’re baseline responsibilities, not “great.”
Asked her view before the Monday meeting, Mayor Susan Ornelas responded with an unfocused ramble to the effect that the goat dairy could be good but might be bad:
“This is a difficult situation, as the dairy is principally permitted, but with the proposed density, I am surprised that the County doesn’t think it needs a conditional use permit… The proof will be in the management… Truthfully, I will need to wait and see for myself how the system works.”
I endorsed Mark (who saved the Sunny Brae Forest) and Susan (an agrarian oracle) for the offices they now hold based on the bold leadership they promised to provide, based on their earlier accomplishments.
Do you see any leadership anywhere above? No, only nervous timidity, not wanting to upset anyone or erode support, stating only the obvious and providing zero direction.
A leader might have said, “This project is a prima facie inappropriate intrusion on a neighborhood. Let’s see about relocating it, updating the zoning and finding alternative uses for the land.” And then they’d really do that. Leadership.
Better yet, they might have said, “This is an interesting project that could bring employment to Arcata and Humboldt, boost the local dairy industry and give Arcata more worldwide recognition for something other than marijuana. Plus it could bring the Arcata Bottoms’ agricultural legacy to life in an eco-smart 21st century way. Let’s find out if we can make it work for everyone.”
Anything other than the mincing equivocations we got, following by annoying expressions of regret for the death of a project that their very passivity helped bring about.
The Short Memory Award
It was surprising to see Iverson Avenue resident Lee Sobo, whose wonderful Naan of the Above business (which he co-owns) just went through a grueling regulatory escapade with the City, forget everything he experienced in terms of fair play and process.
Before the CGC project’s design or scale were verified, or any approval process had been started, Sobo presented assumptions as fact, sent out e-mails laden with rabble-rousing misinformation and established websites emblazoned with a malicious parody logo that skewered Cypress Grove, our acclaimed local manufacturer, as “MILKING THE ENVIRONMENT AND COMMUNITY.”
That’s hard to see. Even harder is how not everyone loves Naan of the Above and its cheery yellow tents. Those who for whatever reason don’t could easily have distorted its logo into something ugly, and could have heaped false accusations on the business prior to the public process. But the skeptics reserved their quibbles for the fair public hearing.
That process resulted in rules and mitigations that fully addressed the concerns. But astoundingly, Mr. Sobo chose not to indulge Cypress Grove with the same consideration to which he was treated.
The Off The Rails Award
This goes to Foster Avenue resident Sean Armstrong, who burned with a hard, gemlike flame over this issue.
Armstrong, during his employ with Danco Builders, was a persistent advocate for Creek Side Homes, a sprawling, 151-unit, 1,500-vehicles-per-day subdivision on the other side of Foster Avenue from the CGC project. By some unfathomable logic, that was a positive for the vast pastureland Bottoms, while a goat dairy is not.
If that’s his opinion, fine. What’s not fine is squealing like a set of worn-out brakes at a public meeting, yelling non sequiturs about E. coli and salmonella just to instill fear, then not listening to the CGC reps’ responses before blurting out more scare terms.
Most beastly was Armstrong’s tailing CGC founder Mary Keehn out to her car after the meeting was over, braying, “You are going to kill my babies! How can you do something like this! You call yourself a good neighbor?” Towering over this retirement-age woman and gesturing wildly, the aggression was so inappropriate that other CGC employees stayed with Keehn in case this bozo lost his last remaining vestiges of self-control. You really couldn’t tell where the boundary breakdown was going to end.
Keehn was able to load her trunk, get into her car and get away from the near-hysterical raver. But here’s the twist: Armstrong is now a City of Arcata employee, working in the Community Development department on redevelopment projects.
Once CGC establishes its goat dairy milk supply in a more rational and less hostile community, it will be submitting plans to the City to upgrade its Arcata facility. Let’s hope the project isn’t assigned to someone who thinks the company tried to kill his kids with poop.
During the ill-fated Monday presentation, the company said that the project could be reshaped and the buildings moved to address the neighbors’ concerns. But that wasn’t good enough – they would be satisfied only with total extermination.
Coincidentally, the county General Plan Update is underway and dealing with the Open Space Element. I asked the goat dairy opponents if they had participated in the GPU to protect this ag-zoned land from being used for ag, as they suddenly desired. Since the response was crickets, I suspect the answer is no. Better to wait for someone to come in with a project designed for the zoned use, then scream about E. coli and “shit tsunamis.”
The No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Award
Cypress Grove Chevre is a company that has brought nothing but benefit and pride (and incredible cheese) to Arcata. In one week, it became a community-sucking, Earth-killing monster? How convenient – and what a coincidence!
What does it say about us that we are willing to instantly and viciously turn on longtime, close community members over an issue we don’t even have complete information about?
The Ambush Foiling Award
Mary Keehn handily wins this one. For once, when someone asked an ambush question, the would-be victim was able to reply knowledgeably and utterly neutralize the parry. That occurred when Armstrong asked Keehn if she knew what the effects of E. coli infection are. She did, and began to recite them. Oops. That wasn’t supposed to happen. This sent Armstrong into his spiral of interruption, and may have fed his later parking lot frenzy.
This being the real world, there was an esprit de l’escalier moment though. If only Keehn had followed up by asking Armstrong whether he had ever visited the kind of Dutch goat dairy being proposed. But pointed rejoinders aren’t her style.
The Blatant Duplicity Award
The opponents were selling two contradictory ideas, which they toggled between based on the expediency of the moment:
• CGC is going to “ram this project through” without public hearings, as it is principally permitted on the ag-zoned Gilardoni Property.
• CGC will never succeed in getting the project approved because it is so fatally flawed.
Which is it, guys? That’s just one example.
One of the goatbusters told me later that county planners and health officials were secretly relieved that the project had been halted, as they didn’t want a battle over a project that would never have been approved. Odd that these unknown, unnamed officials already knew what the project was, since no proposal was ever submitted and the company was saying right up to the end that everything about it was subject to change in response to the neighbors’ concerns. All these naysaying officials could have had to evaluate the project with were the basic outlines proposed by CGC and the overlay of fiction the opponents fogged the picture with.
Another particularly dunderheaded element of the opposition was the invocation of the terms “industrial agriculture” and “corporation” as though they are automatic negatives. They even started calling Cypress Grove “EMMI,” the name of the Swiss company (majority owned by farmer cooperatives) that bought CGC last year, because that name sounds more monolithic and scary, I guess.
Industry has been part of the Arcata Bottom since the 1800s. Cypress Grove was a corporation before its purchase by Emmi.
And of course, it wouldn’t be an All-American Controversy if someone hadn’t lied about lying. Among the mutterings at the Bloomfield meeting and at the initial front gate protest were that CGC “lied to the priest.” This refers to CGC Manager Pam Dressler’s initial visit to St. Mary’s Church, allegedly misrepresenting the project to Father Gerard Gormley. CGC maintains that Dressler never spoke to Rev. Gormley – confirmed by the church secretary who received the CGC visitors. “Father Gormley was out of town when they came by,” she told me.
She said CGC called back weeks later to see if it could use Leavey Hall at adjoining St. Mary’s School for the fateful Monday meeting, but the hall was being re-roofed and was out of commission. Too bad; meeting in a facility attached to a house of worship might – might – have tempered some of the excessive behavior.
The One Damn Thing After Another Award
Carol McFarland and Don Nielsen have been through hell over the past several years.
When Creek Side Homes was in play, they physically moved their house back away from Foster Avenue to give themselves a buffer from that impending disaster.
Then their house renovation was botched by an incompetent contractor. They had just gotten a settlement and had their home properly restored, and now this. However you feel about the goat dairy, the irreducible fact is that the house relocation would actually have moved them closer to the project’s parking lot and large main structure.
And yet, there is a greater good. A world-class dairy on the Arcata Bottom would have been a real jewel for Arcata. For Carol and Don, it couldn’t approach the ruinous effects of a Creek Side Homes or Janes Creek West. And it would have been dwarfed by the mammoth, sprawling Sun Valley Floral Farms complex just down the way.
Many Arcata Bottom residents live harmoniously in similar proximity to animal-filled pastures, big barns, even abattoirs and other industrial facilities. The impact factor for this project was way overrated.
In the rush and haste of mounting opposition, Don and Carol found themselves repeating some of the misinformation their overzealous neighbors were trafficking in. Unlike many of them, this deeply disturbs Carol, who has been trying to mend fences with CGC. In fact, she’s the only person who I’ve heard express remorse for the smears against this fine, local company.
Now that the CGC proposal has been withdrawn, Carol vows to stick to gardening and reading classic literature, and she and Don surely deserve all the tranquility and abundant natural splendor the Arcata Bottom can provide.
The Due Diligence Award
In this and virtually every land use controversy that occurs in Arcata and environs, Lisa Brown is always the calm voice doing the heavy lifting of fact-checking and pushing for an orderly methodology. Why it falls on this woman every time to complete the developers’ sometimes-patchy research, give productive direction to citizens and prompt regulators to check all the required boxes is not clear, but we’re fortunate that there is someone around to elevate the dialogue.
At the last City Council meeting, Lisa tried to redirect the momentum over this issue in a productive direction with designation of the Gilardoni property as a greenbelt/farming incubator. How that would come about is not clear, but it sounds like an auspicious idea.
Yet there’s already an ill portent suggesting it won’t happen, since it will take pro-active rather than crisis-driven motivation. Now that the largely imaginary goat threat has dissipated, what is the neighbors’ motivation to participate constructively? During the various discussions, several said they’d help CGC find a different location for the goat dairy. But in the nearly two weeks since the Gilardoni proposal was pulled, not a single neighbor has called the company with any suggestions.
Note too that the Arcata Chamber of Commerce was entirely missing in action from this debacle.
The Taking My Ball And Going Home Award
To Cypress Grove Chevre, for pulling the plug prematurely. On the other hand, with opponents having demonstrated that they have no standards for principled opposition and the situation declining rapidly, who needs this kind of abuse? If Arcata doesn’t want this $3 million sugar plum, someone else will gladly take it.
What have we learned?
This has been an inadvertant case study for potential investors in Arcata and Humboldt County. What have we learned?
If you’re a company looking to inject millions into Arcata with a world-class development, here are some tips:
• Don’t bother with the new whiz-bang online GIS systems that show you the zoning for a project site, because that’s irrelevant. Even zoned uses may be denounced as inappropriate.
• Any public hearing you schedule may descend into barbarity. Your company representatives may be personally accused of child-killing, physically pursued, screamed at and hounded off the site by an off-duty City of Arcata Community Development employee.
• Don’t look to our political “leaders” for any interest in or facilitation of your job-creating investment. They’re focused on avoiding controversy. But once the project dies, expect moving expressions of disappointment.
The Do What I Scream, Not What I Poo Award
For a comic capper, Armstrong and his wife brought one of their adorable goats to the protest the day after the meeting, at which they found out the project had been canceled.
And when they left, there on the sidewalk outside CGC’s front gate was a generous smattering of the dreaded goat poop, because, you know, it’s so dangerous.