Come November, voters will get to have their say on the zoning of the Balloon Track, after a unanimous decision at Tuesday's Eureka City Council meeting.
The Balloon Track property is located at the foot of Eureka's downtown commercial district off Waterfront Drive and was previously a rail yard. Security National affiliate Clean Up Eureka VI has proposed turning the 43-acre property into a mixed use development called the Marina Center that would include a Home Depot store, retail, office and residential space, along with an 11-acre wetland reserve.
The ballot measure will ask Eureka voters whether or not they want to amend the city's local coastal program and general plan and change the zoning of the property to reflect the zoning in the site's environmental impact report.
Community Development Director Sidnie Olson told the council that voters cannot approve the Marina Center project as a whole, but they can change the zoning.
”This is as close as it can come,” she said.
The addition of a qualified combining district in the measure would prohibit the development of a “discount superstore” on the property. It would also require changes to the zoning be made by a simple majority of Eureka voters, according to the staff report. After 10 years, the city council could choose to repeal the qualified combining district restrictions.
Having the restriction limited to 10 years may help future councils handle other unforeseen issues in the city, Olson said.
”I want to make sure that 10 years from now, that council does not have their hands tied,” Olson said. “I don't know what the economy will look like, or what people will want then.”
She also added that section after many raised concerns at the last meeting that a Wal-Mart superstore or other discount superstore would be able to come in without other approval after the zoning was changed.
Eureka resident Ken Barr addressed the council during public comment, saying he was concerned that Security National had not followed the normal process of either rezoning the property or putting an item on the ballot. Putting the issue to the voters would be unfair, as the issue is complex, and it would be difficult for residents to learn all the intricacies of the issue like city staff and the council do, he said.
Security National Properties Vice President of Real Estate Development Mike Casey commended the council for bringing the issue to the November ballot.
”Tonight is about giving power back to the citizens of Eureka,” he said. “It's about giving them the opportunity to be heard.”
Security National Properties Vice President Randy Gans requested the council put forth a ballot measure at the May 4 meeting. He said the hotly debated issue should be put to voters to determine if Eureka really wants this project. He also hoped that the passing of such a measure would “send a message” to the California Coastal Commission.
Due to the tight time frame, city staff estimated it would cost $30,000 to bring a ballot measure to the council. Co-owner of Security National Cherie Arkley gave the city that amount to cover the cost.
The battle over the Balloon Track has gone on long enough and needs to be moved forward, Councilman Jeff Leonard said. The issue has dominated local politics and continues to impact how council members and city staff interact.
”I'm done with the fight,” Leonard said. “I've played my role. I'm done with it.”
Councilwoman Linda Atkins said it has not been the city that has dragged out the process over the years. The sources of these delays have not sprouted from the city council or the Eureka Planning Commission, so trying to expedite this process seemed redundant, she said.
She proposed a motion that would move the project to the next planning commission meeting to expedite the process in that way, but the motion failed 2-3.
Atkins and Councilman Larry Glass criticized other council members for not moving forward with other previous ballot measure proposals, such as a referendum regarding the Sequoia Park Zoo funding and the true ward system.
The council also decided to approve the supplemental transaction and use tax ballot measure for the November ballot. The measure will ask voters to increase the TUT by 0.5 percent for a five-year period.
In other matters, the council approved the campaign finance reform ordinance on a 3-2 vote. The ordinance will put a $500 per person cap on donations and add an extra reporting period five days before the election. To prevent confusion in the November elections, the ordinance will take effect on Jan. 1, 2011.
Leonard said he initiated the ordinance in hopes that it will help rein in spending on city elections, which grow more costly every election cycle. With lower overall costs, independent campaigns may have more of a chance and won't be “blown out of the water because they didn't have the blessing of those who are in the habit of donating” to local campaigns, he said.
Glass said he did not think putting a cap on individual donations would reduce the costs, and it would only make it harder for independent candidates to leap into the election.
In regards to the city's budget, a proposed budget summary was presented to the council with a balanced fund, but not without its costs. City Manager David Tyson and Finance Director Valerie Warner offered the summary and looked for further direction from the council on how they will fill the projected $4.5 million budget shortfall.
Some of the items included in the budget summary were eliminating the petting zoo at Sequoia Park Zoo, reorganizing the recreation division, eliminating adult recreation activities such as softball teams and early retirement of public safety employees.
Eureka Fire Chief Eric Smith offered his own early retirement as a way to balance the budget, a savings of $230,000 annually. The decision carried some pain for the department and to him personally, but he said he made a commitment to his crew and to the city to do everything he can to help them.
”My commitment is to help save my boys' jobs and the city in tough times,” Smith said.
The council was largely against cutting the entire petting zoo from the zoo's program. Councilman Frank Jager said it would be “cutting the legs off of a 100-year-old institution.”
Tyson said he hopes to illustrate additional savings when he presents the final budget to the council.
Allison White can be reached at 441-0506 or