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Pacific Lumber may sell historic Scotia homes
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT Friday, June 17, 2005

End of an era may come for one of nation's last company towns


For generations of North Coast timber families, the historic mill town of Scotia was a haven from worldly pressures.

So calm was Scotia that a photographic essay and book published nationally in 1971 declared it "Life in the Peace Zone." Children frolicked in lawn sprinklers, while their father repainted the white picket fence in front of the family home.

But the past two decades have been rough on Scotia and its 1,100 residents. A corporate takeover, declining timber volumes and increasing environmental concerns have turned things upside down.

Now, after 122 years of owning one of America's last true company towns, cash-strapped Pacific Lumber Co. wants to subdivide Scotia's residential areas in anticipation of selling off worker housing.

About 280 tidy wood-frame residences - homes for generations of company workers and their families - are targets of the move. Humboldt County supervisors Tuesday agreed to consider zoning changes allowing the lot splits. As a result, individual houses by 2006 could be offered for sale to current occupants, employees who live outside the town, retirees and then, if necessary, to outsiders.

A Pacific Lumber statement given to county officials said it's part of an effort to help employees realize the "American dream" of home ownership.

But Pacific Lumber critics contend the housing sale is the latest move by the struggling company to cash in on some prized assets. In a June 13 filing with federal regulators, Pacific Lumber warned investors that current cash flows, lines of credit and other available funds are likely to fall short of a $27.9 million interest payment due on its overall $750 million debt.

"The town is the last unencumbered asset the company owns," Eureka attorney Bill Bertain said. Bertain's family for generations operated Scotia's only laundry.

Company documents show the planned subdivision of the town's neighborhoods is the "final phase" of an effort to bring the town into compliance with county zoning requirements. It's a necessary step to allow sale of any parcel within the 465-acre total that makes up Scotia. In 2003, Pacific Lumber obtained county permission to rezone the town's industrial and commercial core.

Bertain, who has legally challenged current Pacific Lumber management since a corporate takeover by Texas financier Charles Hurwitz nearly two decades ago, lamented the impending changes.

"What the company is doing will forever alter the character of Scotia, and the surrounding region," he said.

Pacific Lumber representatives said the company's own changing economics and that of the nation's timber industry are behind the move.

"Administration and maintenance of a company town is no longer part of our core business," company spokesman Chuck Center said.

Center said he couldn't speculate whether the sale of any of the town's industrial and commercial core would follow sale of the houses. Pacific Lumber last year opened a new $30 million sawmill at Scotia, but some of of the town's historic production facilities are idle.

Town residents have expressed caution about the housing sale.

Laura Lewis has lived in a Scotia house for seven years. Employed at Scotia's hardware store, Lewis said she's eager to own a home. "But we have to wait and see. There's a lot of factors at play," she said.

In his day, Bertain said, life in Scotia was almost idyllic. "For workers and their families, it just didn't get any better," he said.

In a column written in 1985, as the Hurwitz takeover of Pacific Lumber was unfolding, Press Democrat historian Gaye LeBaron concurred.

LeBaron recalled how she was born in Scotia because the company opened the town's hospital to non-employees too.

"When I grew up in southern Humboldt County, PL was synonymous with power. It was The Man, the big house on the hill, the grandfatherly figure who watched over the family. PL was the boss, but it was also Santa Claus, the good fairy, and the recreation director," she wrote.

Bertain said the planned sale of the houses where so many families once lived marks the end of an era.

"They're busting up the old town and leaving us with only memories."

Pacific Lumber plans to sell about 280 company-owned homes in the Humboldt County town of Scotia, such as these houses in the shadow of the mill.

Population: About 1,100, including about 250 Pacific Lumber families.

Founded: Established in 1883 as a logging camp.

Rebuilt: New downtown has emerged after devastating 1992 fire caused by an earthquake razed the district.

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Carlotta, CA 95528
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