4.20.2008

Eureka to study impacts of Waterfront Drive extension

Eureka to study impacts of Waterfront Drive extension

by HANK SIMS

Nearly five years after it first floated the idea, the city of Eureka is beginning work in earnest on the controversial proposal to build a thoroughfare along the shore of Humboldt Bay between Old Town and the Bayshore Mall, while environmentalists are rallying to fight it.

City employees are preparing to do a study of the proposed road -- an extension of Waterfront Drive -- to determine its environmental impact. A meeting is scheduled Nov. 17 to lay the plans before the public.

Environmental Planner Lisa Shikany said last week that the city was looking at doing as broad a study as possible, in the hopes of identifying and mitigating environmental problems with the road extension, which is listed as one of the transportation priorities in the city General Plan.

"We have taken a very expansive approach to including everything we can in looking at the potential impacts," Shikany said. "We've left no stone unturned."

City traffic engineers believe that the road could significantly free up congested city streets, including the Highway 101 corridor. But opponents, including representatives from many local environmental organizations, are raising red flags about the road's potentially harmful effect on the city's revitalized waterfront -- particularly to the Palco (or Eureka) Marsh.

Representatives from the Northcoast Environmental Center, the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society recently wrote the city with a list of objections to what Jennifer Kalt, an EPIC consultant, recently called "that stupid road."

In particular, the organizations are concerned that the road, which will pass between the marsh and Humboldt Bay, will seriously harm concurrent city efforts to rehabilitate the marsh -- a saltwater wetlands area that Eureka acquired in 1985, thanks to a grant from the California Coastal Commission.

The groups charge that the exhaust and noise from an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 vehicles per day that the new Waterfront Drive is expected to carry will cause irreparable harm to the marsh wildlife and seriously detract from its value as a recreational facility.

Mike Buettner, founder of Humboldtwatch.org and a prominent activist when it comes to bay issues, said Monday that he believes the city is being shortsighted by going forward with the road, given the blossoming of commercial and recreational opportunities on the Eureka waterfront of late.

"I think the city has just begun to turn its face toward the bay," he said. "To put a divider between the people and the bay seems like an injustice. I don't know that this is the best solution, in light of all the compromises that will be made."

The California Coastal Conservancy, the agency which paid for the city's purchase of the marsh and provided funds for its long-delayed rehabilitation, has also expressed concerns that the road could violate the terms of its agreements with the city. Those agreements stipulate that the city must refrain from developing property it owns near the marsh if such development would "detract from the project's purposes."

"If extension of Waterfront Drive as proposed by the city were to interfere or inconvenience that Palco Marsh habitat or enhancement activities the Conservancy could be put in the position of having to evaluate its contractual, legal and equitable remedies," Conservancy Project Manager Moira McEnespy wrote in an Oct. 6 letter to the city.

Nevertheless, city staff members feel that the Waterfront Drive extension is the only feasible alternative to worsening traffic problems in Eureka. City Engineer Brent Siemer said last week that gridlock on the 101 corridor during peak hours is becoming an increasingly real threat. Frustrated drivers already detour into residential areas, Siemer said.

"We're getting neighborhoods having problems already," he said. "People are diverting all the way up at Herrick, people are trying Union -- they're all trying all different ways of avoiding 101 already. My thought is that Waterfront Drive gives us some time before 101 becomes a terrible problem."

The city's most recent documentation on the project -- a "notice of preparation" that lists details the plans to look at in its environmental study -- can be found online by going to www.eurekawebs.com/cityhall, then clicking on "City Departments," "Community Development" and "Waterfront Drive."

Shikany said that she hopes that the upcoming meeting will draw a wide cross-section of the community and that people will be encouraged to participate in the process. She reminded concerned residents that the process was still in its early stages.

"The workshop is an additional step that the city has chosen to take to bring the community Into the discussion," she said. "We want to make sure the community Is well informed as to what the project is and why were doing it -- and for the purposes of the EIR, to get input on substantive issues we should address. And we're certainly interested in hearing about potential solutions."

The workshop on the Waterfront Drive Extension Plan will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 17, at Eureka's Wharfinger Building.