Thursday, April 16, 2015

Marin Voice: Large Grady housing plan 'wishful thinking'

I RIDE my bicycle past the Grady Ranch a couple of times a week. It is a beautiful piece of property bordering Lucas Valley Road, with the upper reaches of Miller Creek and two tributary creeks, as well as steep, highly visible hills and ridges.
Recently, on my ride past the property, I was troubled by the plan put forth by the Marin Community Foundation and county planners to develop 240 housing units on the property.
Past housing approvals for this property allowed less than half this number under less stringent environmental rules. Allowing 240 houses on the property under today's rules seems idealistic at best.
In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I live near the property, in Lucas Valley Estates, and I supported the 1996 Lucasfilm Ltd. digital studio master plan and, with some reservations, the recent revised film studio plan that was withdrawn by Mr. Lucas.
I make my living as a land- use attorney representing property owners seeking permits to develop property and formerly worked as a land use planner in the Marin County Planning Department.
In 1983, when a 114-unit housing project was approved for the Grady Ranch by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, I was one of the county planners assigned to review and analyze the application.
Developing 240 housing units of any kind on the property seems like wishful thinking.
The Countywide Plan prohibits development within 100 feet of a creek and designates some of the property as a Ridge and Upland Greenbelt, which prohibits development on visible ridges and hillsides.
The zoning for the Grady Ranch permits one housing unit for every 2.64 acres of land, which does not allow 240 units on the property.
County policies to promote low-income housing would theoretically allow an increase in the number of houses as long as all requirements of the Countywide Plan are met.
Given the environmental constraints associated with the property, including the small amount of flat land, the existence of landslides, and the need to maintain a 100-foot setback from three creeks, it is hard to imagine such an increase in density complying with the Countywide Plan, or the myriad of other state and local regulations applicable to the property.
As Lucasfilm well knows, there are other regulatory agencies (Regional Water Quality and Fish and Game) that will highly scrutinize any development proposal adjacent to these creeks.
Grady Ranch does not seem like a good candidate for high-density, low-income housing. The property is about four miles from the Highway 101 corridor; too far to easily provide the necessary transit and related services to develop and maintain high-density housing for low-income persons.
Because of its remote location, and the need to extend public services such as sewer, water, and power, it will also be very costly to develop — much more than property closer to essential urban services. With landslide repair and creek restoration costs added in, the development of low-income housing seems improbable without large subsidies.
As I recall there were good environmental and policy reasons the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors approved only 114 units on the property in 1983.
Land-use rules and policies have not relaxed since that time. If anything they are more stringent.
Let's hope the coming debate on the county's Housing Element includes a careful look at the Grady Ranch and the appropriate amount of housing — whether market-rate or low-income.
I believe that when all the facts are in, 240 units will be far too many.
Neil Sorensen is a San Rafael land-use attorney. He is a former Marin County planner and served as a trustee on the Dixie School District board.

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